Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Chapter 11 - 1917: Part 1 - Introduction

Korzybski: A Biography (Free Online Edition)
Copyright © 2014 (2011) by Bruce I. Kodish 
All rights reserved. Copyright material may be quoted verbatim without need for permission from or payment to the copyright holder, provided that attribution is clearly given and that the material quoted is reasonably brief in extent.

Alfred spent March and most of April of 1917 in Ottawa. While he was there, important news came from Russia. Early in March (still February according to the Julian calendar then used in Russia), workers had gone on strike in Petrograd to protest a lack of bread and other essentials. With the military garrison in Petrograd deciding to support the workers, the popular uprising centered in Petrograd became a revolution that spread to Moscow and other parts of Russia. Within a little more than a week, the Tsar had abdicated. A new provisional government was formed with a core of constitutional liberals from the Duma (Russian Parliament). This weak government shared authority with the Petrograd Soviet (Workers Council), made up of various socialist factions. What would this mean for the Russian war effort, as costly and ineffective as it had become? What would it mean for Poland? Alfred didn’t know. He had never considered himself a Russian but he did have Russian citizenship and a Russian passport. And for the time being, Russia still fought on the allied side. So for the sake of Poland, he still hoped to be able to somehow work for the Russians in order to defeat Germany.

In the meantime he was occupied with a number of inventions he had been working on and which he hoped might eventually provide some income. These included a rain protector for clothing (which appears never to have gotten beyond the initial drawing stage), a repair kit for broken iron wagon-wheels, and a mechanical potato digger/sorter. He had been developing the latter two for some time. Alfred made detailed mechanical drawings, technical descriptions, and promotional material. He also researched and wrote to several hundred manufacturers in Canada and the U.S., trying to get someone interested in the devices. Despite this intensive campaign, he had no takers. He also found an attorney in Ottawa who helped him to apply for U.S. patents. Later, once he had left Ottawa, his extensive travel and incessant activity over the next few years diverted him from doing much with the “wheel red cross”(1) or the potato digger. It appears he never got the patents.

Schematic of Korzybski's Mechanical Potato Digger-Sorter

On April 6, the United States entered the war against Germany. President Wilson had terrific reluctance about the U.S. becoming one of the combatants. Nevertheless, the German government had attempted to get Mexico to go to war against the U.S. (the infamous Zimmerman Telegram). It had also declared that it would begin unrestricted submarine attacks against all shipping in French and British waters. This would imperil U.S. citizens and U.S. trade with France and Great Britain. With U.S. ships already being sunk and U.S. citizens killed, Wilson could no longer resist the overwhelming American support for entering on the side of the Allies. Alfred, still in Ottawa, had already been thinking about how to protect allied ships from torpedoes.

One device consisted of a moveable-chain net, loaded with small bombs in the interstices. The net would be suspended from a mast and could be positioned by means of a rail to cover all or part of the ship anywhere along its circumference. The net could be lowered quickly whenever a submarine or torpedo was spotted. Either an electrical charge or the impact from a torpedo would set off the bombs which would in turn explode the torpedo before it reached the ship. The position of the net would be calculated to be far enough away from the ship to prevent the explosions from damaging the hull. He also suggested using  protective net bags around ships, and on-board machine gun crews using high explosive shells for exploding oncoming torpedoes. Korzybski offered these suggestions, with drawings, gratis to the Canadian Naval Attaché in Ottawa and, later that summer, to the British  Naval Attaché in New York. He corresponded and met with both men, who had numerous objections but still appreciated his inventiveness and desire to help.

Alfred had never held a professional job as an engineer. Yet his inventions demonstrated his orientation towards science as a “form of action”(2) to be applied to practical concerns. Since absorbing this engineering attitude from his father as a young child, he seemed  naturally inclined to apply what he knew to matter-of-fact problems of living, e.g., wheels to repair, potatoes to be dug, ships to protect from torpedoes.

Alfred's engineering bent definitely leaned towards mechanical devices. Over the next few years, he made other inventions but once he started writing, his creative energies got focused there. Nonetheless, he continued to make things with his hands and fiddle with mechanical and electrical tools for the rest of his life. His hands-on experiences with designing and making things taught him that a workable solution might require much trial, effort, ingenuity, and revision. However, the science and mathematics behind it might remain relatively simple. His engineering mentality probably also contributed to his appreciation for the beauty of simple artifacts displaying an economy of form with a maximum of function—like the crafted ebony wooden boxes and other objects he liked to keep on his desk at one time or another.

You may download a pdf of all of the book's reference notes (including a note on primary source material and abbreviations used) from the link labeled Notes on the Contents page. The pdf of the Bibliography, linked on the Contents page contains full information on referenced books and articles. 

1. Korzybski, Patent Application “Wheel Red Cross”. AKDA 35.874 

2. Pauly 1987, pp. 43-44.

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