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The Apple iPhone of 1639

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Molly McCarthy, a scholar completing a book-length study of almanacs and their successors, has an interesting take on the almanac-as-iPhone.

She points out that it was a calendar, a collection of essays, a rudimentary calculator, a political commentator, a timepiece, a local directory, a diary, and more.

"A friend recently hit on a much more appropriate analogy when he likened the almanac to an iPhone," McCarthy writes. "I know, it sounds ludicrous and seriously farfetched. But give me a chance to prove just how apt a comparison it is."

Here are McCarthy's most salient points in a nutshell:

* Like an iPhone, the almanac was portable. The size of a long billfold at about 4-by-7 inches and typically containing 24 to 36 pages, it was slim enough to slip into a pocket or lady's reticule. Although some almanacs held an honored position hanging by the hearth to allow every family member easy access to it, publishers intended the almanac to be carried along as a customer went about his or her day. Avid users pulled them out again and again, accidentally tearing pages or wearing down the ink, all the while praying that the almanac would last until the next year's edition.

* Although it could hardly match the number of offerings in an iPhone app store, The Universal Calendar and North American Almanac was pretty versatile. It helped calculate interest on an outstanding loan. It predicted the weather and, by extension, told farmers the best time to plant their crops. It told users when, and in the case of the Quakers where, to go to church. A virtual map, it directed travelers to and from Boston via the best roads and taverns. It performed a civic duty, for defendants and spectators alike, by publishing the days county courts met in all of New England. It indicated the best time for captains to set sail from the port of Boston. It even cured toe cramps. And, last but not least, it told the time.

* With so many uses, the almanac, like an iPhone, was truly interactive. The proof is in the margins where owners left crosses and dashes alongside the calendar to signal important dates or scribbled notes about matters both trivial and momentous. In 1764, William Stickney penned a note in the margin of his calendar marking the day "Elizabeth and Abigail went to Scool [sic] town Hall." Country doctor Aaron Wight drew a tiny coffin beside December 12 in the calendar of his 1770 almanac and wrote "Uncle John Wight Died."

* Just as its calendar encouraged users to convert the almanac into a personal timepiece, its financial features prompted them to think of it as an ad hoc account book. In addition to interest tables, almanacs served up tables and charts to assist customers in knowing how much money they had in their pockets. That could be an especially complicated proposition in the decades following the American Revolution when paper money, both as U.S. dollars and English pounds, mixed with gold and silver coins as legal tender.

McCarthy asks to "forgive the ahistorical slip that led me to enlist the iPhone as a way of imagining just how resourceful an early almanac could be," before concluding:

"It was so much more than a book. Comparing it to the iPhone helps expand our vision about how an almanac worked and what it could do for its buyers. It wasn't simply a compendium of reading material. Just as an iPhone connects users to an outside world and provides a feast of tools designed to make our lives easier, the almanac held the same promise. More than that, it was central to early American life and culture because it had so little competition. There was nothing at the local book shop that could do all the things the almanac did."

Of course there will inevitably be people who write off the iPhone/Almanac comparison as nonsense.

"What about instant messaging? What about Skype? What about email? What about GPS? What about phone calls?"

What about them? McCarthy isn't arguing that almanacs were iPhones. And no one would say a horse-and-buggy is an automobile. But the horse-and-buggy performed the same essential operations of a car, before people knew there would ever be something with a steering wheel and a motor called a car.

The full piece is quite enjoyable and insightful. It deserves a full read--you can find it here.

Perhaps, just for the hell of it, you might decide to view it on your Droid.
POSITION:  No positions in stocks mentioned.