Barnwoggler’s Invention: Binkley Anticipates Bush

RCB in the Hoover Library, 1925

Insofar as documentary reproduction was concerned, the decade 1936-1946 might appropriately be termed from Binkley to Bush.1

So Vernon Tate described the history of American documentation from Robert C. Binkley’s Manual on Methods of Reproducing Research Materials, which laid out the process and economics of microfilm and near-print publication, to Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think”, which proposed the mechanization of information processing using essentially the same technologies. But already in 1926 or so, Binkley had written a comic story that anticipated Bush’s Memex and H.G. Wells’s World Brain (1937). The story tells of a scholar who builds a research machine, which enables him to produce great works of research with little effort. It may reflect the influence of Paul Otlet’s Mundaneum, though there’s no direct evidence that Bob knew Otlet’s work in this period. The story was never published, as far as I know, and it hasn’t turned up among Bob’s papers. We know about it only from a letter to Bob from his friend Merv Crobaugh, a professor of economics and member of Bob’s circle of Stanford friends. In this post I’ll try to reconstruct the story and put it in context.

We must start with Crobaugh’s description, written in the spring of 1926 (in the arch style affected by Bob’s Stanford circle). It was evidently a response to a request from Bob for advice on the story (he seems to have asked whether there was anything in it) and for the return of the manuscript:

I dedicate this brief note to Barnwoggler’s Invention, which I enclose as per request. Criticism, we have agreed, never helps, unless it is helpful criticism. In other words, let us be constructive at all costs. What there is in it depends on what you want to do with it. I have the bad habit of viewing creations not as works of art, but as possible material for publication. Thus the jaundiced eye of the economist. I had some thoughts that it might be worth while to try it out on such a magazine as College Humor, which would look with favor on anything razzing the academic mind. I don’t like the title–suggest The Great Research Machine, or Barnwoggler’s Researcher, or something similar, ie, something a bit more definite than Invention.

I suggest a different ending, something more climaxly. Suppose B. writes an article which covers all the years of labor of some prospective Ph.D. The latter in despair shoots B, and hangs himself. The assistant prof. tries to get hold of the machine, but accidently it is broken. Nobody knows what its use is. In other words, don’t have B. discovered and exposed; why should virtue thus become triumphant—-the satire is endangered. Instead he is just before his death elected to some mighty office, Dean of American Researchers. After his death, courses in library training grow by leaps and bounds, —- etc.2 )

In Bob’s story Barnwoggler evidently designed and built a machine that enabled him to do research at great speed, but in the end he was exposed as a fraud and cast down. The “assistant prof” seems to be a character in the original story, but it’s not clear what his/her role was; perhaps he worked with Barnwoggler and was therefore in a position to inherit the machine. It’s also unclear whether the growth of library training after Barnwoggler’s death in Crobaugh’s version is a new element, or relates to something in Bob’s original story. It must indicate that the invention dealt with library research, at least, and not, say, chemical experiments.

Crobaugh’s letter was written ten weeks after Bob’s infant daughter Jean died on Feb. 13, 1926. It’s not clear when Bob sent the story to his friend, since Crobaugh was clearly answering an old request: his letter begins “I seem to have become tangled up with the spirit of inertia, and all my letters proposed, contemplated, and even partly begun have come to naught.” Crobaugh’s previous surviving letter was written Dec. 12, 1925.3 If Bob sent the story (or requested the return of Crobaugh’s copy) after Jean’s death, it’s possible he was thinking of the money he hoped to get by publishing it, to repay the $200 he and Frances had borrowed to pay for Jean’s funeral.4

Bob was still trying to sell the story more than a year later. A few weeks after he and Frances arrived in New York in September 1927, he submitted it to the literary agents Brandt and Brandt, along with another story, “The Adventure of Foram, the Trilobite”. Frances submitted two stories at the same time; none of the four was accepted, apparently.5 I haven’t found evidence that Bob returned to “Barnwoggler’s Invention” after this time; he soon found a market for his articles in the New Republic, and put his literary efforts (aimed at earning extra income) there. It’s just possible, though, that the story was published pseudonymously, as he is known to have done.6

RCB's Stanford English Club diploma

My theory about the story is this: that it was written originally to amuse Bob’s Stanford circle, especially his friends in the English Club; that Barnwoggler is a projection of Bob, and the research machine did the kind of research that Bob was doing; and finally, that the idea of mechanized research was suggested by Bob’s work towards a microfilm reader-printer which was going on at the same time. The rest of the post will present some of the evidence and arguments for these points.

