The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

Word piloting or word journey?

When it comes to writing and reading, literate cultures have never had so much choice as in today’s day and age of “hypertext”.  We are faced with the choice of being captains of our own textual ships or to sit back and be taken on a journey of discovery by trained professionals that are bound by a pre-determined itinerary.  As Bolter (2001) outlines we are entering or perhaps are already in the “late age of print” and are moving towards a remediation of print just as we have seen in the past with the advent of the printing press.  With each “remediation” there are losses and gains.  One of the strengths of the current remediation to “hypertext” is the associative capacity of the technique.  Traditional print has been described as being highly linear, patriarchal, domineering, subordinative and “non natural” given that humans naturally think associatively (Coover, 1992).  There are critics of hypertext such as Birkerts (1994) and Coover (1992) that contend that the “meditative immersion” that can only come from a master author taking the reader on a journey of discovery is something that hypertext cannot reproduce.  Whether the author is truly dead, as Foucault and others claim, and society will choose to rest control back from the corpse like grip of the author or continue to give up their control and instead be lead on a journey designed and planned by the author still remains to be seen.

Bolter (2001) makes the argument that contemporary authors have already made the transition from the purely linear writing structures, such as those seen in scrolls and codexes, to a more associative writing system.  “In a modern book, the table of contents (listing chapters and sometimes sections) defines the hierarchy, while the indices record the associative lines of thought that permeate the text.” p.34.   Footnotes and endnotes have also been argued as being associative in nature.  However, this argument applies very well to text books and scientific writing.  Where the objection falls flat is when it applies to poetry, prose and novels.   Hypertext has been promoted by technophiles as being truly revolutionary in it’s ability to link ideas that are connected but different.  Thus the reader has been given the unique opportunity to explore ideas and concepts in an almost infinite flow of information. However, despite this freedom, Birkets (1994) contends that the avalanche of choice and information that is now at literate societies’ finger tips can lead to confusion.  As Coover (1992) states:

Navigational procedures:  how do you move around in infinity without getting lost?  The structuring of the space can be so compelling and confusing as to utterly absorb the narrator and to exhaust the reader.  And there is the related problem of filtering.  With an unstable text that can be intruded upon by other author-readers, how do you, caught in a maze, avoid the trivial?  How do you duck the garbage?  Venerable novelistic values like, unity, integrity, coherence, vision, voice, seem to be in danger.  Eloquence is being redefined.  “Text” has lost its canonical certainty.  How does one judge, analyze, write about a work that never reads the same way twice. p.2

The domination of the author’s will upon the reader is one of the arguments held against the more traditional form of writing.  This imposition of will is exclusive in nature whereas electronic writing is inclusive (Bolter, 2001).  Hypertext is also touted as being far more than writing in having the capacity to incorporate multi-media components such as video and audio files.  But just as all traditional writing starts out from an associative source so to does the author of hypertext confine the writing and associative links into some resemblance of order.  Thus the author’s will is still felt by the reader/writer of hypertext.  So whether modern day texts have already incorporated elements of associative thinking is really a moot point as hypertext continues to be organized and structured by the author.

One of the most vocal critics of electronic writing is (Birkerts, 1994).  Birkerts (1994) argues that the ephemeral nature of the electronic word has been described as essentially “weightless” and thus phenomenologically the word is less than absolute.  The power is turned over from the author to the machine.  Authority now rests not in the hands of an informed and educated author but in the more esoteric computer thus conferring power to a less accountable author.  One could make the argument that in the current age of collaborative writing, especially as applied to hypertext, accountability of the author cannot occur.  Who does one question when erroneous or outright falsehoods are identified in a collaboratively developed , hyper-textual document?  Who defends the ideas and concepts developed and published in a collaboratively developed, electronic medium?  Birkerts (1994) argues that one of the most significant losses that occurs between the remediation from print to hypertext is the general loss in detail.  The electronic author does not necessarily have to weigh their words but the words simply spring forth in a torrent of information, a veritable flood of information that threatens to drown the reader.   Berkerts (1994) asks the question, “…when trained reader encounters skilled writer, will that reader ever achieve that meditative immersion that is, for me, one of the main incentives for reading?”

Like a surfer that can, with training, learn to surf the monstrous super waves, perhaps consumers of hypertext can learn to navigate the wave of information that is as far away as a click.  There could be a place for both forms of writing.  Traditional print may remain in a form that allows the author to guide the reader on a journey, very much like a cruise ship, placing ones mind in the hands of the  professionally trained captain/author,  resigning themselves to a planned itinerary and destination but trading choice for guidance.  Those that choose to compose and read hypertext can rest power from the captain and steer their literary boat wherever they will however with this freedom comes with the tendency to lose ones way.  Whatever the decision the reader/writer has choice and that “can make all the difference”.


Bolter, Jay, David. (2001). Writing Space:Computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print.  (Second Edition). Lawrence Erlbaum Associations, Publishers, Mahwah, New Jersey, London.

Birkerts, Sven. (1994).  The Gutenberg Ellegies:  The fate of reading in an electronic age.  A Fawcett Columbine Book, P

Coover, Roberts (1992)  The end of books. Downloaded from on November 1st, 2009.

November 1, 2009   1 Comment

Hopscotch and Hypertext

Walter Ong describes writing as a means of transcending space and time; an external process which reflects the interiorization of thought. Based upon Aristotle’s plot structure, the linear pattern, arguably contrary to the natural flow of the thought process, became the accepted format for written works. As one scholar expresses “…the writing space itself has become a hierarchy of topical elements” (Bolter, 2001). While writing for a print publication demands the creation of a hierarchical format, the discipline of that structure is contrary to the creative process. One idea suggests another and writers struggle to capture the idea in a fixed format before it slips from the consciousness.  “A writer today may still begin with a jumble of verbal ideas and only a vague sense of how these ideas will fit together….he may organize by association rather than by strict subordination” (Bolter, p 33).  The traditional format of a print publication acknowledges the artificiality of the structure. The table of content s reflects the hierarchal format dependent upon a linear process while the index incorporates the associative process. One author who rebelled against the unnatural structure imposed by traditional format is Julio Cortázar. In contrast to the plot structure outlined by Aristotle, his novel Hopscotch reflects the patterns inherent in actions and thoughts; a mosaic rather than a linear process.

Hypertext, the ability to expand beyond the linear limitations of written text, enables the reader to interact with the printed word.  Two years before the term “hypertext” was used and decades before the term was commonplace, Latin American author, Julio Cortazar created what can be considered a literary hypertext in his novel, Hopscotch. A labyrinth structured novel, Hopscotch proffers an invitation to the audience to be read either in the traditional linear format or following a zigzag path. The latter format allowed the reader to deconstruct meaning of the novel based on the readers “own preoccupations, experiences, imaginings and desires…”  (Rix, 2007). The reader participates as an accomplice in the creation of the story, which will vary depending on the path the reader takes.

