I wrapped up my research at ETS today. Honestly, yesterday was the big day in terms of uncovering materials that are pertinent to my book. Today was one of those bonus days, where one finds a bunch of stuff that makes one say “Oh, I want to write a book on that.”

Or more responsibly: I’d like to read a book someone else writes. That’s particularly true of the letters I read regarding Nasri Khattar’s development of the “unified Arabic alphabet” and IBM’s release of the Model 4 Arabic Electric Typewriter in 1946. (Ben D. Wood was an intermediary in many of the discussions here, in part because of his long interesting in typing, literacy, and education.) All of the machinations involved in bringing a product like the Arabic typewriter to market – the letters, the reports – exist side-by-side with invitations to gala events, put on by IBM founder Thomas J. Watson, to woo various leaders in the Middle East. The King of Saud, for example.

I also got really side-tracked today with Ben D. Wood’s involvement in the Civil Aeronautics Authority’s efforts to boost aeronautics education in US schools – high schools and colleges – as part of the war effort. “How to Air Condition America,” one report read – that is, how to teach about aeronautics in high school so that some of the burden was removed from the military in getting pilots flight-ready; how to identify good candidates for air service; how to rethink the school curriculum to recognize that the US had entered the “Air Age.” There’s a good story to tell here – as there is in the case of Khattar above – that involves Watson’s role in shaping conversations about what “age” America was really in. (He was angrily adamant, one set of letters reports, that the head of IBM’s new education department focus on business machines, not flying machines.)

I’m itching to go to the University of Chicago now, to look at Lyle Spencer’s papers, as I want to read more about what happened when his company was acquired by IBM. I’m also interested – of course – in his decision to develop those infamous SRA Reading Cards. But the clock is ticking on the period I’ve allotted for “research.” And these trips are expensive. So I’m not sure what I’ll do next.

Well, “next” involves adding metadata to all the notes and photos I took while at ETS, adding important dates to the timeline I’m building, and fleshing out the narrative arc of the book. Both the military angle (WWI, WII, and post-war) and the IBM angle are going to be important.

Audrey Watters


Teaching Machines

A Hack Education Project

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