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The Secret Sign Language of 1970’s Sawmill Workers were expressed through Gestures?

About three-quarters of their language overlapped with those of the British Columbia and the American Sign Language.

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A sawmill in the interior of Australia, circa 1900. Image source: Wikipedia
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  • The history of sign languages inside American mills dates back to centuries
  • The language was also used to exchange bulks of technical information and instructions
  • The automation in industries drastically reduced the usage of sign languages among workers

“You crazy old farmer!”
“Full of crap”
It’ll be easy for anyone to guess that the above words must be that of a conversation between two high school hipster kids. However, pondering over the usage of ‘farmer’ would surprise many of us like it surprised the researchers Martin Meissner and Stuart Philpott when they visited sawmills in British Columbia in the 1970s.

Another fact of surprise is that the above words were not spoken by the mouth, but expressed through gestures and sign languages. As unbelievable as it might seem, the workers inside sawmill factories communicated with each other through signs and symbols as late as the 1970s. They were so well versed in the system that one could even tell when a foreman was “f**king around over there.” Not only this, the language was also used to exchange bulks of technical information and instructions on how to cut wood, and so on.

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Linguists and researchers Meissner and Philpott studied a particular factory where they found about 157 signs ranging from communication of their trade work to passing crude comments or teasing colleagues. “Ingenuity and elegance” of the hand signs struck both the researchers who were equally fascinated by the owner’s oblivion of the entire language system.

The history of sign languages inside American mills dates back to centuries. In the present day scenario, people often develop “alternate sign languages” to communicate what words cannot. In religious places, especially monasteries were talking is disliked between sermons, monks use sign language to pass important messages. In textile, steel or engine industries where noise predominates the surrounding, workers have always found ways of communicating through gestures or signs.

A lumber Industry. Image source: Wikipedia
A lumber Industry. Image source: Wikipedia

It was Popular Mechanics in 1955 to cover industrial symbolic languages with a record depletion in the practice. It was only in the 1970s with the findings of Meissner and Philpott that a particular factory was found to be practising the same. Mainly standard numerical systems were jotted down in a technical notebook, as the researchers noted in their study, “in the view of the management, that was about all there was to the language.”

Through the system, quitting time, lunch time, bets placed on games, or cigarette breaks could be communicated. The workers also talked about cars, wives, colleagues or joke about things going on without the knowledge of their bosses.

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“Big shot there,” as a worker pointed to the boss was interestingly noted during the study. Later, it was discovered that the boss was sitting with three women, one of who had a great figure, said the worker. The worker “then drew a rectangle with his index finger and pointed to the head sawyer’s operating cubicle, wanting to liken the woman he described to the calendar nude behind the sawyer,” the researchers wrote. “She’s my girlfriend,” he told the others.

Tapping the wrist was a gesture to ask the time, clutching the bicep to indicate “weak” or “week”, up-and-down movement suggested a woman’s breast, recorded the researchers.
The technical signs were generally learnt by workers within six months but to learn more linguistic terms for everyday conversations, was more the kind of thing among older workers. It was popular among men who were open to everyone knowing what they shared with their friends.

Machines replaced workers. Early 20th-century sawmill, maintained at Jerome, Arizona. Image source: Wikipedia
Machines replaced workers. Early 20th-century sawmill, maintained at Jerome, Arizona. Image source: Wikipedia

About three-quarters of their language overlapped with those of the British Columbia and the American Sign Language. Another linguist, Robert Johnson met a retired sawmill worker at Oregon a few years after Meissner and Philpott published their research. “When it comes to feelings, you have real problems…You can say you’re angry…But other feelings are so subtle and complex….”, says the wife of the retired worker who had gone deaf and used to communicate with his family through the sign language. The family had signs for mirror, shave, quiet, fish, church, etc. In case of difficulty in expressing emotions, his wife asked him to simply write down what he wanted to say.

During their study, Meissner and Philpott had observed that automation in industries drastically reduced the usage of sign languages among workers. Despite the practice of using sign languages in less noisy industries like those in radio stations, the system is rare to be found today.

