Motor Matt

March 31, 2017

During the “age of the dime novel,” generally considered to run from 1860 to 1915, popular entertainment options were quite limited compared to today. There was no film, television, radio or Internet, and theatre was a rare luxury for most. Instead, when someone wanted a quick dose of escapist adventure or romance, chances were good they would turn to a dime novel.

The first dime novels were small pamphlets of about a hundred pages, each containing a complete story. As the years went on, publisher competition led to the format’s evolution, adding more illustrations and more color, and experimenting with different price points. While the “dime” name has stuck as a term for the format, many of the most popular titles were actually “nickel weeklies” – booklets closely resembling today’s comic books, but containing prose in place of comic panels.

One of the most influential dime novel series was actually a nickel weekly called Tip Top Weekly, published by Street & Smith and containing the ongoing adventures of ideal American boy Frank Merriwell (and later, his brother and son). The Merriwell saga was filled with sports victories, action sequences, and a bit of romance – as readers spent a good part of the series speculating on which female character Frank would ultimately marry. Quite a few Merriwell adventures can be found on Project Gutenberg, but the scope of the series – a novel a week for decades – makes this one of the longest works of serial fiction ever written.

Motor Matt cover

Another title, heavily influenced by Tip Top Weekly but of a more manageable size, has recently been added to the Project Gutenberg collection in its entirety, making it the first complete dime novel series to be found there. This series is Motor Stories, containing the adventures of “Motor Matt” King, a young man with a prodigious talent for working with gas-powered motors. Over the course of the series, he travels the country (and beyond), making friends and acquiring new vehicles to experiment with. The stories were clearly written with an eye on the news, as some of the technology described here – particularly heavier-than-air flight – was quite cutting-edge at the time of publication. There are 34 Motor Matt stories in all – 32 published as the Motor Stories nickel weekly, and two more published as part of Brave & Bold (a more general-purpose series) after Motor Stories was discontinued. While they hardly qualify as great literature, all of them remain surprisingly entertaining today.

The positive features of the series can all be attributed to its author, William Wallace Cook (writing as Stanley R. Matthews), an incredibly prolific writer who was one of the few to successfully bridge the gap from the dime novel era into the succeeding pulp era. Cook was fearless about approaching a wide variety of styles and genres, and he wrote very quickly. He also had a knack for plots, meaning that even though his stories were written speedily, they don’t feel hastily-constructed, and they usually contain at least one or two interesting twists. Cook is still remembered today for his creation of Plotto, a book containing a complex mechanism for generating plots and characters – it is still in print today. To learn more about Cook and his process, you can also take a look at his autobiographical work, The Fiction Factory, written under the name John Milton Edwards, which is available in the Project Gutenberg collection.

One of the ways in which Motor Stories is fascinating, but sometimes potentially offensive to modern readers, is in the way it portrays many of its characters. The series has a surprisingly diverse cast of characters, with many of its heroes and villains representing different parts of the world. It perhaps goes without saying that the prejudices of 1909, when the series was written, were a bit different than those of today, and much of this comes through in the text, which contains broad dialect, racial slurs and grossly stereotypical portrayals of certain ethnic groups.

In some ways, however, the books manage to contain surprisingly positive messages for the time. Matt himself, who is clearly designed as a model of ideal behavior for readers to emulate, treats everyone fairly and equally regardless of their race or nationality, even though his friends often do not. This is a dramatic change from earlier dime novel “heroes,” who in some cases were known to kill people on the basis of race without even asking questions (see Frank Reade and His Steam Horse in the Project Gutenberg collection for one example of this sort of behavior, though this is certainly not the only book to embrace the repellent philosophy that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian”). The author is also uniformly kind to characters of mixed race, apparently demonstrating a broad belief in the potential of the American “melting pot.” In a few cases, particularly when Chinese characters join the narrative late in the series, he also attempts to show cultural differences without dehumanizing the underlying characters – a feat that he only partially succeeds at, but that he tried puts him in a class above many of his contemporaries. Finally, while the series was clearly marketed toward boys, and most adventures go by with scarcely the appearance of a female face, on those occasions where a woman figures in the narrative, she is usually more than just a token for the “Motor Boys” to rescue (and on at least one occasion, she does the rescuing).