Contrary to the accepted conventions, the narrative resembles a montage incorporating narrative interspersed with seemingly random information bits– newspaper fragments, scraps of literary theory, definitions and commentaries. Cortázar utilized a break with traditional readership and invited the reader to intervene and get involved in the construction of the story.  Thus the interpretation of the novel, the meaning of the text, is “to be found in the reader’s response, which has been stimulated by the text” (Yovanovich, 2005).  The participation of the reader enables the personalization of the text to self interaction and demarcates the hypertext interaction.

Termed a primitive hypertext, Hopscotch incorporates one way links between the two narrations which occur in Paris and Buenos Aires and the miscellaneous chapters.  The users ability and freedom “to re-arrange, re-combine and even abandon any specific text at any time”  (Rix, 2007) demonstrates the acceptance of Hopscotch as hypertext. Much discussion has been given to the impact of Hopscotch as a “codex hypertext”.  The impact of Hopscotch as a paper hypertext would be lost if it were in electronic format. Formatted electronically, Hopscotch would appear to be linear in nature, with no anchors and no external links. The hypertext process inherent in codex Hopscotch would be rendered useless on the computer (“Hopscotch as a Hyperbook,” n.d.).

In a deliberate challenge to established cultural norms, Hopscotch seeks to “transcend the schemes and constructs of culture…”  (Alazraki, 2005).   Cortázar argued ideas and words should not be bound by the constraints of traditional codex.  Jaime Alazraki quotes Cortázar  “ ‘I’ve always found it absurd…to talk about transforming man if man doesn’t simultaneously, or previously, transform his instrument of knowledge’”  (Alazraki, 2005).

Hypertext reflects the authenticity Cortázar presents in Hopscotch, the use of associations rather than categories, the viability of the readers response and choice in determining an individual reading experience. In contrast to the linear structure expounded by Aristotle, Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch introduces the reader to a non-linear pattern of reading. Published years before the incorporation of digital technologies into daily life, Hopscotch exemplifies a “hypertextual literature”.

Works Cited

Alazraki, J. (2005). Toward the last square of Hopscotch. In H. Bloom, Julio Cortazar (pp. 2-26). Philadelphia: Chelsea House.

Bolter, J. D. (2001). Writing Space: Computer, Hypertext and the Remediation of Print. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Hopscotch as a Hyperbook. (n.d.). Retrieved October 28, 2009, from

Rix, R. (2007). Julio Cortazar’s Rayuela nad the Challenges of Cyberliterature. In C. a. Taylor, Latin American Cyberculture and Cyberliterature (pp. 194-206). Cambridge: Liverpool University Press.

Yovanovich, G. (2005). An interpretation of Rayuela Based on the Character Web. In H. Bloom, Julio Cortazar (pp. 101-148). Philadelphia: Chelsea House.

I created a video which I will embed as soon as it finalizes. Having some technical difficulties as the program continues to freeze.

YouTube Preview Image

November 1, 2009   No Comments

Telegraph – the old information super highway

The telegraph can actually be considered the grandfather of the data superhighway – the telegraph operated on a digital format (on/off mode).  (Lubrano, 1997, pg. xiv)

Ancient writings and pictograms of civilizations long gone are forms of communications that existed and provide clues to the intricate workings of a society.  As a rule, these forms of communications have long been abandoned by cultures which now fill history books.  These inscriptions, like most primitive dialects, were only effective in reaching those peoples that encountered and could interpret the material.  The ability to distribute knowledge was limited to the geographical location of the text.  Ancient writings, employed for knowledge transfer, have impacted all societies to some extent; if only as the result of cultures colliding in an increasingly smaller world.  As with most messages, these writings were created to transfer the thoughts and knowledge of a society.  It is this desire to “spread” the word is that is in essence the arching goal of communication; achieve a faster and more efficient means to transfer the message.  Amazingly, this desire to expand knowledge was not always embraced.  Much like the history of the Internet, prior desires to communicate across space and time are filled with progressive steps and changing literacy. 

 Literacy is defined as the ability to read and write.  Reading, as described by Ong is the conversion of a text “to sound, aloud or in the imagination, syllable-by-syllable”.  (Ong, 1982, pg.8)  Imagine if text could exist in the form of finite signals and codes that could be “read” by a viewer and transcribed or transmitted for others to see.  Imagine the origins of distance communication and the impact upon societies isolated by time and geography.  Thus begins the story of telegraphy.  

  Telegraphy, as detailed by the Encyclopaedia Britannica is “derived from the Greek words tele, meaning “distant,” and graphein, meaning “to write.”” (Encycopedia Britannica, 2009).  While we normally identify the telegraph to be an electromagnetic based system of transmitting dots and dashed (Morse code), this belief is flawed.  Telegraphy existed long before in the simplest forms of distance communications.  Early forms of telegraphy, describe in Iliad, included smoke and fire signals used to communicate during daylight and night times.  

 Fire signals were used extensively by watchers and scouts.  Unlike other signal types, they did not normally serve to transmit orders but were instead used to convey simple messages, and they were considered to be quite valuable in this role. (Russell, 1999,  pg. 146)

 The earliest forms of telegraphy employed a simplistic code as a means to articulate the message.  Often times, due to the geographical limitations and rudimentary technology (i.e. blanket, fire and fresh grasses) of the telegraphy, the message was pre-arranged to define only important events such as ‘danger’, ‘victory’ or a ‘summons’.


Without Sound. make Signals

Without Sound. make Signals


Image downloaded From Flickr 28 Oct 09

Another form of visual telegraphy that impacted society was signal flags used mainly by government and mariners worldwide.  The optical telegraphy or semaphore is “is an alphabet signalling system based on the waving of a pair of tower constructed or hand-held flags in a particular pattern.” (Croft, Unknown)  Used extensively by the French government during the French revolution, and by naval fleets (still employed by use of hand held flags), the semaphore system provided distance communications thru a series of sequential stations that conveyed the messages.   As the alphabet was the “code” of semaphore, the message could be as complex as required to effectively convey significance and importance.  Given these new advances in complexity of the transmitted message through the use of the alphabet, limitations did exist including the time to record the signal and retransmit to the next station and the requirement to have a constant vigil for incoming signals.   The semaphore system was eventually abandoned as a “law was enacted imposing jail sentences and stiff fines (up to 10,000 francs) on “anyone transmitting unauthorized signals from one place to another by means of the (Chappe) telegraph machine.” (Neuman, 1996).  Besides fears of rising public opinion, the semaphore system “required extensive manpower and was expensive to operate.  Stations were seldom more than eight miles apart and were subject to interruption due to adverse weather conditions.”  (Lubrano, pg. 10)   


Signal Flags


Semaphore flags in background.  Electrical Bolt symbolic of electric telegraphy.

