Monday, May 27, 2013

Steve Jobs: "Computers Are Like a Bicycle for Our Minds"

The Library of Congress was a partner to some television programs under the title "Memory & Imagination: Pathways to the Library of Congress" more than 20 years ago - they don't seem to be available on the LoC web site. Bits and pieces are available on YouTube, not surprisingly.

It turns out that the statement by Steve Jobs that, "computers are like a bicycle for our minds" came from one of those programs. But what was the context of this statement? What did he mean by that, really?

Jobs making his full statement on this subject

The snippet above from the original broadcast program fills out his statement with what he said, which is worth listening to (or reading, below). The video above includes some of the original program's credit sequence, so the first 20+ seconds include rather "heavy" (in the literal sense) music to suggest "culture and/or learning" (I guess) as the camera scans the Great Hall of the Library of Congress (that screams "culture and/or learning").
I think that one of the things that really separates us from the high primates is that, uh, we're tool builders. I read a, uh, study that measured the efficiency of locomotion for various species on the planet. The condor used the least energy to move a kilometer. And, uh, humans came in with a rather unimpressive showing about a third of the way down the list - it was not... not, uh, too proud a showing for the crown of creation. (Laughs) So, uh, that didn't look so good, but then somebody at Scientific American had the insight to test the efficiency of locomotion for a man on a bicycle - and a man on a bicycle, a human on a bicycle, blew the condor away. Completely off the top of the charts. And that's what a computer is to me. What a computer is to me is it's the most remarkable tool that we've ever come up with and it's the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.
Perhaps showing I'm not very clever, the statement that a computer is "a bicycle for our minds" now makes more sense - in other words, it's a tool that we are smart enough to build that leverages what we are given (by God, or however humans came to be) and makes us more efficient - we can go faster, or (with the computer) be "smarter" (in some sense).

I am reminded of a previous blog post where I searched out a famous quote by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle about the psychological benefits of cycling - it was originally in Scientific American which Jobs mentions as his source of information for the efficiency of cycling as a form of locomotion. And I had not thought of Scientific American as a cycling publication! (The article Jobs mentioned may be the same one discussed in this blog entry about Ivan Illich and cycling.)

I like how Jobs tells this anecdote - he clearly is enjoying it. The creation of the bicycle saved mankind from being inferior to the condor, putting us on top in the locomotion department in nature. To me a question I have is what exactly we needed the computer for as far as putting us ahead of the other species with which we share the planet? Weren't we already ahead in this department, supposedly? But then we can be further ahead. Apparently.

Somewhat amusingly (for me), the filler footage (at around 1:23) used after Jobs declares that computers are a remarkable tool is of a Library of Congress staff person using one of the relatively few not very good PCs that the Library had in 1990. And I don't mean, "not very good" compared to PCs now, but compared to what was available then. Of course, some tools give you more leverage and others give you less - so I guess this would have been one of those "less leverage" tools.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

1890s Memorial Day Bicycle Races

In the United States on Monday we have the holiday known as Memorial Day. As explained by Wikipedia, "Formerly known as Decoration Day, it originated after the American Civil War to commemorate the Union and Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War."

I found the poster below in the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog (that also has posters ~ ~ ~ ). At the time the poster was created, in the 1890s, the holiday was still known as "Decoration Day."

Decoration Day, now known as Memorial Day
Poster for 1890s bicycle race on the holiday now called Memorial Day

LC record for this item
Title Bearing's decoration day cycle races / Charles A. Cox.
Date Created/Published [189-(?)]
Medium 1 print (poster) : color.
Summary Poster showing bicycle racers between ranks of Union soldiers and war veterans.
Reproduction Number LC-USZC4-3037 (color film copy transparency) LC-USZ62-51856 (b&w film copy neg.)
Call Number POS - US .C691, no. 4 (B size) [P&P]
Repository Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA
Persistent URL

This poster would have been deposited for Copyright protection at the Library of Congress but now is in the public domain. Created by Charles Arthur Cox, it is not clear where this race took place or in what year, other than during the 1890s (most likely the later half of the 1890s).

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Decoration Day holiday was associated with special sporting events such as bicycle races at this time. The Evening Star of Washington DC, for example, reports on preparations for the Decoration Day races for Memorial Day in 1895.

To Be Held Tomorrow Under the Columbia Club Auspices.

It is Expected That the Fastest Time Ever Made in the District Will Be Recorded.

The big Decoration day bicycle race meet held under the auspices of the Columbia Athletic Club will begin tomorrow morning promptly at 10 o'clock on Columbian field. Everything is ready for the occasion, and with hard work and favorable weather the track has been put in first-class condition and it may be put down as an assured fact that the fastest time ever made in the District will be scored tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

"Jet Roars over Bicycle Path near Washington's Nation[al] Airport"

Jet Roars over Bicycle Path near Washington's Nation Airport. Noise-Decibel Level from Aircraft at This Altitude Can Cause Permanent Ear Damage. 11/1972
Jet Roars over Bicycle Path near Washington's Nation[al] Airport.

