Scientific Kite-Flying: an 1896 article by Cleveland Moffett

By Larry Clark | February 19, 2014

Note: I came across this article and other popular scientific writing from McClure’s Magazine while researching fiction and late 1800s popular periodicals. Moffett and his colleagues were journalists recruited by editor S.S. McClure to write accessible and fascinating articles on scientific topics of the time, making those authors some of the earliest professional science writers. I’ve collected a bunch of the articles into a book, The Edge of the Future, which you can find here. ~ Larry Clark

Scientific Kite-Flying

By Cleveland Moffett

McClure’s Magazine, March 1896



ON the long peninsula that separates New York Bay from Newark Bay, there is, among other things, a red house by an open field, in which lives the king of kite-flyers. Every one in Bayonne, the town which covers this peninsula, knows the red house by the open field; for scarcely a day passes, winter or summer, that kites are not seen sailing above this spot—sometimes a solitary “hurricane flyer,” when the wind is sweeping in strong from the ocean; sometimes a tandem string of seven or eight six-footers, each one fastened to the main line by its separate cord. And wonderful are the feats in kite-illumination accomplished by Mr. Eddy (the king aforesaid) on holiday nights, especially on the Fourth of July, when he keeps the sky ablaze with gracefully waving meteors, to the profound awe or admiration of his fellow-townsmen.

If you enter the red house and show a proper interest in the subject, Mr. Eddy will take you up to his kite-room, where sky-flyers of all sorts, sizes, and materials range the walls—from the tiniest, made of tissue paper, to nine-footers, with lath frames and oil-cloth coverings. Hanging from the ceiling is one of the queer Hargrave kites, which looks like a double box, and seems as little likely to fly as a full-legged dining-table; yet fly it will, and beautifully too, though by a principle of aëroplanes only recently understood.

Then Mr. Eddy will show you the room where, with the help of his deft-fingered wife, also a kite enthusiast, he spends many hours developing and mounting photographs taken from high altitudes, with a camera especially constructed to be swung and operated from the kite cord.

Until one talks with a man like Mr. Eddy—though, indeed, there is no one just like him—one does not realize what a large and important subject this of scientific kite-flying is. Many men of distinction have devoted years of their best energies to experiments with kites. Mr. Eddy himself is a scientist first, last, and always; for the sake of a new observation he will send up a tandem of kites when the thermometer is below zero, or stand half a night at his reeling apparatus, getting records of the thermograph.

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Spruce up your ebook: Letter spacing, aka tracking

By Larry Clark | February 14, 2014

Sometimes you just need a little space. I recently finished an ebook project in which the print version was lovingly built with very specific typography. The typefaces looked great and all was right for the reading experience. But as anyone who knows ebooks and e-readers understands, styles don’t always match up. Fortunately, one small piece made sense to add: space between letters in the chapter titles.

The chapter titles of the book (Sinful Folk, by Ned Hayes) had small-caps in a font that I embedded in the ebook. The default looked cramped on e-readers. To do it justice, I added some letter spacing.

Chapter title with no letter spacing

Chapter title with no letter spacing.

Chapter title with 0.1em letter spacing.

Chapter title with 0.1em letter spacing.

To be honest, I’m not a graphic designer or typography expert. I could manipulate the styles, but I had to learn a few things about tracking, or letter spacing, along the way.

Use letter spacing where it makes sense

Why do this? In titles and subtitles especially, the font could look wrong, either smushed together or spread too far. Generally, condensed typefaces should be set tighter, while wider fonts could use space on the left and right.

When using caps and small-caps, text often appears too tight. Smaller size type and small-caps can really benefit from extra letter space.

Lowercase letters don’t usually need letter spacing. Famous typographer Frederic Goudy gets credit for the apocryphal statement “Anyone who would letterspace lowercase would steal sheep.” While that seems a bit extreme, you might find cases where letter spacing is necessary in lowercase.

How to use letter spacing

Use 5-12% extra letter-spacing, especially at small sizes, according to Practical Typography. In print, of course, one can do some serious fine-tuning. This is not the same as “kerning,” which affects specific pairs of letters.

For ebook purposes, you have to use the CSS “letter-spacing” property. (CSS guru Chris Coyier has an explanation of letter-spacing here.)

To convert tracking values to CSS, a general rule is tracking value of 1000 is equal to 1 em. A tracking value of 100 is 0.1 em.

Use font-relative values, like “em” or “rem” to allow ereaders to adjust proportionally when readers bump up or shrink text size. Pixels are another option (usually about 3px).

“Letter-spacing” does not change the default for the font. It adds to the space. So to condense the text, use a negative value.

Generally, a 0.1 to 0.3 em letter-spacing value (or negative equivalent) will give you the desired effect.

How far is too far with letter spacing? Depends on the effect you want to achieve, but try not to spread the letters far enough apart that another letter could fit between them.

Read more at Paul Baker Typography

Building the perfect machine

By Larry Clark | March 15, 2013

The first pendulum clock, invented by Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens in 1657, and built by clockmaker Saloman Coster. Wikipedia

The first pendulum clock, invented by Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens in 1657, and built by clockmaker Saloman Coster. Wikipedia

It really isn’t possible, I suppose. I love the idea of publishing works on e-readers and having them look the same, act the same, and use the same source. But just like browser quirks…no, worse…e-readers from Kindle to iPad’s iBooks use different code and interpret even the same code differently.

I guess that’s one of the reasons I started on this quixotic attempt at building e-books that look good. I look forward to the rise of ePub 3 along with many others in this line of work. It won’t solve all the problems. It might just lead to some better standardization.

Or is that a dream, like building a perfect machine?

I look forward to the attempt. I hope this blog can help others working on e-books, and help both authors and readers understand what a task it is to make these things look good.