Help, our industrial heritage is falling down!

Temple Works is a one-off. Its construction as a flax mill in 1840 must have made a powerful statement about Leeds’ status as global pioneer of industry. At the time it was said to be the “largest single room in the world,” with innovative air conditioning under the floor and sheep grazing on a grass-covered roof above.

In the 1950s Yorkshire’s textile manufacture began to shrink, but the mill found a new use as the northern warehouse for mail order company Kays, a kind of Amazon.com of Britain’s post-war consumer culture.

Just imagine what this building has seen over half a dozen generations: the rhythms of working life for thousands of people, materials brought in and out, linking with the world’s most exotic and mundane places. I reckon Temple Works should qualify for preservation on the strength of this rich social history alone.

But in reality this sprawling single storey stone shed in an unprepossessing edge-of-city-centre location must owe its Grade I listed status to the fact that it’s the spitting image of the Temple of Horus at Edfu, Egypt. Those 19th Century industrialists knew how to make an impact! I work in a nearby building, another former mill converted to offices, and am both inspired and humbled by the scale of our predecessors’ ambitions.

Sadly the 21st Century has not been kind to Temple Works. Vacant since 2004, the building is subject to plans to convert it to a “cultural and retail facility“, but in the mean time its condition is becoming more perilous.

This week, thankfully in the early hours when the street outside was deserted, one of the works’ massive stone pillars crumbled, bringing down a section of the roof. Marshall Street, the road on which it stands, has been closed in case of further collapse. This picture shows the damage…

Temple Works damage

It is particularly cruel that Temple Works was allowed to decline at a time when Leeds was going through another building boom, with new offices, hotels and flats being thrown up at a startling pace. Yet the wake-up call of the column collapse comes just when that boom is crashing to a halt.

It’s too early to say what caused the collapse or what happens next to Temple Works. (The Yorkshire Evening Post story is here.)  But I really hope it can be the stimulus to a happier chapter in the life of a remarkable piece of our industrial heritage.

Sort it out, Leeds, or else – the Falcon God is watching.

The unsung office hero

Working for a company in a rapidly changing industry, it’s easy to overlook the contributions of the team members who deliver the goods day-in day-out. It’s important that these unsung heroes are recognised, and their milestones marked.

So when my coworkers spotted that the office coffee machine was approaching its 100,000th drink they decided it was worth a party. The good folks at Flavia obliged with supplies of chocolate to go with the centemillennial celebrations.

As the number on the LCD crept up, about 20 of us crowded into the narrow corridor where the coffee machine lives, ready to cheer its achievement.

Some people were hoping for some kind of crazy embedded software Easter egg, but the machine modestly just did its thing, exactly as it had for the other 99,999 drinks. The honoured recipient of the beige plastic cupful of “Smooth Roast” reported that it tasted “lovely”.

Here’s the machine quietly communicating the moment…

100,000 drinks

In their fascinating work, The Media Equation, Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass demonstrate how people instinctively relate to machines as if they were human, even if they have no outwardly human attributes. Their work focuses on individual interactions with computers and how we treat them with politeness and respect, not wanting to hurt their feelings.

The Flavia party takes this a step further. Not only is the coffee machine treated as sentient each time it dispenses a drink, but over the years (five, maybe?) it has become part of the team. It has certainly out-done many human employees in length of service.

Interestingly it was the count of “Total Drinks” that increased our emotional connection with the coffee machine. The counter feature was doubtless included as an aid to maintenance and service rather than for public consumption, yet it made us think differently about the machine’s role in the epic narrative of our corporate life. If we can get through that many hot beverages together, then we too must be heroes of a sort.

When its time finally comes to be “upgraded” or whatever indignity awaits, I hope we will treat the coffee machine with the deference accorded by Icelandic civil servants to their IBM 1401, as recorded here.

Oh, and the chocolate was lovely too.

The Silver Swan

Silver swan

At the weekend we went north to the Bowes Museum at Barnard Castle, the highlight of which is James Cox’s Silver Swan automaton.

Made in 1773, it was nearly 100 when Mark Twain wrote:

‘I watched the Silver Swan, which had a living grace about his movement and a living intelligence in his eyes – watched him swimming about as comfortably and unconcernedly as if he had been born in a morass instead of a jeweller’s shop – watched him seize a silver fish from under the water and hold up his head and go through the customary and elaborate motions of swallowing it…’

And it still works, operated by museum staff twice at day at noon and 3pm. For 40 seconds, this 235-year-old exhibit comes to life, even holding the rapt attention of our Cbeebies-generation children.

It set me wondering: which of our early 21st Century delights will people still marvel at almost a quarter of a millennium from today?

