Silently and unconsciously, some of us still pay what is by now long undue tribute to the visionary author, “mechanician and mathematician” Byron Alden Brooks (1845-1911), often many hundreds of times a day. Ostensibly, we use his invention, the “Shift” key, on our keyboards. But with a computer keyboard, of course, the “Shift” key shifts nothing. Logically, it should be called a “Caps” key. Historically, it could have been called the “Vibrate”, “Slide”, “Move”, “Push” or “Draw” key, none of which would be any more relevant to computer use than “Shift”. Vibrate, slide, move, push and draw were the words Brooks himself used to describe the typewriter carriage movement in his invention, when he applied for a patent for it on December 30, 1875. He didn’t mention “Shift” once. And although Henry Harper Benedict also favoured “Slide”, it was Remington, not Brooks, which decided “Shift” was more appropriate. If Remington had elected to apply the eccentric Lucien Stephen Crandall’s prior invention to its typewriter, the “Shift” key might have become the “Oscillate” or “Swing” key. Happily, however, Benedict and his Remington employers recognised that Brooks had the far more practical idea, and so today we’re stuck with “Shift”.
With the IBM Selectric, the carriage doesn’t shift, but the golfball single type element on the head-and-rocker carrier does, smartly pivoting on its whiffletree mechanism, 180 degrees from right to left to change case. The advent of computer typesetting technology eliminated even that much movement, and the word “Shift” became totally obsolete. Ironically, Brooks himself foresaw electronic communications - along with electric cars, solar power and colour photography. These were things he described in his 1893 utopian novel Earth Revisited, a work verging on science fiction in which the protagonist, Herbert Atheron, dies and wakes up as Harold Amesbury in 1992. New York City has become cleaner, healthier Columbia and war is a thing of the past. He may have been well off the mark on that point, but the inventive, far-seeing Brooks can still be recalled today in other ways, including politics. And the early ructions at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland last week was one of those.
Brooks gave Atheron/Amesbury his fictional names after an opportunist young broker called Walter Butler Atterbury (1854-1953), who like the Earth Revisited hero enjoyed life into the second half of the 20th Century. Atterbury coming out against Seth Low for the borough’s nomination in the summer of 1897 split the GOP in two in Brooklyn, incurring Brooks’ considerable wrath. Brooks labelled him a “fool”. Atterbury came to represent, in Brooks’ eyes, a figure of mistrust and poor judgement. A portent, perhaps, for another divisive Republican Party nominee, 120 years down the track.
Brooks, like the inventor of the typewriter itself, Christopher Latham Sholes, was an unwavering Republican, although Sholes was the beneficiary of political patronage known as the "spoils system", an issue which divided the Republican Party throughout the 1880s. For his part, Brooks was a GOP powerbroker in Brooklyn, seemingly in no need of party patronage. Yet he would have qualified as a “Stalwart”, one of those opposed to the "Half-Breeds" (that is, half-Republicans), the faction of moderates led by Maine senator James Gillespie Blaine (1830-1893) which backed civil service reform and a merit system. At the 1880 Republican National Convention, Ulysses S. Grant (1822-85) was pitted against Blaine for the party nomination. Grant's campaign was led by Stalwart leader Roscoe Conkling (1829-88) of New York, who attempted to impose a unit-rule by which a state's votes would be grouped together for only one candidate. But some Stalwarts went against him, by supporting Blaine, and the Half-Breeds united to defeat the unit-rule and chose James Abram Garfield (1831-1881) as a compromise candidate. Garfield won the nomination and went on to win the presidential election. Garfield was assassinated by Stalwart Charles Julius Guiteau (1841-1882) and the new Stalwart president, Chester Alan Arthur (1829-1886), surprised his own faction by promoting civil service reform and issuing government jobs based on a merit system. In 1883 the Half-Breeds put through Congress the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, which ended the spoils system.
Opposing any return to this system, in November 1897, Brooks stood accused of being a latter-day, reform-minded Mugwump, a cry back to those Republican activists, such as Seth Low (1850-1916), who had bolted from the GOP by supporting Democratic candidate Stephen Grover Cleveland (1837-1908) in the presidential election of 1884. The Mugwumps switched parties in protesting the financial corruption associated with Republican candidate Blaine. In a close election, the Mugwumps supposedly made the difference in New York State and swung the vote to Cleveland. (The word, from the Algonquian [Natick] mugquomp, meaning "important person, kingpin", implied Mugwamps were sanctimonious and holier-than-thou in holding themselves aloof from party politics.) After Cleveland’s election, the word Mugwump survived for more than a decade, as an epithet for a party bolter in American politics.
In a letter to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on November 8, 1897, an anonymous critic responded to Brooks’ letter of November 6, headed “Some Things That Politicians Should Have Remembered”, by labelling Brooks a “striking illustration of that species of Mugwamphile” in exhibiting an “insuffarable conceitedness” of “knowing it all”.
The debate concerned the election for the first mayor of the expanded City of Greater New York (incorporating the five boroughs of New York [Manhattan], Kings [Brooklyn], Queens, Richmond [Staten Island] and the Bronx), and involved Low and Benjamin Franklin Tracy (1830-1915).
Tracy was the official Republican candidate, but finished third on 101,863 votes, a long way behind Democrat Robert Anderson Van Wyck (1849-1914), 233,997 votes, and Low, who represented a fusion of the “goo-goo” (good government) party, the Citizens' Union, and the GOP, on 151,540 votes. Brooks believed the Democrats had “voted blindly” against good judgement and their own best interests. But he was most distraught by the way the Republican vote had been split, with the GOP insisting on party loyalty support for Tracy (who Brooks called “The Old Man of the Sea”) instead of throwing its full weight behind Low, a decision he put down to the “stupidity and treachery of the so-called leaders” of the GOP. Had Low been elected, Brooks argued, the result would have preserved the “organization intact for the future”. However, the Republican leaders, he claimed, had vilified Low and caused greater division and dissension within the party. Brooks asked whether GOP leaders Thomas Collier Platt (1833-1910), Lemuel Ely Quigg (1863-1919) and Timothy Lester Woodruff (1858-1913) were “fools or knaves”. As for Walter Butler Atterbury, whose opposition to Low in Brooklyn was the wedge which split the Republicans in two, Brooks was in no doubt - he was a fool. And George Washington Brush (1842-1927) basically a traitor.
There was also no doubt in Brooks’ mind that even as a compromise candidate, Low represented the expanded City of Greater New York’s best chance of a return to the “Golden Age” of good, clean government against the influence of Tammany Hall. The Citizens Union had been founded on just such concerns, stemming from the growing clout of the Democratic Party’s corrupt political machine under Hugh McLaughlin (1827-1904). Low had already served as mayor of Brooklyn from 1881-1884 and was president of Columbia University from 1890-1900. However, his Mugwump support of Cleveland in 1884 furthered the rift with fellow Republicans and Democrat Daniel Darling Whitney (1819-1914) succeeded Low as Brooklyn Mayor that year, taking the borough back to Democratic machine politics for another seven years. Low finally succeeded in the City of Greater New York mayoral election in 1901, again on a fusion ticket and with the support of Mark Twain.
Nonetheless, this episode in Brooks’ active political life had been marked by disappointment and frustration with the GOP’s leadership. Division among the Republicans? It could surely never have happened in Brooks’ brave new world, as envisaged in Earth Revisited. Could it?