Picture curtisy of

In addition to the prehistoric visual telegraphy, audio telegraphy was used to gap distances beyond line-of-sight.   In Africa, drums were (and still are) commonly used as a means to convey messages across distances to both humans and gods.  Among the Ashanti people of Ghana, two styles of drumming: signal and speech exist for communications purpose.   Communications by drumming employs of two drums, one high tone and one low tone, which is used to “to mimic the highs and lows of the local Twi language, a tonal language.” (Wilson, unknown)  

As society’s reliance on rapid communications grew, better technologies were developed.  The geographically limiting visual and audio telegraphy was remediated by the faster methods.  Research and trialing of electronic signaling was wide spread.  As Nonenmacher reports:   

The science behind the telegraph dates back at least as far as Roger Bacon’s (1220-1292) experiments in magnetism. Numerous small steps in the science of electricity and magnetism followed. Important inventions include those of Giambattista della Porta (1558), William Gilbert (1603), Stephen Gray (1729), William Watson (1747), Pieter van Musschenbroek (1754), Luigi Galvani (1786), Alessandro Giuseppe Antonio Anastasio Volta (1800), André-Marie Ampere (1820), William Sturgeon (1825), and Joseph Henry (1829).  (Nonnenmacher, 2001)

In 1884, Samual Morse, with his assistance Alfred Vail trialed a telegraph line between Washington and Baltimore, transmitting the now famous message “What hath God wrought?”  (Today in History, 2007)   Morse and Vail had developed the technology to allow the required break in the electrical current; pauses in electrical current which provided the foundation for the code.   Remediation of visual by electronic telegraphy had begun, resulting in sweeping changes in communications methods. 

The electrical telegraph transformed society by achieving the goal of increased efficiency and effectiveness in communications.  Long distance communications within short timeframes reduced the size of a country and connected nations.  This increased speed was not the only change; the language of telegraphy was also transformed. “Morse Code”  was credited to Samuel Morse, but his assistant Alfred Vail is suspected of perfecting the code that exists still today.   This code is an alphabetic language created with the use of “dots and dashes [corresponding] to letters and punctuation in the English language. This cipher, which is still widely used today can be equated as to an early form of digitization, as all words, numbers and punctuation are comprised of two “dot” and “dash” symbols.” (Kanderovskis, 2007)

Electronic telegraphy influenced society in much the same way that the Internet influences society today.   From this birth of rapid, long distance communications, the foundation for standardization of journalistic style and mass communications began.  Information could be gathered, reviewed, transmitted and distributed across a nation with little effort.  Local papers began to focus more on national affairs and less on local opinion.  This flow of information affected all aspects of society; resulting in an increased awareness to national and international affairs, within shorter timeframes.  Even fiscal policies and practices were affected.  Yates argues:

the telegraph encouraged the growth and efficiency of markets by reducing communication time and costs and that it encouraged the growth and vertical integration of firms by forwarding the emergence of national market areas to absorb local and regional market areas.  (Unknown)

The telegraph linked businesses across a nation and across international boundaries.  Through the electronic telegraph, society was provided a venue to share and prosper; but like the Internet, the venue was not accepted by all.  “Russian Czar Nicholas I was likewise terrified by the telegraph’s potential to spread information. Fearing that the broad use of the telegraph would prove “subversive,”(Neuman, 1996) Nicholas refused to conduct business with Morse to create an effective communications system across Russia.  This fear of progress resulted in substandard communications for the military during World War I.    

Progress in communications, specifically electric telegraph affected all institutions: political, social and governmental.  “Embassies connected by telegraph to their home foreign ministries …long used to operating on their own, increasingly received instructions about pressing issues from their home office.”  (Papp, Alberts, Tuyahov, 2002)  Financial markets could deal in commodities and set prices at a national vice local market.  Distance and time melted away first with smoke, progressively advancing technology towards each dash and dot transmitted across the vast electrical lines; the earth successively reduced in size.  Access to national and international events resulted in the standardization of journalistic reporting and realization that ‘others’ existed outside or the local confines.  This path towards ‘globalization’ in communications, while benefiting many, resulted in some fears concerning the spread of knowledge and public opinion.    From an internet of electrical lines with dots and dashes, the desire to communicate to all people at all places would drive the next generation to find the internet of ones(1) and zeros (0) and remediate the electrical information highway.      


Croft, J.  Semaphore Flag Signalling System.  Retrieved online 21 Oct 2009 from the World Wide Web:

International Code of Signals.  (2009).  In Microsoft Encarta.  Retrieved 15 Oct 2009 from the World Wide Web:

Kanderovskis, K.  (2007).  Telegraph.  Retrieved 19 Oct 2009 from the World Wide Web:

Lubrano, Annteresa. (1997). The telegraph: how technology innovation caused social change. New York: Garland Pub.

Library of Congress, (2007).  Today in History.  May 24 What hath god wrought?  Retrieved Oct 18, 2009 from the World Wide Web:

 Neuman, J.  (1996).  The media’s impact on international affairs, than and now.  Retrieved 10 Oct 2009 from the World Wide Web:

 Ong, W.J. (1982). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Methuen.   

 Papp, D.S., Alberts, D.S., & Tuyahov, A.  (2002).  Historical impacts of information technologies: An overview.  Retrieved 18 Oct 2009:

 Russell, F.S., (1999).  Information gathering in classical Greece.  Ann Arbor University of Michigan Press.  Retrieved 18 Oct, 2009:

 telegraph. (2009). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved October 24, 2009, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online 19 Oct 09 from the World Wide Web:

 Wilson, B.  (Unknown).  The drumming of traditional Ashanti Healing Cermonies.  Retrieved online 18 Oct 09 from the World Wide Web:

 Yates, JoAnne, (Unknown).  The Telegraph’s effect on nineteenth century markets and firms.   Retrieved Oct 16 from the World Wide Web:

November 1, 2009   No Comments

Perceptions: Pre- and Post- Gutenberg

Through equal parts careful examination and applied imagination, tracing the effects of codices’ change from manuscripts to printed text is possible. This reformation altered the very situation of codices in society. The explosion of access precipitated by the printing press also changed the very nature of consuming information.

According to Benjamin in his seminal work Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, a “tremendous shattering of tradition” is one result of the m reproduction possible post-Gutenberg. The “aura” or uniqueness is lost (1936).  This abstract notion is difficult to grasp and could be considered too amorphous to define differences between manuscripts and printed text. However, further support comes from more concrete corners.  Pre-Gutenberg chirography details the numerous writing systems in simultaneous use by one society. Salen (2001) details these multiplicities. For example, Early Rome had three formal writing systems each meeting a specific textual need. Discerned through this research is, “the inscription of language by human hands involved practices in which value and meaning were assigned not to just what was written, but how it was written” (p. 134). Printed text cannot share in these characteristics; something is lost in translation from manuscripts to printed text. The move disconnects readers from the “discovery of that magical moment of creation” (Trachsler, 2006, p.7). The philologists use their own, distinct phrases to communicate their stand: “pretty books” and “ugly or dirty manuscripts”. But those same ugly manuscripts reveal the creative process, “those chartae and pages with all their cross-outs, deletions, erasures, marginalia, and insertions that reveal the author’s hand in the struggle of artistic creation” (Storey, 2006, p. 3). Whether you align with the philologists or the chirographers, something is lost when the flow of many hands writing is replaced by a single machine printing.