From the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) "Commons" space on Flickr. Flickr redid their interface overnight and the opening screen features what they call "The Commons" more. I assume that rendering the name of the airport as "Nation Airport" rather than National Airport (now Reagan National Airport) is a typo. ??? It's also slightly odd that the subject heading is for Washington DC without one for Arlington VA. While it is nominally Washington's airport it isn't in Washington.

Original Caption: Jet Roars over Bicycle Path near Washington's Nation Airport. Noise-Decibel Level from Aircraft at This Altitude Can Cause Permanent Ear Damage. 11/1972

U.S. National Archives’ Local Identifier: 412-DA-2470

Photographer: Calonius, Erik

Washington (District of Columbia, United States) inhabited place
Environmental Protection Agency

Persistent URL:

Access Restrictions: Unrestricted
Use Restrictions: Unrestricted


Now the noise level is much lower from jet engines than in 1972. The 727 was known for being particularly noisey. At least there is some progress. . . And one doesn't see 727s any more - not all gone I'm sure but not used here.

1972 jet "roars" over Gravelly Point
A color corrected version so the sky isn't such an odd color

Sunday, May 19, 2013

"Biggest Bicycle Ever Built"? DC Newspaper 1897

Sometimes I come across things in older newspapers that I can't figure out. In the 'Wheels and Riders' page for the February 6 1897 issue of the Washington newspaper the Evening Star in 1897 there is a line drawing captioned "Biggest Bicycle Ever Built" that seems to be set in Washington.

"Biggest Bicycle Ever Built" (1897)
The illustration showing the "Biggest Bicycle Ever Built"

I spent some time reading the articles surrounding the illustration but they make no mention of this bicycle. In newspapers at this time there was a fair amount of "filler" such as short jokes or anecdotes that don't necessarily track with the rest of the nearby material. Is this some kind of filler? Or it is reference to something real?

Full page view, page 13 of the Evening Star in 1897

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Washington, May, Cycling - in 1897

In the late 1890s, at the height of the "bicycle craze," some newspapers catered to their bicycle-mad readers by providing pages of dedicated cycling coverage on a regular basis. The Washington (DC) "Evening Star" had full page coverage of cycling, from local events and activities to races nearby and in other cities, as well as descriptions of new equipment - such pages over time were titled "Wheels & Riders" and "Wheels & Wheelmen."

Wheels and Wheelmen

A full page for cyclists in a Washington newspaper of 1897

The full page of articles from this May 22 issue, for example, covers the problem of crowds of riders on the weekend during good weather in May, and particularly police activities to control "scorchers."
According to the forecast of the weather slight rains are predicted for tomorrow. Last Sunday the weather was propitious in all respects for cycling. The light wind which prevailed the greater part of the day was just sufficient to keep the riders from becoming overheated. An unusually large number of cyclists were out on the roads. Maying parties were numerous and the hunt for the pretty wild flowers seemed to have particular fascination for the riders of the fair sex.
A "Maying party" was apparently just a picnic organized in May, according to "The Complete Hostess" of 1912.
. . . It is understood that the entire police cycle squad of the city have been ordered out on the Conduit road for duty tomorrow. They will endeavor to suppress the scorchers. and in this laudable undertaking they will have the support of the largest number of riders for pleasure purposes only. The arrest of a dozen or more scorchers would have a salutary effect, and doubtless put a stop to the practice for a week or so at least.

In this connection an amusing story is told of an occurrence that happened last Sunday. There were several tandems coming down the road at an eighteen-mile-an-hour gait, when one of the mounted members of the county police force called upon them to slacken their speed. Just as the scorchers passed by the policeman he heard one of the riders urge the others to keep on, telling them that the cop would never be able to catch them. In this the riders were sadly mistaken. The policeman quickly jumped on his horse, and in an instant was after the two tandem teams. With a l00 yards start of him the policeman caught the men inside of 300 yards, and fearing the result the riders of both tandems ran their machine over in a ditch, fortunately escaping injury. They were a very humble and penitent set, and, after considerable pleading, were allowed to go. According to the policeman's theory he can overtake any scorcher on the road. They can cover a mile in something like 2.50 says he, while he would not use a horse which could not run the distance in two minutes or under, for cases of emergency. The other members of the mounted county police force are equally well mounted.