From 1921 until he left Stanford in 1927 Bob was a member of the English Club, which included Frances and several of their friends. He served as president in 1921-22. The story may have been read at one of the Club’s meetings – and if so, it’s possible that John Steinbeck would have heard it. Bob wrote of using his friends as sources for characters in his diary in 1925: “The other night I spent my time in writing a story – Mother and Daughter, it is entitled. It introduces Ed Clapp in a rather unfavorable light.”7 He and his friends constantly wove parody of their scholarly pursuits into their correspondence and no doubt their conversation. Ed Clapp always addressed Bob as Napoleon and signed his letters “Martial Neigh” (i.e. Marshal Ney), and other letters use joke versions of medieval dating formulas (“The Feast of the Asphyxiation of the Virgin”) that history students would have encountered in diplomatics classes. The piece on “Prunography” (see the image below) shows the kind of whimsy that passed in Bob’s circle. Barnwoggler seems to have been cut from the same cloth.

The main character, Barnwoggler, must in some sense represent Bob himself. “Woggles” was a nickname his Stanford friends sometimes used for him.8 A couple of undated comic stories by Kate Beswick involve a character named Woggle who is perhaps based on Bob. Woggle is apparently obnoxious and whimsical, and a trial to his more conventional friend Burdick.9 The name Barnwoggler may therefore have implied a sort of comic alter ego who would have been recognizable to Bob’s friends.

“Very dear Woggles” (Doc. 799: FWB to RCB, 10 Oct. 1929)

If Barnwoggler was Bob, we can expect that the research he was doing resembled Bob’s work. At this time, in the mid-1920s, Bob’s focus was on documentary history. His dissertation dealt with European public opinion, and was based on his study of wartime newspapers. At the same time he assisted Malbone Graham on a collection of documents: New Governments of Eastern Europe (1924). He was approached by his friend and comrade Dale Van Every, now working for Century publishers, to produce a multi-volume documentary history of the war in Dec. 1925, at about the same time as he requested the return of the Barnwoggler manuscript from Crobaugh;10 and by January Binkley and Van Every had evolved a scheme whereby Bob would get a three-year contract to do the work and Ralph Lutz (Bob’s boss at the Hoover War Library) would be co-editor. They continued to develop this idea right up until Bob was hired by NYU in 1927. Thus, in the mid-1920s Bob had his thoughts on a large-scale scholarly editing task: locating, editing, translating and analyzing a large number of documents.

Prunography: An example of Bob’s pseudo-academic whimsy

Bob’s own research was getting attention in the news during this time, and this may tell us something about the self-image that he projected in the story. In the summer of 1925 Bob discovered a document in the Hoover Library that significantly revised the prevailing view of the Tsar’s government’s preparations for war in July 1914. It was the minutes of a meeting of the Council of Ministers, and showed that Russia discouraged Serbia from continuing its confrontation with Austria-Hungary. It was previously thought that Russia had encouraged Serbia and thereby helped to provoke the Austrian invasion that precipitated the war. Bob wrote an article on this document, with a translation, and submitted it to Current History, a monthly journal published by the New York Times. The Hoover Library was sufficiently proud of the story that Bob indicated in his submission that the Library would publicize the discovery to the press if Current History did not.11 They issued a press release on Christmas Eve, 1925, when the piece was picked up by the Associated Press; the story (which named Bob as the discoverer of the document) appeared in the New York Times12 and elsewhere the next day. The Institute even had publicity photos of Bob taken (reproduced above), but I don’t know if they were used by any newspaper at the time.

The Current History article appeared in January of 1926, and Bob was paid $40 for it.13 His friends celebrated his success as a triumph for their cohort: Hal Davis (on a scholarship at Oxford but staying in Paris over Christmas) wrote to the Robertsons: “… certainly [Bob] is becoming the international celebrity, for did not an artickle appear in the Paris Times all about his discoveries in the files of the Russian ministry of war, giving his name & all that? I’m proud to death of our ‘fambly’!”14 Bob’s friends knew about the document and its importance before publication.15 His reputation, therefore, was being built on the discovery and close analysis of a difficult document that had been overlooked by others.