The move from manuscripts to printed books also re-located the reader. Ong in his chapter “Writing Restructures Consciousness” explores the effect of changing textualities. “Early writing provides the reader with conspicuous help for situating himself imaginatively” (2002, p.102). Eventually the reader must disengage with the printed book, as there is a shift in the senses. Pre-Gutenberg manuscripts contained residual orality – they stemmed from and recorded the spoken word. Added to this were the illuminations and very flow of the script immersing the reader into a multi-sensory experience. The reader seemed invited into a conversation through reading. Printed books were confined to the visual and the delivery of the text reflected this. [See Ong, Chapter 4]

Manuscripts were possessed by the few and the knowledge disseminated to the many. This closed system, where what was worth knowing and preserving, seemed clearly defined by the efforts of scribes, provided a sense of security (McLuhan, 1962). The flow of information was top down. Gutenberg’s printing press removed established means of selection and unlocked the flood gates – the first information overload. Readers no longer savoured the content of a manuscript; soon they were able to sip from many selections. Consuming text also became a solitary, independent exercise, independent of the usual sites of practice – universities, church, or crown. The force of these sites of practice to dictate what information was shared diminished. Rather than loyal scribes capturing the knowledge, the printing press became the new amanuensis and loyalty was scarce. “Multiplication was one of the main points in the praise of the new invention” (Widmann, 1972, p. 253), but the technology that had the capability to retain knowledge for everyone and for always did not fulfill its promise. The explosion of printed knowledge actually decreased the value of that knowledge. The written tradition soon fell prey to supply and demand. As the price and investment of print decreases, anyone can be an author; it is no longer an exalted position held by scholars and religious leaders. The marketplace floods (Mueller, 1994; Swierk, 1974). Rather than knowledge being preserved through this more stable medium, texts fell out of favour as quickly as they had achieved popularity. The printed book becomes a commodity, subject to the whims of society rather than a communication tool for knowledge.

“Setting type also emphasizes the importance of the letter as the basic unit of written forms, as an element in its own right with particular characteristics and not only as the representation of the patterns of spoken language” (Drucker, 1984, p. 11). The whole starts to separate and break down into many parts. Again, the flow is interrupted when codices change from manuscript to print. Once one begins to view something differently such as fragments rather than a whole, how one interacts with it is open to change as well. Engaging with the text no longer resembles a conversation; the text grows into an object to be acted upon. “Print suggests that words are things far more than writing ever did” (Ong, 2002, p. 116). Commoditization of text happens in another form.

One of the most striking examples of changing attitudes toward texts is the increased use of indexes. Pre-Gutenberg, indexing was inefficient and ineffective. “Two manuscripts of a given work, even if copied from the same dictation, almost never correspond page for page” (Ong, 2002, p. 122). The precision possible Post-Gutenberg provided a radical change. No longer did texts need to be digested whole or scanned closely. Indexing as way finding allowed a reader to jump in and jump out as s/he saw fit. Although this information architecture allowed the reader to zero in on items of most interest, it also fragmented the text. What once were global understandings and deep interactions with a text became analytical pieces and short exchanges.

The combination of the explosion of texts and the different means of access led to fundamental changes. Previously, a person would be exposed to a limited number of manuscripts, but most likely would continue to explore their meanings and apply the wisdom gained from close scrutiny. With the post-Gutenberg information overload merging with the growing popularity of organization through indexing, breadth overtook depth. The natural conclusion to this was that it became more likely a person would know a few things about a great many subjects rather than know a few subjects in great detail.

I’ve attempted to give you a glimpse into how changing the visual representation may affect a person. Please follow this link if you’re interested.


November 1, 2009   No Comments

The Photocopier

Hi everyone,

You can find my research paper about the invention of the photocopier in a wiki here. Comments are most welcome!



November 1, 2009   No Comments

See Jane Read: The rise of the basal reader in education

The basal reader has been seen an invaluable tool in reading to many teachers for over a century. The reader has undergone a few changes, but the basic premise remains the same. Students read leveled books that prepare them for grade level examinations and curriculum. Teachers are not to deviate from these readers when teaching reading comprehension, though this is not always the consensus in the education community. “Reading is seen as a flexible tool for learning rather than an inflexible set of skills to be acquired, stored, and brought out for use as the situation arises” (Harste, 2001, p.265). As Harste states, this is the viewpoint by most teachers on basal readers in education today. In this paper, I will first give a brief history of the introduction and usage of basal readers, followed by an overview of the changes to education as a result of this technology.

Basal readers were introduced to school children in the mid-to-late 19th century. It was during this time that students would congregate into one room schools, where the ages would range from 5 to 18, to be taught by one teacher. There were very little textbooks available during this time. One teacher, William McGuffey, was asked to create a series of books for primary students. Known as McGuffey Readers, they were filled with stories of strength, character, goodness and truth.  These primary books contained many pictures and followed a phonics based approach to teach reading. Over time, readers were then created for older students, which focused more on skills in oral reading and presentation. The readers for older students contained poems, stories, and bible passages. Another known basal reader is the Dick and Jane series, written by William S. Gray in the 1930s. These readers focused more on reading the whole word and with using repetition and did not follow the same phonics lessons the McGuffey readers did. The modern day basal reader used from about the 1950s onwards, has books for students, a guide for the teacher, as well as some predetermined activities (Hoffman, McCarthey, Elliott, Bayles, Price & Ferree, 1998). When working with basal readers, students are divided into groups “…according to their abilities to read accurately and to complete written assignments successfully” (Shannon, 2001, p.235). These skill based books/activities are taught in sequential order, with the teacher providing pre- and post- reading activities.

For much of the 20th century, teachers relied on basal readers to fulfill requirements for the reading comprehension curriculum. It was in the late 1970s that the pendulum shifted away from basal readers and workbooks to trade books and “experimental programs”. Goodman (2001) used both basals and trade books in her reading program and asked her students for feedback at the end of the year. She notes that her students “…were vehemently opposed to basals, almost all with the same reason: Basal readers are ‘boring’” (Goodman, p.277). Early basals, such as the Dick and Jane series, were criticized for their lack of diversity in the choice of characters and in storylines. “…The researchers suggest that the meaningless stories of beginning basal anthologies pose serious problems for young children. As as result, those students experience difficulty in learning to read” (Shannon, 2001, p. 237). In an infamous 1955 book, Why Johnny Can’t Read, author Rudolf Flesch criticizes the methodology of these readers. The whole word approach had students stumped when they came across a word they didn’t know when reading. The student was not versed in the phonics approach, since teachers were not supposed to deviate from the basal reading program, and overall literacy was declining. Flesch advocated for a return to the phonics approach, though it was many years after this book was published before schools began to do so.