Wheels and Riders
A full page for cyclists from the Washington "Evening Star" in February 1897, in advance or the "cycling season"

These pages often give statistical information about the scale of cycling at the time, which is interesting up to the point where I realize I don't have much of a sense of the modern day equivalents. Also, in 1897 most of the bicycles that would have been purchased would have been used, while today most bicycles in America are in some version of long term storage most of the time. The page from which the graphic shown above was taken includes this:
With a basis of 40,000 wheelmen and wheel women in the city, the following would represent the aggregate cost of bicycles in the District of Columbia alone:

Cost of wheels $3,200,000
Cost of lamps $ 100,000
Cost of bells $ 10,000
Cost of oil and wicks $ 10,000
Cost of costumes and caps $ 600,000
Cost of shoes $ 100,000
Cost of stockings $ 40,000
Cost of repairs $ 120,000
Cost of incidentals $ 200,000
Total outlay for cycling $4,380,000

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Finding Mrs. L.C. Boardman on Her Bike, 1895

Mrs. L.C. Boardman shown riding a bike, 1895, Library of Congress

Here is the Library of Congress record
Title: [Mrs. L.C. Bordman, full length portrait, on bicycle, facing left; wearing derby hat]
Date Created/Published: c1895.
Medium: 1 photographic print.
Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-63619 (b&w film copy neg.)
Call Number: LOT 13714, no. 100 (H) [P&P] Oversize Misc.,

I found this item in the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog at the Library of Congress. I go into it from time to time to see if any new (old) bicycle photographs have been added or if I have missed something interesting by not looking close enough in the past.

In examining this photo from 1895 as presented by PPOC I have several comments:

* The person who put this online didn't look at the label on the photograph closely or made a keying error, thus the subject's name is recorded as "Bordman" not "Boardman."

* This digital reproduction was made not from the original print that was deposited at the Library of Congress on Copyright but from a negative that was made in order to satisfy a Photoduplication request some time much later. So this is a copy of a copy, which is one reason it may be somewhat less than sharp (although it is hard to tell).

* The 40 kb JPEG, which for some reason is only available on site at the Library of Congress although it is not really possible for it not to be in the public domain, isn't very good because the quality was greatly reduced in creating an image that loads quickly. Having just one JPEG derivative was more a common practice some years ago but isn't now.

* The TIFF image has some issues with the black areas on her dress, "blocking up," but otherwise the most detailed JPEG in my Flickr set shows details of the bicycle and her cycling attire otherwise. I produced an 850 kb JPEG from the TIFF on the LC site.

I like her derby hat.

Mr. L.C. Boardman, it turns out, was active in the "good roads" movement

Mrs. Boardman may have been photographed in 1895 on a bicycle but after the turn of the century, her husband was apparently active in trying to improve roads for automobiles. In the text above, he is described as giving a lecture to the Automobile Club of America. Oh well. . .

Saturday, May 4, 2013

The "Philadelphia Story" of 1958 - Heavy on Cars, Not Bikes

Time to see what the newly available Digital Public Library of America has about bicycles.

They have some relatively new video materials from the National Archives, such as this move, The Philadelphia Story, that is credited to the State Department but was probably done for the then-United States Information Agency to show what a modern American city of 1958 was like. "Cycling" is given as a subject term for this item.

Here is the brief record

Creator: Department of State. Office of the Secretary. (09/1789 -)
Created Date: 1958
Provider: National Archives and Records Administration
Owning Institution: National Archives at College Park - Motion Pictures

Description: Men work in a plant and load cartons aboard a truck, automobiles fill the plant's parking lot, men service cars at gas stations, and girls bicycle along suburban streets. Shows a General Electric plant and its terracing, typical workers homes, modern office buildings, an American Trust Company office, a drive-in bank, and suburban shopping centers.

A parking lot for a company early in the film

A factory - main feature seems to be the parking

Drive-up banking as a sign of progress - in 1958

Busy gas station, of course

Gas only 33 1/3 cents a gallon

Arrival at the shopping mall in a convertible

Parking lot is pretty full!

A "typical" home? Perhaps not, but the owners leave by car - typical

Finally the 15 seconds of cycling shown

A separate scene of cycling, with an adult and a child - and oddly, a very small imported car

The whole film is about six minutes long (for some reason, it is contained in the video file twice). It shows an America heavily oriented on cars, which I suppose is not surprising. Perhaps the 15 or so seconds of cycling shown is generous. Other than people shown walking to and from cars, no one is shown walking.

Friday, May 3, 2013

National Bicycle Week in May, 1919

From the Ogden Standard (newspaper), May 03, 1919.

"Ride A Bicycle"-National Bicycle Week, 1919
Don't you wish you had one?

Over four million bicycles are in daily use in the United States. Nearly a million more will come into daily use this year. This is National Bicycle Week-May 3 to 10. This is the week to buy a bicycle to get the greatest good from it this spring. RIDE A BICYCLE