Sunday, June 5, 2016

Teaching America How to Letter: Ross George, William Gordon and the Story of the Speedball Textbook - An upcoming book by Randall M. Hasson

Ross F. George's monogram "Bug" - screened onto his steamer trunk, now in Sue George Yourkowski's home
I am extremely excited to formally announce that I am nearing the production phase of a new book about William H. Gordon and Ross F. George, inventors of the Speedball line of lettering pens. Publishing agreements have been worked out, the contracts have been signed, and the bulk of the research and writing have been done. Over the coming months I will be privileged to work with a top designer, editor and publisher on the updating, revision, editing and design of a book that promises to be one of the most important projects of my days on this earth.

The reasons why things happen have always fascinated me. Ross F. George was a lettering artist born into a particular type of world in a particular age that affected his attitudes, goals, desires and means. Putting his history into a context that explains what was happening around him both locally and from a global perspective seems vital to understanding not only how, but why the Speedball history came to be.

A patent filed in 1922 improving on
the original 1914 Speedball Design
In the early 1900’s, Ross F. George and William Hugh Gordon invented the Speedball Pen, a tool that played a revolutionary part in commercial lettering in the 20th century. Both Gordon and George, to date, have been enigmatic in history. While both have written books, little has been written or really is known today about their lives. For Ross George, even the best histories that have been written, such as those by nationally recognized sign-man and designer Mark Oatis[i] and more recently by Seattle historian Peter Blecha[ii], are extremely enlightening but are also only able to provide an incomplete outline of his life and work.  Seattle native and renowned graphic designer Art Chantry complains that there is frustratingly incomplete information about George’s life and his role in the lettering culture which led to the invention of the Speedball pen[iii]. Up until now, the information simply wasn’t there to be found.

When I was asked to be the editor of the Centennial Edition of The Speedball Textbook, I was extremely interested in finding out more about this history. Through friend and lettering colleague Carl Rohrs, I was able to contact sign-man Lee Littlewood in Portland OR, who had recently purchased an original artifact of a Ross George show card display.  Through Lee in turn, I was able to contact his antique dealer who kindly passed my information on to Ross George’s granddaughter.
Sue George Yourkowski, was the family member responsible for clearing the estate of her aunt Frances George, Ross’ daughter, in 2011. During Frances Georges’ lifetime, when Sue would visit she would ask: “Aunt Frances, can I see some of grandfather’s stuff? Just his pens or something? Each time she received a reply to the effect of “no dear, they’re really not easy to get to”.

In the basement of the Seattle home, Sue Yourkowski spent 6 weeks going through material and deciding what to dispose of and what to keep. Frances George was an accomplished musical vocalist, and the basement was piled high with sheet music, newspaper clippings and memorabilia. Stacks of it. Piled high. Covering tables and shelves, spilling over onto the floor and kept in file boxes. So much so that it was virtually impossible to walk from the entrance to the basement to the other side. While one might hesitate to use the word hoarder, it would be safe to say that Frances was loathe to throw anything out.

In a scene that could have come right out of a movie, Sue woke up one morning with a presentiment and visualization of exactly where her grandfather’s box of pens lie in the basement. The next day she went to the house, spent almost half a day clearing  a path, and reached the corner that she had seen in her dream. There she found the pens. There was his apron, paint smeared and untouched just as he had left it the last time he used it. And, as she continued to clear the stacks of papers, Mrs. Yourkowski found the archives of Ross George’s work.  Inside his drawing table and stacked on it’s surface. Original lettering. Show cards and shop samples, alphabet exemplars, prototypes of copybooks, and samples of early Speedball Textbooks. There were 14 X 18” cards and 2 albums full of beautiful Art Nouveau patterns and designs executed in pen and ink and watercolors. She found dozens of cards with original lettering, alphabets touched up for reproduction or pasted up in layout form with notes and page numbers – the original work that appeared in the textbooks themselves from as early as 1918. All of it kept in pristine condition because of all the music sheets and paper stacked on top of it. God bless Frances George.