At first, the basal reader was an excellent addition to education. It solved the dilemma of how to teach multiple ages and levels under one roof. As schools became bigger and there were more teachers, the lack of anything different kept the basal reader in circulation. The only change came with the readers of the 1930s, which had students reading whole words and not using a phonics approach. This resulted in many students scoring lower on literacy tests and a large number of students showing an overall disinterest in books and reading. Educational advocates went back to the phonics approach with great success, though it was not until quite recently that teachers started to try using trade books and activities other than basal ones.  Harste’s (2001) research shows that “…almost anything teachers do beyond a basal reading program significantly improves reading comprehension”  (p.265). Based on Flesch and Harste’s research, one might conclude that basal readers hindered progress in literacy for many years. “The basal sequence is so instruction-intensive that, by the end of the year, only one fourth grader had completed the fourth grade book. Instead of providing access to reading, the basal denies it” (Goodman, 2001, p.275-276). Teachers who had been taught with basals, continued to use them, unknowingly retarding reading skills for generations.

When speaking with fellow educational professionals, many share the sentiment that basal readers are outdated. “Advocates argue that basals have not lived up to their original promise to remain on the cutting edge of educational science in order to ensure that all students will learn to read” (Shannon, 2001, p.236). Many feel that using a varied approach will instead increase the literacy levels of their students.  “…Through daily writing and reading and sharing they begin to recognize and remember words and their speaking vocabulary increases their reading vocabulary daily at a much faster rate than any basal reader could ever do” ( Oxendine, 1989, p. 12). Using a basal reading program, children must make the “…transition from ‘learning to read’ to ‘reading to learn’…” (Walsh, 2003, p.24). Walsh continues to argue that children are not gaining or extracting meaning from the text and the basal reader is merely a place where children learn to sound out words.

As an elementary school teacher, it is hard not to imagine a time without basal readers influencing reading comprehension lesson plans. Many generations of readers were the result of an implemented basal reading program. This program was not all bad, but it did not provide a variety in teaching methods, as many teachers did not deviate from the program manual. In the past 20 years, basal readers have seen a decline within the classroom. Teachers are choosing a varied approach when teaching reading skills, including a phonics component, using trade books, and having students create their own stories to read aloud. This approach has students more interested in reading, as well as using reading skills to learn new tasks in other subjects.


Flesch, R. Why Johnny Can’t Read–and what you can do about it. New York, Harper: 1955.

Harste, J. (1989, September). The Basalization of American Reading Instruction: One Researcher Responds. Theory Into Practice, 28(4), 265. Retrieved September 17, 2009, from Academic Search Complete database.

Hoffman, J., McCarthey, S., Elliott, B., Bayles, D., Price, D., Ferree, A., et al. (1998, April). The literature-based basals in first-grade classrooms: Savior, Satan, or same-old, same-old?. Reading Research Quarterly, 33(2), 168. Retrieved September 17, 2009, from Academic Search Complete database.
Oxendine, L., & Appalachia Educational Lab., C. (1989). Dick and Jane Are Dead: Basal Reader Takes a Back Seat to Student Writings.

Shannon, P. (1989, September). Basal Readers: Three Perspectives. Theory Into Practice, 28(4), 235. Retrieved September 17, 2009, from Academic Search Complete database.

Walsh, K. (2003). Basal Readers: The Lost Opportunity To Build the Knowledge that Propels Comprehension. American Educator, 27(1), 24-27.

November 1, 2009   No Comments

Invention of the Telephone

My second commentary is located in this wiki too: Course:ETEC540/2009WT1/Assignments/ResearchProject/InventionTelephone


The telephone is an instrument used to transmit and receive sounds, most commonly the human voice. The word telephone comes from the Greek words tele meaning far and phone meaning voice. The telephone works by converting sound waves into electrical signals and by converting electrical signals into sound waves. The history of the telephone is controversial because although many inventors were involved in performing pioneering experiments in voice transmission over a wire, only Alexander Graham Bell obtained a patent for the telephone in March 1876. (

Alexander Graham Bell who was born in Scotland worked as a professor of vocal physiology at Boston University in Boston, Massachusetts. As a professor, he trained teachers in how to teach the deaf mutes how to speak and he performed research with speech and electricity. The first bi-directional transmission of speech was made by Bell to his assistant on March 10, 1876, which was followed by the first long distance phone call which was made by Bell to his assistant on August 10, 1876. Then, Bell created a primitive telephone and a patent was obtained for it on January 30, 1877. This telephone transmitted weak sounds and one needed to place one’s ear close to the earphone to be able to hear. Bell went on to produce commercial telephones, made many improvements to them, and laid the ground work for the development of the telephone industry(

The telephone was a very important invention of the nineteenth century which helped improve communications between people at a distance. The first telephone exchange that linked many people who had telephones together so that they could communicate by telephone was implemented in Hartford, Connecticut in 1877 and the first telephone exchange that linked two cities was implemented in 1883. This exchange connected the cities of New York and Boston. (


The telephone provided a big change to existing methods of conversation at the time of its invention because both parties involved in a conversation no longer needed to be in each other’s presence to communicate. Reciprocity, which is the back and forth communication between individuals having a conversation would be eliminated in general when machines were involved according to Franklin (1999, p.42) due to the distance between the individuals involved in the conversation. However, through the use of the telephone, reciprocity is preserved because the telephone allows for “genuine reciprocity” (Franklin, 1999, p.140) whereby the basic makeup of a conversation: people talking to each other and listening to each other and responding to each other is possible.

 Broadcasting Medium

Early in the twentieth century, the telephone was used in an innovative way as a real-time two-way broadcasting medium for broadcasting sporting events: “A reporter on a sports field could describe an important match and the phone brought back to him the cheering and booing of those who listened to the phone on this giant party line, connected just for the occasion” (Franklin, 1999, p.106). At this time, many thousands of people could partake in this type of sports broadcast. During this same period in France, the same telephone technology was used to broadcast operas (Franklin, 1999, p.107). Broadcasting over the phone today is a form of one-way communication whereby users listen to recorded messages, (for example: voice mail messages) but are unable to interact with these messages (Franklin, 1999, p.107).

Telephone Operators

Telephone Operators played an important role in the history of the telephone by providing the human connection between telephone electronics and the community: “the operator’s role was that of an operating and trouble-shooting engineer as well as that of a facilitator” (Franklin, 1990, p.107). As technological advances were made in the telephone industry, the need for the human point of contact of the telephone operator was significantly reduced as the industry became increasingly automated, making the role of the telephone operator increasingly redundant. Modern telephone technologies such as the ability to host a conference call and retrieve voice mail have enabled telephone users to be independent and not need to depend on a telephone operator for help executing these functions. Franklin (1990, p.110) states that technical designers were inconsiderate concerning operators’ needs because as their jobs became increasing automated, they were left with “fragmented and increasingly meaningless work.”