Finally, during this period Bob was himself an inventor. Together with his cousin Karl Lutz, a lawyer, and with occasional participation by his brothers Charles and Thad, Bob was preparing a patent application for a microfilm reader printer – this during the pre-history of microfilm, before George McCarthy’s Recordak came on the market in 1928. Bob’s work on the machine involved consultation with members of the physics department at Stanford on vision and colours of light, and with camera makers on equipment and supplies. Intended for reproducing crumbling newspapers, the machine used the same apparatus to photograph and to project images, and the projection screen had a built-in photostat printer to allow copies to be made. The project was begun before Christmas 1925, and Bob and Charles were still pursuing it after Bob’s move to New York in 1927. It will be the subject of another posting. Within the context of Bob’s group of friends at Stanford, one can easily speculate that he was teased for inventing a machine to do his work for him.

Where does this leave us? The story shows that Bob could imagine a mechanical device that would process documents and be an unfair advantage to a researcher. He did not, however, embody this vision in a serious program or proposal, but only in a comic story. In how much detail did he imagine this machine? Did he see it as an extension of the microfilm reader-printer he was working on, which would lead in the direction of the Memex? Did he grapple with the issues of automated documentation as Otlet did at this time? Probably not: after all, Crobaugh only considered the story worthy of submission to College Humor. Unless the story turns up, we’ll never know. These will be themes to watch for as I work through his letters from this period, in any case.

  1. Vernon D. Tate, “From Binkley to Bush”, The American Archivist 10, no. 3 (July 1947), pp. 249-257, at p.249.

  2. Doc. 473: Merv Crobaugh to RCB, 1926-04-24.

  3. Doc. 646: 1925-12-12

  4. Bob and Frances were under financial pressure even before Jean’s death, for Bob applied to the National Bank of Calistoga for a loan of $50 the previous December. (Doc. 505, 1925-12-11).

  5. Doc. 1012: 1927-11-28: Brandt & Brandt acknowledges receipt of Bob’s two stories; Doc. 996: 1927-12-19: Brandt & Brandt rejects Frances’s two stories (which are unnamed). It’s possible that there was some sort of mixup and that only Bob’s two named stories were submitted and rejected, but since we know Frances was writing and trying to sell stories at this time, it’s more likely that the respective acknowledgment of Frances’s stories and rejection of Bob’s haven’t survived. One of Frances’s stories might have been “A Fiddling Chauffeur and a Dance Hall Girl”, which was rejected by Paul Kennaday at about the same time (Doc. 1516: 1927-11-30).

  6. “His publications included plays, short stories (he had submitted several under assumed names—one to the True Story magazine’s contest in 1926) …” Case Western Reserve University, Dept. of History, History of the Department: II. The Mid-Twentieth Century.

  7. 1925 Diary, 1925-04-10.

  8. E.g. Doc. 799, FWB to RCB, 1929-10-21, addressed “Very dear Woggles”.

  9. Katherine Beswick Papers in Stanford Special Collections: Box 1 folder 10 “In Defense of Defenses”: “Burdick defends himself against his obnoxious guest, Woggle, who fails a lesson in self-defense.”; Box 1 folder 14 “The Whim Bloweth”: “Burdick learns from Woggle just how infectious whimsy is.” I haven’t seen the stories, but I hope to on my next visit to the Bay area.

  10. Doc. 2202: Dale Van Every to RCB, 1925-12-16.

  11. Doc. 502: 1925-10-21.

  12. New York Times, 1925-12-25, p.36.

  13. Robert C. Binkley, “New Light on Russia’s War Guilt,” Current History (New York) 23, no. 4 (January 1926), 531-533; Doc. 273: RCB to HGWW, 1926-01-12.

  14. Doc. 530: Hal Davis to K.G. and Sidney Robertson, 1926-01-01. It’s not clear how this letter ended up in the Binkley papers; perhaps Bob was supposed to forward it and forgot. It isn’t mentioned in a letter from Davis to Bob on the same date, though, so perhaps Davis accidentally mailed both letters in the same envelope.

  15. Doc. 646: Crobaugh to RCB, 1925-12-12: “Was your article written on the basis of the discovery you made – the Russian document – last summer –?”


2 responses to "Barnwoggler's Invention: Binkley Anticipates Bush"

  • sam binkley wrote:

    thanks peter! i think i see the roots of many of my student's term papers in this machine.

  • CarolSeer Binkley wrote:

    Thank you so much for posting this article, Mr. Binkley. I discovered Robert C. Binkley in a footnote in the text: "Origins and Consequences of World War II", edited by Floyd A. Cave, published 1948, and after reading some of his selected works, find him to be one of the better historians of the 20th century. I am trying to locate a copy of his paper: "New Light on Russia's War Guilt". I may have to try jstor, as I have already gone to the "Current History" website. Again, thank you. Mrs. Carol A. Binkley (No Relation).