178 years ago today, in 1836, Samuel Colt was granted a U.S. patent for his revolver, which he called “a new and useful Improvement in Fire-Arms,” those most brutally useful of devices. As EDN (Electrical Design News) noted last year, Colt’s design “was a more practical adaption of Elisha Collier’s earlier revolving flintlock. It included a locking pawl to keep the cylinder in line with the barrel, and a percussion cap that made ignition more reliable, faster, and safer than the previous designs.” (This is much more edifying when you learn what a pawl is: “a pivoted curved bar or lever whose free end engages with the teeth of a cogwheel or ratchet so that the wheel or ratchet can only turn or move one way.”)
If you can refrain from asking yourself what sort of man would want to invent a more efficient killing machine, Colt’s patent is worth reading, or at least skimming, for the sense it gives of technical writing in the mid-nineteenth century: it’s a strict, unvarnished account of how a thing works, surprisingly direct in its syntax, and full of great machine-age terms like pawl, arbor, shackle, ratchet, and mainspring. Today, when technical writing is a muddle of jargon and pleonasm, it’s pleasing to see how accessible this patent is—all the more so because it’s such a famous invention. Granted, this isn’t scintillating reading by any stretch of the imagination, but if you sat down with a tall urn of coffee and summoned your very best self’s powers of concentration, you could actually learn how to craft and operate a fucking gun.
Take this sentence, for example: “Fig. 9 is a spring, which holds the rod, Fig. 5, toward the hammer, that the connecting-rod may catch in a notch at the bottom of the hammer to hold it when set.” See? Lucid, if not limpid. In other places, the simple declarative sentences accrue in rapid sequence, achieving an almost poetic cadence, or at least an admirable degree of compression: Read More