Quite some time ago I began looking into the life of W. R. Douglas Shaw (1896‒1960), a British aviator and aeronautics engineer, who in 1927 became the driving force behind the Institute of Indexing, a professional body seeking to “promote and extend public interest in efficiently indexed books, periodicals, and other literary works and papers”. Shaw was himself a part-time indexer: he compiled the index to the four-volume Transactions of the First World Power Conference in London in 1924.
He was also involved in what appears to have been a rather bizarre hush-hush military project to develop a new kind of helicopter. In the 1920s he invented a gadget based on the splayed feathers seen projecting from the wings of a crow in flight that could be attached to any aeroplane wing to improve its lifting power.
Around this time he wrote a very prophetic and far-seeing article (almost a piece of SF journalism) called ‘Air Wars of the Future’. It’s full of fleets of gigantic armed helicopters, artificial poison gas clouds, and remote-controlled drones patrolling the blues skies above Essex… Like his helicopters, though, the Institute of Indexing never seems to have gotten off the ground. Fascinating fellow: I’m going to look into him a bit further.
This weekend I finally got round to reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, one of his early novels dating from 1963. I suppose Vonnegut is best known for his satirical, semi-autobiographical work Slaughterhouse-Five, but Cat’s Cradle is generally regarded as his finest and probably most influential book. During the cold war it gained a sort of cult popularity on American college campuses.
For indexers it has curiosity value on account of its thumbnail sketch of a professional indexer, Claire Minton, who offers the advice “Never index your own book”, and who claims that an index reveals details about the compiler’s character and sexual tastes. It’s a cynical story about science, religion and the end of the world, and it made me want to read more of Vonnegut’s fiction.
David A. Green is a freelance indexer living in Petersfield, Hampshire.
The Indexed Word
Random thoughts about books, indexes, and book indexing.