Ong (1982, p.3) describes the invention of electronic equipment including the telephone as the beginning of an age called Secondary Orality, “which depends on writing and print for its existence”. Secondary Orality combines the characteristics of both literate and oral societies whereby telephone technologies encourage relaxed, informal, immediate conversations and foster a sense of a close-knit community (Ong, 1982, p.133-134). Ong (1982, p.134) also states that telephone technologies are promoting literacy through the production of printed books because they “are essential for the manufacture and operation of equipment and for its use as well”.


From a teaching perspective, Bates and Poole (2003) describe the telephone as a two-way synchronous communication technology that provided equal opportunities for all students to participate in learning. The telephone is “good for clarification, diagnosis of learning difficulties, student feedback, discussion, and argument” (Bates and Poole, 2003, p.54). The telephone necessitates that students attend class at the same time, which fosters a “sense of community” (Bates and Poole, 2003, p.54). The use of the telephone was applied to education in the 1980s at many universities in the United States. These universities offered remote classroom teaching whereby a teacher at one campus taught in real-time to other campuses in other parts of the state. The motivation behind this initiative was to offer the same educational opportunities to all students in the state regardless of where they were located (Bates and Poole, 2003, p. 123). Although the use of the telephone in teaching allows for two-way synchronous communication among the professor and the students, “the remote classroom model generally is based heavily on the transmission of information, with limited opportunities for interaction and discussion unless the total number of students at all sites combined is relatively small” (Bates and Poole, 2003, p.125-126).


The invention of the telephone provided an important device for facilitating human communication. No longer did people need to be co-located beside each other to be able to converse. Through the use of the telephone, people could have equally meaningful conversations at a distance, all the while preserving reciprocity. The telephone early on was also be used as a broadcasting medium like the radio, but also allowed for the audience to respond to the commentator, which made it a two-way broadcasting medium. Today, the telephone is used as a one-way broadcasting medium for transmitting recorded messages. Telephone operators played an important role in directing telephone calls and performing troubleshooting activities as well. However, their work became increasingly redundant as the telephone became increasingly automated. Literacy was promoted through the use of the telephone due to the fact that people need to read and write in order to manufacture and operate telephone technologies. Although the telephone has been used to facilitate teaching, it is not the best medium for teaching due to the fact that discussions and interactions can be difficult to manage when classes contain a large number of students.


Bates, A.W. & Poole, G. (2003). Effective Teaching with Technology in Higher Education, Foundations for Success. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Driscoll, M.P. (2000). Psychology of Learning for Instruction. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Franklin, Ursula. (1990). The Real World of Technology. Toronto: Ananci Press Inc.

Ong, Walter (1982). Orality and literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Methuen.

Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Vintage Books.

November 1, 2009   No Comments

Public Literacy: Broadsides, Posters and the lithographic process

I started my journey examining fonts used in graphic design.  My search then led me to ask how had text in public changed with the introduction of the printing press? This question led me to the broadside and public ephemera and the poster.  Eventually I found the lithographic process and the ability to combine print and images in an economical and rapid fashion for public display and the eventual development of the poster.  It has been a journey.


November 1, 2009   No Comments

Tattoo Symbolism

My overall goal of this project was to make an interactive website. Unfortunately, I am still trying to figure out all of the Wix programming nuances. The following link will take you to my Wix website. I plan on building on the interactivity of this page in the near future.

Wix Website

Drew Ryan

November 1, 2009   No Comments

Research Project – From Rote to Note

Hi Folks, my research project that looks at the changes that occured with the move from slate use and rote learning to paper and notebooks can be found at the end of this link,  

Jim McDonald

November 1, 2009   No Comments

The Influence of Television and Radio on Education

Please follow Wiki link.

or read here

The Influence of Television and Radio on Education

By David Berljawsky

ETEC 540

November 1, 2009

There is little question that the transition from radio to television media affected both literacy and education. As educators, television was a powerful new technology to compete with. Although in theory this evolution may have made educating easier, it also caused a ripple in the influence that educators held. This power struggle between education and technology is not new and it continues to this very day. The programming found in television and radio was reflective of the times. How did the change from an aural based media to a visual based media affect education, literacy and social change? Imagination was no longer the driving force in produced media, and this created a culture where instant gratification and visual stimulation became the norm. In this paper I will explore the cultural and social differences between television and radio, the developing power struggle between teachers and television technology and the increasing influence of television compared to radio on young learners.

The age of television has led to a decline in the amount of time and effort that younger students devote to reading and literacy based activities. “Typically, television tended to displace other entertainment activities, including radio, movies, and comic books reading for school-age children (Neuman, 1991, p.21).”  It is uncertain that there is a strong correlation between literacy rates and television due to a few factors. There is an increase in television shows over the years that do promote literacy such as Sesame Street. Some children’s television programming does have high educational standards. As well, due to urbanization, there are also a higher percentage of students who are able to attend schools and receive a proper education in today’s day and age. The percentage of children in elementary schools in BC increased from 87 percent in 1930 to 92.5 percent in 1962 (Statistics Canada, 2009). Educators became more experienced as well, with the teacher qualification standards increasing. In 1952 22% of teachers had a university degree compared to 57% in 1973 (Statistics Canada, 2009).

A Lack of Imagination

When listening to radio one needed to be able to imagine programming without the aid of visuals. This created a world where visual imagery was seen as something more sacred. People were unable to view things that we take for granted today. There was an optimism and innocence associated with radio. Without visuals, it was imagination based and its entertainment value lay largely with the mind of the listener. “They miss what now seems like the simplicity of those times, the innocent optimism (even during the Depression and the War), the directness of the medium itself. But what they yearn for most is the way that radio invited them to participate actively in the production of the show at hand (Douglas, 1985, p4).”

There is an interactive element of radio that we seem to take for granted today. With television we are given everything, both visually and aurally. Very little is left to the imagination with this media, unless the programming directs us to think this way. We expect to be entertained at all times. According to Neuman “…television has fundamentally shifted basic societal values, from those which had previously been characterized by the willingness to defer gratification, to a new set of attitudes where the present is amplified all out of proportion (Neuman, 1991, p.92).” This greatly affects teaching practices. It is difficult to compete with hyper visual imagery and a sense of instant gratification.  Some educational subjects are difficult to make entertaining, which affects the interest of the student.

Social Impacts of the Change

Television and visual media helped to develop the beliefs and values of our culture. Media programming is produced as a response to society’s values and norms. “In their view, children around the age of six lose interest in quality educational programs when they enter the school system; the only way to bypass children’s resentment of instructional content is to focus on social aspects of the programs (Lemish, 2007, p.199).” This makes educating students more difficult because of the type of television programming they start to watch as they enter schooling age.  In the radio days, specifically in the 1930-50’s the types of programming that were popular were reflective of the times as well. Shows such as westerns, dramas and mysteries were commonplace. The content was light, especially compared to today’s standards and was reflective of the culture.