Apart from matters of representation, the biggest complaint most readers will have about the series is the fact that it ends where it does, with certain mysteries and plot threads entirely unresolved. Clearly Cook had set himself up to write many more of these if reader demand had been greater. As it is, the stories ended up having quite a long life. Not only were several of the early Motor Stories reprinted in Brave & Bold, but many of the stories were later edited together into longer novels to be sold in both paper-covered and cloth-bound formats. This makes the saga not only one of the last original dime novel epics but also a fairly early example of the juvenile series book later epitomized by Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift. For some reason, some of the names were changed during these edits, so it is possible that more readers over the years have known Motor Matt as “Bob Steele.” However, the original versions, with their colorful covers and bite-sized delivery, may well be the most fun. It is wonderful to have them so conveniently available to the world, after more than a century in obscurity.

This post was contributed by Demian Katz, a DP volunteer.


Clever Hans

January 1, 2017
Clever Hans

Clever Hans

Can a horse think like a human?

To many people in the early years of the 20th Century, the answer to that question was “Yes!” After all, thousands had seen von Osten’s Russian trotting horse, Clever Hans, use hoof taps and head nods to solve multiplication and division problems, spell out words, name colours, and answer complex questions from a variety of people, even those who had never worked with him before. Sceptics were quickly convinced that what they were seeing was an animal capable of conceptual thought, limited solely by the lack of the ability to speak from taking his place in human society.

In Clever Hans (The Horse of Mr. von Osten), biologist/psychologist Oskar Pfungst disproved popular opinion regarding that clever horse — and, in so doing, created a landmark study in how to apply the experimental method to human and animal behaviour.

What made this horse seem so clever? Was it intentional fraud, rote behaviour, thought transference (yes, that too had been suggested), true intelligence or something else? Oskar Pfungst found the answer by means of a series of experiments. And the data, graphs and analysis of those experiments not only solved the mystery — they formed the foundation for future behavioural studies such as Experimental Psychology.

So, was Clever Hans truly clever? He was — for a horse. In order to win his carrot and bread rewards, he had learned how to interpret the tiny involuntary visual clues that helped him determine how many hoof taps or what sort of head nods were expected by his human companions. Pfungst’s hard work proved that, if Clever Hans’ handlers asked Hans a question for which they did not know the answer, Hans could not respond correctly; only when they did know the answer, and when the horse could see them as they awaited his response, did he give correct answers.

Oskar Pfungst’s colleagues recognized that this book represented an important step in understanding human and animal behaviour. But they also recognized the bravery of the writer — Clever Hans was not a “perfectly gentle” horse. In fact, Pfungst suffered several bites throughout the study.

This post was contributed by lhamilton, the DP General Manager.


Memoirs of a Post-Processor

December 1, 2016

When I joined Distributed Proofreaders, I started with proofing and formatting as I assume most people do. I came across some fascinating snippets that I would never have read otherwise, but found I lacked the patient attention required to do a good job. This left smooth reading, at which I knew I would be hopeless, or post-processing, so post-processing it was. It probably helped that I had been a programmer in a previous existence, but I started, foolishly, with more difficult books but benefited from some very helpful and supportive post-processing verifiers.

With a hundred or so books and counting, why do I do it? Certainly to make the books available again. It produces a useful product: To ensure that the work of the many proofers, formatters and smooth readers is not in vain. But I do it mostly for the satisfaction of seeing a working ebook emerge from the collection of plain text and images I start with.

I do not specialise and the sheer range and variety of books available never fails to amaze. My reading of 18th and 19th Century books never got much beyond Sheridan le Fanu and Wilkie Collins, so I have come across a world of literature – biography, humour, philosophy, religion, science, poetry, history, fiction – which I did not realise even existed. Thank you, DP!

