On September 9, 1932, The London Times printed an article following up on a “correspondence in The Times proposing that British railway stations might, like those in Japan, provide facilities for messages from one person to another to be displayed.” An electrical engineer had written to the paper, agreeing, and noted a device that he had heard of; an “automatic machine…to be installed at stations and other suitable sites, and on the insertion of two pennies facilities were given for writing a message that remained in view for two hours after writing.”
The notificator consists of a six to seven foot tall, shallow case with a glass face wide enough to display three approximately three by five inch wide columns that extend from the mid section of the machine to the top. Fixed to that mid section is a protruding “small desk or shelf…a glass window in the desk and a roll of paper or thin cardboard beneath.” For two pennies, “the window can be slid aside and a message written, which will then be turned onward, the window be closed ready for the next user. Each time a fresh message is written the shutting of the window will move a ratchet—the only mechanism embodied in the invention—and so place the column of messages one space higher” (Times 09/32). An attendant or owner of the device would only need to replace the roll of paper when needed. The height of the screen allowed a message to ostensibly remain for two hours, but the ratcheting mechanism means that this figure would be affected by how steadily the device was in use. Usage in many sites could relate to a variety of factors such as weather and time of day; a malfunctioning or rarely used notificator would presumably retain the same messages and display them as a constant.
August 1935 issue of Modern Mechanix & Inventions Magazine: "To aid persons who wish to make or cancel appointments or inform friends of the whereabouts, a robot messenger carrier has been introduced in London, England. Known as the "notificator," the new machine is installed in streets, stores, railroad stations or other public places where individuals may leave messages for friends... The machine is similar in appearance to a candy-vending device."
As indicated above, an apparently functioning Japanese train station system of publicly posting personal communications inspired The London Times to call for the institution of a similar system, resulting in their reporting on this device.
The notificator was provisionally patented in June of 1932 by Govan Gee of Winchmore Hill, London, England. Govan Gee also holds U. S. patents for an “apparatus for delivering change” filed in 1934 and a “means for extinguishing cigarettes, matches, and the like” filed 1938.
Without the examination of any actual notificator scrolls, it is not possible to speak conclusively on the machine's tensions in practice or the messages' literal content. Did the length of the page or the posture inducing structure of the machine generate certain handwriting tics or abbreviations? Did the machine buck certain graffiti laws? A notificator's optimum placement has been described as high traffic public places; the posting of potentially immoral or politically subversive messages may have upset members of certain classes. How personal could the notes be, if they never have private existence? Were codes ever employed? Cancellation or site change of meetings is mentioned as a potential use; did the notificator serve as a mechanized collection of excuses? What was done with the scrolls or cards after use has special implications in the possibility of answering some of these questions.
The notificator seems to embody a kind of self consciousness for an author and reader found in similar communications with a public/private tension, such as postcards, certain internet communications (the U.S. government currently treats all email like a postcard), or collections of letters as an biographical document. The New York poet Frank O’Hara writes in his 1959 manifesto for “Personism” that while composing a poem for a companion “I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem…It puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person,” although the poem is actually published and distributed as such. Conversational tones and characters referenced on a first name basis are frequent components of O'Hara's poems; as an outsider begins to make sense of the people and places in the texts, they may feel a growing sense of inclusion and empathy with the text. For the notificator, this may have affected communal relations positively or negatively.
Hero (or Heron), a C1 greek mathematician, describes and depicts "a coin-operated device to be used for vending sacrificial water in Eygptian temples" in his Pneumatika, though none may have been produced (Segrave 3). Vending machines were introduced in the United States as early as 1880 and became a popular means of providing comestibles or services automatically in the mid-1920s stocked with groceries, candy, coffee, and most popularly, cigarettes. Kerry Segrave indicates that from 1929 through the 1931, industries and the media believed strongly in an automated future; that "robots could sell just about everything" (21).
The notificator does not appear to have been used in the United States.
It is unclear if a link exists between Govan Gee's notificator and a company called Notificator Development Limited, but a connection may help explain the device's seeming lack of popularity or use by introducing possible legal woes. Court case listings by The London Times document multiple occurrences of Aircraft Patents Ltd. v. Notificator Development Ltd. from late October through December of 1937. On December 21, a Mr. Justice Simonds orders “in the usual form…for the compulsory winding-up of Notificator Development Ltd.” If a company undergoes compulsory winding up, courts have appointed a liquidator to properly deal with all debts and affairs before the company ceases to exist.
Although scrolls have long been a method of presenting documents, the ratcheting mechanism breaks the typically smooth roll into discrete units with a set exchange value of two pennies and a limited time in which it can be in use. The vertical movement of the screen and the short nature of the communications obviously seem to be related to current internet message boards, which many online bloggers have also picked up on. Contemporary airports may have constantly updating digital boards where individuals can post certain information to help their companions find them at their gates in the often massive complexes. Graffiti continues to serve public/private communication purposes on a local level as well.
The Modern Mechanix blog posts digitalized finds from back issues of Modern Mechanix and Inventions Magazine; on April 30, 2006, the notificator article appeared online. Postings on two separate message boards discussing the notificator article from the Modern Mechanix blog (http://blog.modernmechanix.com/), while being anecdotal sources, make interesting contributions which may eventually provide further information on this concept.
"Sarah Lipman," posting on the blog Pasta&Vinegar in June 2007, suggests that these types of communication methods were in heavy use among European and Jewish survivors of World War II: "I’ve seen it mentioned in many (10+ books) where when Jewish survivors tried to track down any remaining friends, relatives or neighbors, they would go to their old town or to a Displaced Persons’ Center, where names would be written up on notes all over the walls. They’d add their name, some identifying information, and contact information, and then read every single note trying to find names they recognized. They would also return frequently to check new "listings" (http://liftlab.com/think/nova/2007/06/25/twitter-like-device-from-1930/ [date]6/27/2007). These message centers also appeared in the period of confusion immediately following the 2001 tragedy in New York City and have been used by nomadic or homeless communities. The public nature of these notices has the potential to activate oral communications among a dispersed community, increasing the chance that a posting would reach an individual member.
Self described "Tube bore and lover of London's history," "Simon Greenwood's" post at the MobHappy blog (http://mobhappy.com/blog1/2007/07/05/localised-personalised-notes/), July 2007; "Not to say that this doesn't exist but...I have genuinely never heard of this, and it looks like the sort of thing that the Museum of London or the London Transport Museum would have in its stores. My guess is that there might have been one set up as a demo somewhere, perhaps in the West End, but that it wasn’t adopted by the Underground, the railways or whoever wanted to put street furniture out in London." Although the notificator does not seem to have been in wide use, the outdoor setting of the first image of this page, if it is not staged, implies at least some use at a public site.
The dispersal of the notificator image and description from the Modern Mechanix blog to other web sites and message boards put bloggers in a position to be some of the first to draw connections between this device and some of its modern counterparts such as online community message boards and blogs or new technologies that allow one's mobile device to leave or find digital public notes in physical places.
- Segrave, Kerry. “Vending Machines: An American Social History.” McFarland & Co, 2002.
- "Law Notices." The London TImes. Oct. 29, Nov. 3, Nov. 29, Dec. 20, 1937.
- "Mr. Justice Simonds." The London Times. Dec. 21, 1937.
- "Robot Messenger Displays Person-to-Person Notes In Public" Modern Mechanix & Inventions Magazine. Aug, 1935.
- "Under The Clock: Machine To Show Messages In Public Places." The London Times. Sept. 9, 1932.