-by Maariyah, an intern at NewsGram. Twitter: @MaariyahSid

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All You Need to Know About Jagadish Chandra Bose

Polymath, physicist, biologist, biophysicist, botanist, archaeologist and one of the most early writers of science fiction- yes, this is one man

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Bose is considered the father of Bengali science fiction. Wikimedia commons
Bose is considered the father of Bengali science fiction. Wikimedia Commons
  • Jagadish Chandra Bose developed instruments like Coherer and Crescograph.
  • He is the father of Bengali Science Fiction.
  • A crater on the moon has been named in his honour.

Polymath, physicist, biologist, biophysicist, botanist, archaeologist and one of the earliest writers of science fiction- yes, this is one man. A man, who, according to Sir Nevill Mott, was 60 years ahead of his time. He did not believe in commercializing his work, he used to make it public. When he could have earned lifetimes for his generations, Jagadish Chandra Bose chose a way which led to further research.

He is the man who pioneered radio research and also, made some of the most significant contributions to the field of plant science. Bose is credited for laying down the foundation of experimental science in India.

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Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose lived in British India’s Bengal Presidency. His father was Deputy Magistrate in Faridpur. Even though from a rich family, he attended vernacular schooling because his father believed that children should know their mother-tongue before any other language.

The father of Bengali science fiction. Wikimedia commons
The father of Bengali science fiction. Wikimedia Commons

Background

It was a time when sending children to English schools was an aristocratic status symbol, that Bose studied in a vernacular school. He used to sit with the Muslim son of his father’s attendant and the son of a fisherman. Even though his mother was an orthodox lady, she never practised discrimination. Bose never knew there existed a ‘problem’ (at that time) between Hindu and Muslim communities.

While speaking at the Bikrampur Conference in 1915, Bose said:

“They were my playmates. I listened spellbound to their stories of birds, animals and aquatic creatures. Perhaps these stories created in my mind a keen interest in investigating the workings of Nature.” 

He wanted to compete for the Indian Civil Services but his father told him “My son would rule nobody but himself.” Bose also attended the University of London where he studied medicine, though he had to come back due to illness.

Later, he graduated with a BA from Kolkata University. While he taught physics at Presidency College, he was simultaneously pursuing his own research in electricity and electromagnetic waves.

Work and research

Bose gave a demonstration of microwaves at Kolkata Town Hall, for the first time, in November 1984. He ignited gunpowder and rang a bell at a distance using microwaves.

Also read: How wheat production could increase three-fold

His instruments are still on display. Wikimedia commons
His instruments are still on display. Wikimedia Commons

‘Coherer’

He developed a device which could detect radio waves, it was called a ‘coherer’. The Englishman (18 January 1896) quoted from the Electrician and commented as follows:

“Should Professor Bose succeed in perfecting and patenting his ‘Coherer’, we may in time see the whole system of coast lighting throughout the navigable world revolutionised by a Bengali scientist working single handed in our Presidency College Laboratory.”

Bose was unwilling to patent the device as he believed that science should be for the benefits of all, and should not be used for money-making. Later he did submit a patent application, under pressure from his friends, to the US patent office. He became the first Indian to get a patent.

Radio waves made him believe that physics is far beyond what the naked eye can see. Bose was curious about the world of plants. Hence, he switched to investigating how plants respond to stimuli.

Crescograph

A crescograph is an oscillating recorder using clockwork gears and a smoked glass plate to measure the growth and movements of plants in increments as small as 1/100,000 of an inch. The plate caught the reflection of the plant and it was marked according to the movement of the plant. 

An image of a crescograph. Wikimedia commons
An image of a crescograph. Wikimedia Commons

Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose had a strong belief that plants have a sensitive nervous system. This belief was strengthened by his experiments. He was also astounded when he discovered that an electric death spasm occurs in plants when they die, this could be resourceful in accurately calculating the time the time of their death.

He revealed the wonders of the world of plants when he described his experiments and their results in his paper “Responses in Living and Non-Living”.

The paper revealed that plants could feel pleasure and even pain.

Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose’s place in history is prominent as ever. His work on microwaves has a major contribution to the development of radio communication. Instruments developed by him are on display and still can be used, after a century. A crater on the moon has been named after him.