Monday, 1 February 2021

The Horblit Bibliographical Collation Computer of 1964

According to his Wikipedia entry, Harrison David Horblit (1912–88)—"philanthropist and collector of books, manuscripts, and photographs"—"designed a 'Bibliographical Collation Computer', a 128 x 245mm card in a plastic sleeve which operates much like a slide rule in which the letters of the alphabet are correlated with the pagination values of formats of 1, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10,12, 16, 20, 24, and 32 leaves. The card was copyrighted in 1964 and copies were sold by the Grolier Club."

I recently had the very great fortune to acquire a Horblit "Bibliographical Collation Computer" from the estate of an eminent Melbourne bibliographer who was active in the 60s to the 90s. Having looked online, I can see that some "*EXCITED SCREECHING*" occurred on Twitter after one—marked "Reading Room Desk"—was "found in the bottom of a reading room drawer" at the Lilly Library (see tweets and photos by Liz Hebbard and Joe McManis).

As Joe McManis points out, a misprint on the recto has been hand-corrected—but a further two errors are corrected with an overprint, and the title of the "computer" is—in fact—a cancel: a paste-over. All I can make out of the original title, which was longer than "Bibliographical Collation Computer" is "The" at the start and "Card" at the end, so "The Bibliographical Collation Computer Card"? Although the paste-over is somewhat loose at the edge, I am not willing to trash my "computer" to find out the original title. If only I had a can of Freon! (Which, apparently, turns paper transparent for the short period of time it takes before the gas evaporates, then departs on a mission to tear a Godzilla-sized hole in the Ozone layer.)

As "Incunabula" pointed out in reply to one of these tweets "the Grolier Club still had these for sale as late as 2001"—which turns out to be Fake News: true, but misleading. According to the Wayback Machine, in February of 2001, after "A small cache of these useful and fascinating 'collation computers'—part of the original 1964 print run—[had] recently come to light at the Grolier Club" they were "offer[ed] to anyone with an interest in bibliographical gadgets" at a price of $15 (here; emphasis added). By April, the "collation computers" had sold out (here). If you would like to buy one now, Rootenberg Rare Books & Manuscripts would like you to pay them USD350. (Regarding which, see 1 Timothy 6:10: radix enim omnium malorum est cupiditas [For the love of money is the root of all evil]).

In 1997, G. Thomas Tanselle gave an account of Horblit ("Harrison D. Horblit, Collector," Gazette of the Grolier Club, n.s., Vol. 48 (1997): 5–17; online here), which includes a description of Horblit's "Collation Computer" (11). In his account, Tanselle mentions an advertisement for the computer that appeared in The Antiquarian Bookman for 8 February 1965. The advertisement was so entertaining to the Grolier Club members that it was "for a time posted in the Grolier Clubhouse, where it was recognized as a characteristic bit of Horblitiana."

And so, for your reading pleasure, I give you the Carny pitch for Horblit's "Collation Computer":

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Invented by HARRISON D. HORBLIT author of the recently published "100 Books Famous In Science"

Based upon the 23-letter Roman alphabet as used in the signatures of books up into the 19th-century (i.e. A–Z without J, U, and W), and upon the principles of the slide rule, this instrument is the newest, indeed the first, to raise the efficiency of the bibliographer by labor saving and by aiding in the every-day computations in cataloguing, collating, and accessioning rare books.

The BIBLIOGRAPHICAL COLLATION COMPUTER eliminates complicated arithmetic calculations and insures accuracy, with ease, quickly. It indicates immediately, once the collation is known, the proper number of leaves or pages. It quickly calls attention to mis-paginations (hence, issue points), in many 15th–19th century publications. It can also be used for a quick check for accuracy of existing bibliographical descriptions.

An Essential Tool for all Students, Scholars, and Others Engaged in Bibliography.

CAN PAY FOR ITSELF IN ONE DAY—by time and labor saved, and by its accuracy.


You can solve this on the BIBLIOGRAPHICAL COLLATION COMPUTER in 4 seconds!

*©1964  Size: 9 1/2 by 5 1/2 inches
$7.50 each—Special discount to the trade

SOLE DISTRIBUTOR IN AMERICA: John F. Fleming, Inc. 322 East 57th Street, New York, N.Y. 10022.

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PS: although a cache of Horblit computers were on the market in the last two decades, the only other survivor that I can find—beyond those mentioned—is that at Washington University in Series 12, Box 9 of the "Philip Mills Arnold Papers" here.

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