Glastonbury Abbey

Glastonbury Abbey, from The Gate of Remembrance

One highlight is The Gate of Remembrance, subtitled, “The Story of the Psychological Experiment which Resulted in the Discovery of the Edgar Chapel at Glastonbury,” by the noted British architect, archaeologist, and psychical researcher Frederick Bligh Bond. This is a detailed account of an experiment with automatic writing over a period of years, which, the author maintains, led to the discovery of the lost chapels at Glastonbury. The author shows total confidence in the method and tackles criticism head-on in the preface. Written in a more credulous (or perhaps less hidebound) age, it is hard to imagine any serious architect or archaeologist even contemplating this approach today. Publishing would now be instant professional suicide. I am very sceptical, yet, it seemed to work, and the sincerity of the protagonists seems beyond doubt.

A completist approach to science  writing was still feasible in the late 19th Century and surprisingly popular. Now no author could possibly undertake such a venture and no publisher would consider it. Popular Scientific Recreations, by French scientist Gaston Tissandier, probably published in the 1880s, at 770 pages and 900 illustrations covering every scientific discipline known from Astronomy to Zoology, via parlour games, is an example of the genre. While it is incomplete and sometimes incorrect, it is remarkably comprehensive and up to date. Given that the author developed and flew an electric dirigible (how far has electric manned flight developed in the last 130 years!) this should not be surprising.

Another example is Outlines of Creation, by Elisha Noyce, a more modest 1858 publication of 340 pages, limiting itself to astronomy, geology and life. While unequivocally creationist in outlook, it presents the scientific evidence comprehensively and  comprehensibly, and is beautifully illustrated. As the author explained in the Introduction,

The want of a general knowledge of those works of the Great Creator which are constantly spread out before us, in these days of easy acquirement, amounts almost to a sin, for it is by the study of Nature in all her varied forms and associations, that we learn to “look from Nature up to Nature’s God;” for who can look upon the works of God without a feeling of awe and admiration?

Staying positive and not dwelling on the horrors of war, vivisection, adulteration of food, primitive medicine, etc., I enjoyed the gentle humour and the depiction of genteel life in the books by American author John Habberton, Helen’s Babies and Budge and Toddie. Concerning  the generally disruptive adventures of the two toddlers and, perhaps, marred by the author’s excessive use of baby talk, they are very light, but enlivened by excellent illustrations.

A final curio, for those who might want definitions of futtocks, dead rising, spirketing, breast hooks and many more, is A Naval Expositor by Thomas Riley Blanckley, a dictionary of naval terms from 1750.

This post was contributed by throth, a DP volunteer.


Decorated by Walter Crane

November 28, 2016

33K banner

Distributed Proofreaders celebrates its 33,000th title posted to Project Gutenberg.

“. . . decorated by Walter Crane.” As soon as I saw those words I knew I was sunk. When a fellow Distributed Proofreaders volunteer wrote and told me she’d stumbled across this book and it just reminded her of me (okay, she said it jumped up and down and screamed my name, but I digress), I had to check it out. And there it was: “. . .decorated by Walter Crane.” Walter Crane is one of my favorite illustrators. Right up there with H. R. Millar, Randolph Caldecott, Kate Greenaway. . .

A Flower Wedding title page“Decorated by Walter Crane.” A Flower Wedding is Distributed Proofreaders’ 33,000th e-book production. This beautiful little book tells the tale of the wedding of two flowers, their guests and even the feast. It was reprinted in 2014 for the exhibition of Wedding Dresses 1775-2014 at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Young LAD’S LOVE had courted Miss Meadow·Sweet,
And the two soon agreed at the Altar to meet.

The flowers for the most part, scorn the names chosen by the botanists and claim the ones given them by the grandmothers, great-aunts, uncles and other loving gardeners who named them for their shape, beauty, colour and charm.

In Ladysmocks, Bridesmaids, Forget·me·not blue,
With their sashes all tied in Love·knot·true.

The gifts the guests brought would fill a fanciful home with treasures . . . decorated by Walter Crane.

Buttercups gold, and a Pitcher-plant
Nay, everything that a house could want.

The bride and groom ride off in a Venus flytrap with the guests calling after:

“Speedwell, and be happy,” their friends gaily say;

and the party continues.

