Scanning Around With Gene: A Printed “Teaching Machine” from 1894


I grew up in the era of so-called “new math,” a fairly radical and short-lived attempt during the mid-1960s to introduce children to complex axiomatic set theory and algebraic concepts, sometimes at the expense of basic arithmetic skills. This was a reaction, in part, to the Soviet’s accomplishments in the space race. The theory was that American children were falling behind in mathematics and needed early exposure to sophisticated mathematic concepts.

Fortunately I went to Catholic schools where skimpy budgets meant we couldn’t afford the latest text books, so our arithmetic texts were mostly of the traditional, basic variety. Regardless of whether it was “new” or “old,” I was never particularly good at math, though I managed to hold my own through high-school algebra and geometry, which is where I ended my math studies.

Today’s images are a little difficult to read (click on any image for a larger version), due to the fact that the original posters are 28 by 42 inches. But I thought they were visually very interesting even if you can’t make out all the text. These were published as part of an extensive set, referred to as a “teaching machine” by the publisher, the Diamond Litho-Publishing Company of Minneapolis.

The Diamond Litho-Publishing Company offered these posters as “embracing all that is known of the mechanics of arithmetic,” and they were sold to teachers for use in classrooms. I like them for a number of reasons, including their colorful design, unique typesetting, and home-spun illustrations.

Diamond Litho felt that good design and artistic presentation would make learning easier. In one of the posters they suggest to teachers that “artistic beauty will assist very much in holding the attention of the pupil.”

In another, the publishers say that “thought grows in the mind as a pyramid grows from the top down.” But the posters go well beyond the philosophical and into the practical. Four pecks, we learn, equal a bushel, and 4 quarts equal one gallon. Some things never change.

Reproducing these large images in full color with so much small type would not have been easy in 1894 and much of the type was likely set by hand, one letter at a time (the Linotype machine had just been invented but machine-set type was still rare). It’s probable that these were printed using lithographic stones, which would have had to be unusually large.

Since the beginning of teaching I suspect attempts have been made to visualize various lessons. This set of posters with its 3 lions, 4 dogs, 5 birds 6 tomatoes and the like, does a noble job of teaching through graphics. But overall, I’m glad I didn’t grow up in 1894 or have to teach math at that time. Regardless of the pretty pictures, it still looks hard.

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