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Medium Cool » Blog Archive » Gadgets and Wrinkles

Posted: February 6th, 2011 | Author: grant wythoff | Filed under: gadgetry | Tags: gadgetry, nautical, tool, wrinkle | No Comments »

Part of my research right now is directed toward the idea that the word “gadget” denotes a completely different range of tools at different points throughout the twentieth century. Though today we usually associate gadgetry with portable electronics, the word has its roots in nineteenth century nautical jargon. In use among sailors as early as the 1850s, the word first appears in print in Robert Browns 1887 memoir Spurnyarn and Spindrift: A Sailor Boys Log of a Voyage Out and Home in a China Tea-Clipper. He writes, the names of all the other things on board a ship! I don’t know half of them yet; if the exact name of anything they want happens to slip from their memory, they call it a chicken-fixing, or a gadjet, or a gill-guy, or a timmey-noggy. In its seemingly simple and utilitarian origins, the word serves as a placeholder for the name of a tool that has been forgotten at the moment.

The functionality of the gadget in this nautical context receives a more sophisticated treatment in Harold Augustin Calahans wonderful Gadgets and Wrinkles: A Compendium of Mans Ingenuity at Sea. Calahan begins this book, a catalog of potential problems one might encounter sailing followed by a list of gadgets and wrinkles that serve as solutions, by encouraging the reader to think about the gadget in a much wider sense than has been commonly allowed.

Our lexicographers define a gadget as ‘anything the name of which cannot be recalled at the moment,’ and in parentheses, they add (Slang, U.S. Navy). But the name has a broader meaning and a riper antiquity than the dictionary credits. I believe the term is older than the navy itself, and far too deeply imbedded in the language to merit the transitory stigma of slang.

Calahan clarifies that while a gadget is a machine, an invention, a mechanical means of achieving a result, a wrinkle is a method of procedure. [] To the seaman, a gadget is a thing, and a wrinkle is a method, and both of them for the most part unusual and unstandardized. The problem that he encounters throughout the book, one that repeatedly causes him to go off on long digressions, is that the distance between a tool and a method is not readily identifiable.

I have been sore put to it to organize this book. For I am dealing with concepts that have thus far resisted organization so well that they have avoided being tagged with names. Also it is pretty hard to tell where a gadget begins and a wrinkle ends or vice versa. Take a familiar example. You are about to tie two lines together. You tie them into a weaver’s knot. Standard practice so farno gadgets, no wrinkles. Then realizing that there is going to be a terrific strain on that line and that the knot will be pulled so tight that you will never be able to untie it again, you decide to slip a toggle into the knot. That’s a happy thought, for you can always take a hammer and drive out the toggle and the knot will be loose. What is that togglea winkle or a gadget? Now suppose we decide that the strain is going to be so great that it will be difficult to drive out an ordinary toggle. So we use a large fid whose sloping shape assures us that the slightest driving with the hammer will loosen the knot. Is the wrinkle now a gadget? Or if the small end of the fid is greased to make it slip more easily through the tight turns of the knot, does it become a wrinkle again? I don’t know and I don’t pretend to try to find out. The line of demarcation is too indistinct.

Surveying the history of gadgetry at sea, Calahan gives the term a wide enough purchase to include not only the tools but the methods that emerge to accomplish certain tasks. This relationship between the materials and styles of performing a task or solving a problem often surfaces in definitions of gadgetry, especially in patent law. Court decisions over patent disputes usually end up defining a gadget as the solution that logically emerges out of a problem in material form as a tool or modification. Any reasonable person given the same problem would independently come up with the same expedient. An invention, on the other hand, is a truly original arrangement or innovation that warrants patent protection.

"Problem Gadget Solution!"

The deceivingly simple origins of the gadget as a generic name for anything in fact already contained some of the complexities that would provide the word such a wide applicability throughout the twentieth century. As Virginia Sackville-West observes in Country Notes (1940), What an odd little word ‘gadget’ is, almost a gadget in itself, so small and useful.

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