The Wild-thyme they had, and the fuss that was made
Kept the guests in a rout thro’ the Deadly night shade.

Lavishly decorated by Walter Crane. He was remarkably prolific, painting not only illustrations in many children’s books, but also murals, flyers and posters for the Socialist movement, wallpapers, tiles, pottery. He also taught, and two of his books based on his lecture series, The Bases of Design and Line and Form, can be found on Project Gutenberg as well. He was not above scandal for the time. Firstly, he supported Socialist causes and, speaking of support, whilst Vice President of the Healthy and Artistic Dress Union, he illustrated a pamphlet, “How to Dress Without a Corset.” He attended a meeting of Boston anarchists and declared that he thought the Haymarket Square Riot convictions were wrong. This cost him a great deal of public support in the United States, including financial support. But it eventually blew over, and his beautiful art continued on. Our lives may be a bit richer, our children’s imaginations a bit fuller, because they were decorated by Walter Crane.

A Flower Wedding final illustration

This post was contributed by a DP volunteer.


The Child of the Moat

November 1, 2016

What makes good children’s fiction? Is it about education – showing children how the world works and exploring how they might react when it’s their turn? Or is it more about entertainment and giving children something they want?

One of the joys of proofreading books at DP is coming across attitudes that have changed so much that motivations are almost unrecognisable. Especially when the change has been so slow that we only realise things have changed when we look back. The past can indeed be a foreign country.

Illustration from The Child of the MoatToday, children’s books have to compete with a huge range of different entertainment options, and they have first and foremost to appeal to the child. In a previous age they were bought by parents for their children, and it seems to me that a major requirement was to give the child a strong moral compass. If you’re thinking that’s the same today, I would encourage you to take a look at The Child of the Moat, by Ian B. Stoughton Holborn (or Holbourn).

Written exactly a hundred years ago during the First World War, the book describes the adventures of a twelve year old girl, set at the time of the Reformation. In spite of everything that fate throws at Aline, our young heroine always manages to act in precisely the way that a parent would want their children to act. I had to look twice to check that the subtitle wasn’t “A book to teach young girls proper decorum.” Aline is kind, forgiving, intelligent, well-educated, hard-working, selfless, uncomplaining, brave, perceptive, saintly.… At one point, she fights her way into a burning building to effect a rescue without, it seems, any thought of her own life.

Yeah, that’s what I thought too. Then I read this about the author on Wikipedia:

Holbourn was a second-class passenger on the RMS Lusitania on her last voyage in May 1915. During the voyage, Holbourn befriended 12-year-old Avis Dolphin, who was being escorted to school and family in England by two nurses, Hilda Ellis and Sarah Smith.

With his insights into the largely hushed-up events surrounding the wreck of the RMS Oceanic off Foula, Professor Holbourn was aware of the imminent dangers presented to ocean liners during the First World War, and as a passenger on Lusitania was prepared to face the worst. Holbourn attempted to insist that Captain William Thomas Turner should take the precautions of ordering lifeboat drills and instructing passengers on how to wear lifejackets. His efforts to stimulate safety awareness during a time of war were unwelcome, and he was asked to keep quiet. When the ship was torpedoed, Holbourn guided Avis Dolphin and her nurses to his cabin where he fitted them with life belts, even offering up his own; he then steered them through the tilting passageways to the decks above and into a lifeboat. This lifeboat capsized while being lowered into the water. Nevertheless, Avis was saved, though her nurses were not.

Holbourn himself dived into the ocean to find himself surrounded by a mass of bodies and wreckage. His hope of reaching the nearest boat was interrupted when he stopped to help a man who was floating helplessly nearby. By the time Holbourn found his way to a boat, the man he had pulled along with him was dead.

Holbourn was picked up by the fishing boat Wanderer of Peel and later transferred to the Stormcock. He was one of over 750 rescued from the Lusitania to arrive at Queenstown in Ireland that night.

Holbourn continued to write and remained lifelong friends with Avis Dolphin. One of his books, The Child of the Moat (1916), was written for Avis because she had complained that books for girls were uninteresting.