Radio’s cultural influence was very strong, without the constant bombardment of visuals and advertising the power that these spoken words held were stronger than ever. There was no competition with television or other media forms. Much like television, and other forms of entertainment it represented the views and values of the era.  In a sense, radio broadcasting (or narrating) was similar in some regards to oral cultures, where the word held much power. “Moreover, skilled oral narrators deliberately vary their traditional narratives because part of their skill is their ability to adjust to new audiences and new situations or simply to be coquettish (Ong, 1982, p.48).”

The transition from a radio based world to a television based world affected social interactions in school age children. It had a very strong effect at the onset of the television age. Many initial studies in the early 1950’s have been seen as biased, because of the lack of regular households with televisions. They were initially seen as a status symbol and were not found in abundance, thus results were skewered accordingly. The first respected major studies occurred in 1958 and 1961 in Britain, USA and Canada. These results all had very similar outcomes. The activities that were the most affected by the introduction of television were “the use of other media, including radio listening, cinema attendance… and to some extent, play time with other children (Neuman, 1991, p.29).”

Television and Education

Televisions has influenced education and teaching practices. Educators have had to adapt and provide lessons that not only educate but entertain the learner. It has been shown that attention spans have decreased since the prominence of television. Reading is not seen in the same esteem as in previous generations. “Reading was not regarded as an elitist activity, and printed matter was spread evenly among all kinds of people (Postman, 1985, p.34).” This is not a new phenomenon. Whenever a new technology is introduced there is often a change in educational philosophy to adapt to the cultural shift. We have seen it more recently with modern internet technologies. After all “The medium is the message (McLuhan as cited in Postman, 1992, p14).”

How can teachers compete with educational and regular television? “In contrast, commercial television stations disavow having any educational responsibilities. Above all else, “their raison d’etre” is to make a profit by attracting as wide an audience as possible in order to sell advertisers products (Lemish, 2007, p.148).” This affects society in many different ways. The influence of advertising is amplified. If the television production companies only care about profit (attracting sponsors) than they will likely create programs that appeal to these advertisers regardless of educational value. This will only make teachers jobs more difficult. The influence of television on children is huge, if they are watching shows designed simply to entertain and maximize profit, then this will have negative effects on reading and writing. Educational value will be ignored.  It is frightening to imagine this, especially in relation to the school systems influence.  “A great media metaphor shift has taken place in America, with the result that the content of much of our public discourse has become dangerous nonsense (Postman, 1985, p.16).”

How has writing evolved from the age of radio to television? “Children come to school having been deeply conditioned by the biases of television. There they encounter the printed word (Postman, 1985, p.16).” Children are raised in the TV generation watching visual entertainment before learning to read and write in most cases. This makes teaching writing harder than before due to students having a different focus than before.  There is ample evidence to prove that television has affected student focus and made reading and writing seem less important. “Children of television will come to expect all of life to be entertaining; learning will be displaced in favour of the ready-made… this demand for entertainment will eventually lead children to be less enterprising and resourceful (Neuman, 1991, p.92).”

The impact that television has had on education is dramatic. It has helped to change the dynamics found between teachers and students. Children are being raised with the television turned on for a large portion of their lives. They enter school acclimatised to the views and beliefs that are found on television. Attention spans have been adjusted accordingly and this negatively affects the quality and type of education that is transmitted to the student. This is going to change. Technology is constantly in a state of evolution and the television movement is only a part of that evolution. Of course, with the upcoming generation engaged in hypertext and its issues, we may end up looking back nostalgically at the good old days of television.


Lemish, Dafna. (2007) Children and Television: A Global Perspective. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Neuman, Susan. (1991) Literacy in the Digital Age. Norwood, New Jersey. Ablex Publishing Corporation.

Ong, Walter. (1982.) Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Methuen.

Postman, Neil (1985). Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. USA: Penguin.

Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New York: Vintage Books.

Douglas, Susan. Listening in: Radio and the American Imagination. Minnesota. University of Minnesota Press, 2004.

“Elementary and Secondary Schools.” Statistics Canada., Oct, 2009.

November 1, 2009   No Comments

Yatate: The Writing Technology of the Samurai

 Please follow my wiki here.  For a background and visual reference to my essay, I recommend you view my short yatate presentation:





Yatate: The Writing Technology of the Samurai



Erin Gillespie

ETEC 540

November 1, 2009

 The study of Japanese history often evokes images of samurai, yet samurai are not often associated with the study of writing technology. The use of ancient Chinese writing technology led to an invention by the samurai that revolutionized writing in Japan. Although documentation is difficult to come by, it is argued that the samurai greatly contributed to Japanese literacy through the use of a portable writing technology initially invented for the battle field.

 Trade with the Tang Dynasty of China in 784 AD introduced education through Chinese writing technology to Japan (Andressen, 2001; Bernard, 1999; Kato, 1997; Kwo, 1981). The writing technology was known as “the four precious things of the study” and consisted of a brush, ink, paper and an ink stone (Wang, 1930). The animal hair brush was 21 cm long with a bamboo or wooden handle (Kwo, 1981). Ink was a solid mixture of lampblack, animal fats and vegetable oils, which when rubbed on an ink stone (suzuri) with water, produced an even black ink (Wang, 1930). Directly related to this writing technology are Japan’s first literary achievements and the establishment of schools for the children of nobility in 712 (Kanzaki, 1996; Kato, 1997). During its initial development, Japanese literacy and writing technology was mainly the domain of courtiers and Buddhist priests (Andressen, 2001). There was no significant change in the technology of writing in Japan until the Kamakura period.

During Kamakura (1185-1333), the samurai emerged as warriors assigned to protect their generals (shogunate) and aristocratic families, indicating a shift to feudalism from imperialism (Andressen, 2001). However, the impact the samurai had on the spread of literacy and education is often overlooked. The displaced cultural elite spread court culture and literacy to shogunate and samurai warriors (Andressen, 2001). Political conflicts and civil wars led to literature that centered on military exploits, impermanence and transience (Jewel, 1998). Children of the samurai received formal schooling and lessons in literacy during this period (Yamazumi, 1987). The clan general, Yoritomo, was officially proclaimed shogun by the emperor in 1192 and, once legitimized, was able to learn cultural values from the former court elite (Andressen, 2001).

According to the The British Museum, literate Japanese used a personal calligraphy writing box consisting of the brush (fude), ink stick(sumi), ink stone (suzuri) and a water dropper until 1868 (The British Museum, 2009). This was not the only technology used, as corroborated by Mr. Tsuchida, curator of the Japan Stationary Museum (e-mail, October 25, 2009). During the first half of the Kamakura period a new writing technology was invented and used by the samurai and displaced the ancient writing box (Stutler, 2009; Tsuchida, e-mail, October 25, 2009).