Note to future historians: We know it doesn’t look good, but we weren’t really shallow time-wasters in the Noughties

Greetings from 2008! I’m really pleased you’ve picked the Early 21st Century Social History module this term. You’re going to love it.

But before you dive into the wealth of primary evidence we’ve left on the net, there’s something we need you to understand. We know it doesn’t look good, but we weren’t really shallow time-wasters. You see, the billions of pages of social networking archives through which you’re crawling don’t really tell the whole story. Before you condemn us as the idle generation who played Scrabulous while the icecaps melted, we’d like to put those texts into context.

Context #1. We were young. Your course notes may include some stats showing that lots of people in their 30s, 40s and beyond were signed up to the social networks. This is true, but the most active users remained in the under 25 bracket. They were finding their way in the world, and trying on new personalities. They lived for the moment and some learned the dangers the hard way.

Context #2. Even when we weren’t young, we were inexperienced. We’d only just taken the controls, like learning to drive a car. (OK, bad example. I guess you’ve seen one in a museum.) Looking back, our efforts will seem clumsy, lacking the nuances and vocabulary of other more-established communications media. With time we’ll get these things right, but you future historians probably look at our online efforts like we look at 1950s TV.

Context #3. Even when we were experienced, we weren’t serious. Surely this was the first (though by no means the last) medium to start with the trivial and scale up to the serious. It took decades for electronic communication to move as Andrew Odlyzko notes “from Samuel Morse’s solemn ‘What hath God wrought?’ to Alexander Graham Bell’s utilitarian ‘Mr. Watson, come here, I want you,’ to the banal ‘How was your lunch?’ that is so common today.” Now we’ve moved from pull to push: we upload photos of our lunch without even being asked. For many of us posting stuff online is more a time-killer than a communications tool.

So while you’re flicking through our old Myspace pages and Facebook groups, please believe us when we say: The rest of the time, we were really busy doing mature, skilled, serious things. It’s just that we didn’t document that stuff. You’ll have to take it on trust.

Thomas A. Watson Ate My Internet

“But daddy, if people didn’t have computers, how did they buy things from the internet?”

It’s amazing how something we’ve come to take for granted hangs from such a fragile thread.

As part of a new product trial for my employer, we recently had a visit from two very helpful telecoms engineers who checked out our broadband connection.

Living where we do within spitting distance of our local phone exchange, our broadband should have been blazing, but it turned out all those bits and bytes were struggling to be heard over the noise on the line. The engineers (who’d already proved they were a class act by taking off their boots at the door, without being asked) ran some checks, showed me some impressive looking waveforms and diagnosed a collision between the 19th and 21st centuries.

Thomas A. Watson

Back in the days when Crazy Frog was nothing but a proud native American Chief defending the plains of the Wild West (probably), Thomas Augustus Watson – of “Mr Watson, come here! I need you!” fame – had the bright idea of a bell to alert recipients to incoming calls. A bell. An actual bell. Not a Truetone, not even a Polyphonic. Just an actual, real, ringing bell. To make the bell ring, a pair of wires ran in parallel along the cable that carried the talking. When a call was coming in, power would surge down the lines and make the bell ring. Ingenious!

Fast forward about 120 years and even our cordless DECT phone has a choice of ten tinny tunes. If we could be bothered we could set the phone to play a different tinny tune depending on the caller. The bell wires in my home are pretty much redundant, but they’re still there, just in case I decide to plug in a phone with an actual, real, ringing bell.

And therein lay the problem, according to the engineer standing in my living room in his socks. Our phone had an old extension cable running upstairs. The two ringing wires from that extension were funnelling radio noise back into our phone system and drowning out the internet. Two minutes and a small screwdriver later the old extension cable had been disconnected and we were two megabits per second better off. Sorted.

Now attenuation is all that stands between me and broadband nirvana. Apparently.

Only the afterthought remains

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In the graveyard of St Mary’s Church, Whitby, we came across this unexpected result of the interplay between people and the elements.

I love the idea that for some reason, after this tombstone was carved, they needed to change it. Maybe

  • extra family members were added
  • the original words wore away and had to be restored
  • the stonemason made a mistake

So an extra piece of matching stone was neatly added into the original surface. I like to imagine that the craftsman was proud of this patch-up. “No one will ever see the join,” he (I’m fairly certain it was a he) might have thought.

Then the weather took its toll – it’s pretty exposed at the top of the 199 steps to the Abbey site overlooking the sea. The words wore away, becoming harder to read until it was impossible to make out the names or details of the deceased.

Except for one word, the humble conjunctive adverb, because its little piece of stone was a little newer or harder than the original. “I’m not finished yet,” it says.

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