Not bad for a professor of archaeology.

I have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed proofreading this book, and am happy to see the finished product posted to Project Gutenberg.

And if you have any thoughts about mentioning any of the inaccuracies or anachronisms in the book, let me give the last word to the author:

When, therefore, your learned uncle tells you that the story is all wrong and that they did not fence with helmets and that the curtsey was not invented till much later and that the library is far too big and so on; you just tell him to write you a sixteenth century story and then you send it to me, and we will see how he gets along.

This post was contributed by wainwra, a DP volunteer. 


These are a few of my favourite things

August 1, 2016

A while ago I wrote about Smooth-Reading and the variety of things I’ve read while doing it. I thought that, today, I’d mention a handful of those books in more detail. These were ones that, for some reason or another, really stood out for me.

Picture of Poisonous Mushrooms

Poisonous Mushrooms of the Genus Amanita

One was a brilliant book called Mushrooms of America, Edible and Poisonous, with absolutely beautiful pictures, like the one to the left. It told you how to tell which ones are poisonous—and how to cook the ones that aren’t. It was the first one that I felt compelled to download, just so I could look at the pictures again. I also have a weakness for recipe books, so it fed another of my guilty pleasures at the same time. (By the way, don’t try eating these ones, they’re definitely not good for you.)

Another pick of the bunch was Jacko and Jumpo Kinkytail (The Funny Monkey Boys), a collection of 31 bedtime stories for young children by Howard R. Garis, with extremely surreal endings. This is one of a series of books by the same author, many of which are now available on Project Gutenberg. One chapter ending goes:

Now next I’m going to tell you about the Kinkytails and the doll’s house—that is, if the alarm clock will stop making figures all over my paper so I can write the story, and if the coffee pot doesn’t step on the rolling pin’s toes.

Well, things must have worked out OK because the next story was, indeed, as advertised. The stories themselves contained a distinctly surreal universe. I think the children to whom these stories were read probably grew up to be imaginative and inventive individuals, or possibly horribly disturbed. It’s a bit of a coin toss as to which.

Then there was the excellent and very entertaining Stanley in Africa. The Wonderful Discoveries and Thrilling Adventures of the Great African Explorer and Other Travelers, Pioneers and Missionaries. Stanley was the man who found Dr. Livingstone, who’d been lost in the African Interior for a while, and greeted him with the immortal words “Dr. Livingstone, I presume”. It is, of course, typical of its time (1889) and there are things in it, such as the casual racism, that we cringe at nowadays. It does, however, contain some useful information on what to do if attacked by an ostrich.

Ostrich farming is a large industry in these South African States. […] The birds are innocent and stupid looking, but can attack with great ferocity, and strike very powerfully with their feet. The only safe posture under attack by them is to lie down. They then can only trample on you.

OK. I’ll try and remember that if I encounter any.

An out-and-out winner was the final two volumes of The Paston Letters, a collection of letters, wills and other documents relating to an influential Norfolk family between 1422 and 1509. Most of the letters are either written in haste, or to be delivered in haste, and they tell you not just about the things you get in history books, but also domestic issues and family quarrels. One spat occurs when a daughter of the family, Margery, gets engaged to a man without her family’s knowledge or permission and her mother refuses to have her in the house or to speak to her again—categorising her as a loose woman. The marriage goes ahead, but I suspect they’d planned a more advantageous match for her than one of their employees. She is very noticeably omitted from her mother’s will, in which everyone and their grandmothers are left something. At one point they seem very short of money, their letters are full of requests to each other for cash, and replies saying “don’t ask me, I don’t have any money.” Their wills are extraordinarily detailed—individual bequests include mattresses and specific pieces of bedding. They lived at quite a turbulent period, kings come and go, including Richard III—to this day depicted as a hunched and limping villain who killed his nephews. They seem to have come round, financially, by the time we leave them in 1509, but I have no doubt they continued to have their ups and downs.