 The new technology was portable, making it a more convenient option, and was called yatate, or “arrow stand” (Stutler, 2009). The name yatate is inherited from the samurai’s older form of carrying small suzuri or a calligraphy set inside their arrow stands (Stutler, 2009). The classic 1183 AD story Heike Monogatari describes the Genji samurai Kiso Yoshinaka as carrying a suzuri in his arrow stand and writing for his lord (Marshall, 2009). The yatate replaced the traditional writing set to become the first portable self-contained writing technology in Japan around 1185 (Marshall, 2009; Stutler, 2009). Although there is no documentation, the yatate is believed to be invented by the samurai and they were the only people allowed to carry and use yatate until the Edo period (Stutler, 2009).

It is possible samurai warriors played a large role in the spread of literacy with their yatate. It is well documented that they produced a great number of novels (Kato, 1997). The samurai supported the development of art and literature and continued to formally school their children (Andressen, 2001; Deal, 2007). Samurai warriors initially wrote using calligraphy sets to report details of battles, tax payments and land transactions to their lords and generals, known as shoguns (Marshall, 2009). It is logical that carrying a traditional calligraphy box set was cumbersome and time consuming to assemble in the field. It is highly likely that a warrior was inspired to create a more portable and efficient writing technology to efficiently carry out his duties. The documented respect for literacy by the samurai implies a love of writing which also may have inspired the portable yatate’s design.

The invention of the yatate by the samurai indicates that a desire and need for a writing technology more suited to mobility. The oldest type of yatate looked like a long block of wood, and folded out like a Japanese fan (Marshall, 2009; Stutler, 2009). When the lid slid to the side, a brush and ink retainer opened to reveal a piece of cotton or raw silk soaked in liquid ink (Marshall, 2009; Stutler, 2009). This was a revolutionary invention at the time as a dependable, efficient and portable writing instrument! The brush could be dipped in the saturated cloth without risk of ink spillage and the entire device was light weight and extremely portable. If the ink on the cloth dried out, moistening the cloth will refresh the ink.

A great battle in 1333 ushered in a civil war which ended in victory for the Tokugawa shoguns (Andressen, 2001). At this time, the yatate changed in design possibly due to the demand for a greater ink supply and a growth in popularity (Stutler, 2009).  The portability of the yatate may have increased the number of written records during conflict, which then led to the change in ink design. It is possible that the yatate may have been more powerful than the sword during war, as samurai could quickly record the transaction of territories. The unification of Japan under Tokugawa shoguns in 1600 ushered in the Edo period and marked a transition of the yatate from technology of the samurai to the civilian.

During the Edo period (1603-1867), the yatate resembled a dipper with had a larger ink retainer and a long, thin hollow handle where one could store a brush and in some models, a slim knife (Stutler, 2009). It is not well documented, but the samurai passed the yatate on to merchants and commoners during Edo which is evidenced in woodblock prints showing commoners carrying yatate. Only the samurai were allowed to carry swords and the slim knife in the yatate intended for scraping ink may have been a commoner’s weapon of self defence (Stutler, 2009).

Citizens of Edo period were only permitted to travel on religious pilgrimages and yatate were used to record a pilgrimage, spread word of Shintoism or to sketch images from the journey (Stutler, 2009). Documented proof in a print by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) shows a traveller carrying yatate.  Edo civilization flourished and it is tempting to consider how the merchant class may have expanded their immediate territory through use of the portable yatate.

The yatate clearly transformed the way people dressed. Commoners fastened yatate to the kimono sash (obi) by a cord or decorative button (netsuke) or, more commonly, tucked the yatate under the sash (Stutler, 2009). Hokusai’s woodblock print shows the yatate tucked in at the back, indicating the yatate were removed from the sash when used. The change in dressing is a strong indication that the yatate was a popular writing technology used daily by men and women and one which made literacy accessible. There is little data to suggest children used yatate. However, formal education continued and the government established tens of thousands of schools for the children of samurai and of commoners (Deal, 2007; Yamazumi, 1987).

The yatate’s growth in popularity from the samurai to commoners may be directly related to the emergence of a formidable literary population who wrote novels, poetry and prose until late in the Tokugawa era. The Edo period saw the samurai and townspeople exercise a greater cultural influence through writing (Kato, 1997). Japan’s cultural center moved to Edo (modern day Tokyo) and a great number of “gesaku”, or frivolous written works, indicate the popularity of writing (Jewel, 1998).  Masterpieces of Edo literature were created with yatate, including sketches by travelling artists (Stutler, 2009). A portable writing technology may have been instrumental in the popularity and accessibility of literacy during this time. By the middle of the 18th century, most authors were samurai, merchants or peasants (Jewel, 1998; Kato, 1997). It is noted that two of these types of authors are documented as using yatate in art, implying the writing technology influenced the literary and artistic world.

During Meiji (1868-1912), the Tokugawa shogunate and the samurai were abolished and a constitutional monarchy established (Andressen, 2001). Japan’s literacy rate at this time is estimated at forty percent (Easterlin, 2000). This high rate may have been influenced by the formal schooling efforts of the samurai and possibly their yatate. Emperor Meiji opened Japan’s doors to international trade and rapid modernization (Andressen, 2001). The yatate, perhaps the samurai’s strongest and most secretive weapon was to be replaced by the Western fountain pen.


 Andressen, C. (2001). A short history of Japan: From Samurai to Sony. New South Wales, Australia: Allen & Unwin.

Bernard, H. R. (1999). Languages and scripts in contact: Historical perspectives. In D.A. Wagner, R. L. Venezky & B.V. Street (Eds.), Literacy: An international handbook (pp. 22-28). Westview Press. Available Online 12, October, 2009, from

Deal, W. E. (2007). Handbook to life in medieval and early modern Japan. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Easterlin, R. A. (2000). The worldwide standard of living since 1800. The Journal of Economic Perspectives 14 (1), 7-26. Retrieved from

Jewel, M. (1998). Japanese literary history. Retrieved from

Kanzaki, M. (1996). History of Japan’s literature. Retrieved from

Kato, S. (1997). A history of Japanese literature: From the man’yoshu to modern times. Surrey, Richmond: Curzon Press Ltd.

Kwo, D.W. (1981). Chinese brushwork in calligraphy and painting: Its history, aesthetics and techniques. Mincola, NY: Dover Publications Inc.

Marshall, K. (2009). Tokohan: Antique Japanese yatate. Retrieved from

Stutler, R. (2009). Tokyo fountain pen scene: What is yatate? Retrieved from

The British Museum. (2009). Explore/Highlights: The writing box. Retrieved from

Wang, C. C. (1930). Notes on Chinese ink. Metropolitan Museum Studies, 3(1), 114-133. Retrieved from

Yamazumi, M. (1987). A brief history of Japanese education. Tokyo: Iwanami.

November 1, 2009   3 Comments