Another favourite was a book on copyright law from 1902. I have spent much of my working life in places where copyright and intellectual property are hot topics. So the subject caught my eye and I picked it up to read. Written by a lawyer, for other lawyers, A Treatise upon the Law of Copyright in the United Kingdom and the Dominions of the Crown, and in the United States of America, by a barrister named E.J. MacGillivray, was fascinating reading, and surprisingly accessible to a lay person such as myself. It rounded up the development of the idea of copyright and all the laws that had sought to provide protection to writers and other creative artists, together with clarifications obtained during a huge number of court cases. The author’s aim was simple:

The foundations of this work were laid by my endeavours to understand what is perhaps the most complicated and obscure series of statutes in the statute book. In working from time to time at the Law of Copyright I found great want of a textbook which should be exhaustive of the case law, and at the same time contain a concise and clearly arranged epitome of the statutory provisions. This want I have tried to supply for myself in the present compilation, and it is now published in the hope that it may prove useful to others.

I think he succeeded admirably, and although the law will have changed in the ensuing century, it’s still an excellent summary of the development of copyright protection in the UK, the USA and various places that were part of the British empire.

I can’t recommend Smooth-Reading enough as a fun thing to do with your time. Right now there are dozens of books, ranging across novels for adults and children, history, drama, science, and others.

Ooohh, choices, choices. What shall I pick first?


Woman of Independence

July 4, 2016

Celebrations of American Independence generally focus on the men who made it happen. There were those who made it happen on paper, like John Adams, or Thomas Jefferson, or Benjamin Franklin. And there were those who made it happen on the battlefields, like George Washington, or Nathanael Greene, or Henry Knox. But there were no women in the Continental Congress, and no women in the Continental Army. As with many great historical events, women were, sadly, relegated to the sidelines.

Abigail Adams

Abigail Adams as a newlywed, 1766

But one woman had an important influence on the great event of American Independence, albeit from the sidelines. Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams, was her husband’s “dearest friend,” the mother of his children, the sounding board for his ideas.

Abigail Adams and Her Times, by Laura E. Richards (1917), is an engaging account, full of fascinating details that bring Colonial times to life. (“Snail-water,” a home remedy of the time for infants, is definitely not to be tried at home, and definitely not on infants.)

But Richards also brings Abigail herself to life. The great frustration of Abigail’s biographers has always been that she never kept a diary. Her youth and the early days of her marriage are not all that well documented. Although John Adams kept a diary, he only occasionally mentioned his wife in it. We learn who she is primarily from the many letters she exchanged with him — but that correspondence didn’t begin in earnest until a decade after their marriage, when he was thoroughly embroiled in the fight for American Independence and was away from home for long periods of time.

Richards deftly mines the letters for clues to Abigail’s character and personality. Abigail frequently signed herself “Portia,” after Shakespeare’s artful heroine. Her support for John’s important work was wholehearted, but she also urged him to consider greater rights for women:

… in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.

Alas, Abigail’s hopes were not realized for nearly 150 years, but to John’s news that the Continental Congress had voted in favor of independence, she joyfully wrote:

By yesterday’s post I received two letters dated 3d and 4th of July, and though your letters never fail to give me pleasure, be the subject what it will, yet it was greatly heightened by the prospect of the future happiness and glory of our country. Nor am I a little gratified when I reflect that a person so nearly connected with me has had the honor of being a principal actor in laying a foundation for its future greatness.

May the foundation of our new Constitution be Justice, Truth, Righteousness! Like the wise man’s house, may it be founded upon these rocks, and then neither storm nor tempests will overthrow it!

Abigail remained John’s closest and most trusted adviser throughout the Revolution, during his Presidency, and afterward, while the titans who created the new nation struggled and quarreled over how it should be governed. Their joint epitaph is a fitting tribute to their partnership:

During an union of more than half a century they survived, in harmony of sentiment, principle, and affection, the tempests of civil commotion; meeting undaunted and surmounting the terrors and trials of that revolution, which secured the freedom of their country; improved the condition of their times; and brightened the prospects of futurity to the race of man upon earth.

July 4, 2016, is the 240th anniversary of American Independence.


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