Perhaps even more important were the personal archives. Birth certificates, marriage certificates, newspaper clippings and copies of articles written about Ross George. There were family photo albums complete with grandparents, parents, siblings and other family members dating back to the late 1800’s, photo albums of Ross’s time with The Mountaineers in Seattle, and photo albums that contained pictures of the early sign shops complete with partners and colleagues from the show card era of the early 1900’s. Notes written on the pages next to these photos identified such people, places and events as “first ever show card done with a Speedball Pen” or “Shop 2, 1914”. Ross’ wife Eva had kept a personal account book of all his inventions and patents, with business and family expenses and income; that book was there. And most importantly, there were personal typed documents and specific articles telling the story of the Speedball pen and how it was invented.

Mrs Yourkowski was kind enough to allow me to come and spend time at her home, interviewing her and creating a digital archive of the work that spawned a textbook that became a part of the fabric of American lettering in the 20th century.  From this base I have been able to find and follow the ensuing rabbit trails that have led to over 50 articles written by William Hugh Gordon and later Ross F. George. This material has provided clarification and confirmation in the case of Ross George, and vial clues that have led to a path to research into the life of William Gordon.

Perhaps at last we can get a little glimpse into the life of William Gordon and Ross George, men from an era when American invention and innovation was prevalent. They created a pen that solved a problem that created a following that has lasted a century, continuing into the 21st century with the updated 24th “Centennial” edition of his Speedball Textbook.

Over the coming months I will be privileged to work with Designer, art director and editor Norman Hathaway and publisher Rob Saunders of the Letterform Archive to bring the story of Gordon and George and the invention of the Speedball pen into book form. The first ten chapters have been already written and there are a few more to go, but we are well on our way to a deadline of December 2016 with publication expected in 2018. Please stay tuned for more details as the process continues!

[i] Oatis, M. (n.d.). Ross F. George (C. Rohrs, Ed.). Alphabet: The Journal of the Friends of Calligraphy, 17(2), 2-13.
[ii] Blecha, P. (2014, November 20). Ross F. George and William Hugh Gordon submit a patent application for their new ink "Lettering Pen" on October 22, 1914. Retrieved June 2, 2015, from
[iii] Chantry, A., & Rochester, M. (2015). Ross F. George: Typographic Man of Mystery. In Art Chantry speaks: A heretic's history of 20th century graphic design. Port Townsend, WA: Feral House. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

The ADLaM Story – How Alphabet Changes Culture - Part Three

The final installment of ADLaM's three part series. To read the series in order, click here for part one.

In part two, we told the story of how Ibrahim and Abdoulay Barry developed an alphabet for their people, the Fulani. Here is the conclusion of that story:

Opposition to ADLaM

As the movement continued, the government began to take notice. Guinean officials couldn't read what was being distributed, so these books and newspapers become an issue of contention. Ibrahim was arrested and spent 3 months in jail for publishing literature in the Pular language with the ADLaM script. Upon his release he traveled to Senegal to visit other exiled friends and made the decision to come to the U.S. to further his education and continue to develop strategies for ADLaM.

Acceptance among some in the Guinean communities was slow or plainly oppositional.

“When I lived in Guinea, there was an antagonistic group, very much against this. They sent people to my house who told me, ‘Stop this or we’ll do something bad to you.’These were Fulani people, too, so I didn't understand. But I was nice to them, talked with them, and was polite. Finally, one of them indicated via email he wanted to talk with me alone. And when we met, he said, ‘I've realized what you are doing here is good, so I encourage you and am sorry for what I told you before.’

“There are some community leaders, though (New York City comes to mind), who don’t like it. And it’s a big problem. I went to see them, to show them progress we were making, and to convince them to help people back home to learn to read and write. And there was a guy, a fellow with a PhD in religion from Saudi Arabia, who, after I’d made some connections with the community there, stood and supported me when we were all together, but later privately went around to individual leaders in the group, and condemned my ideas, saying it would cause our religion to die.

“The problem, I learned, is that the Koran is supposed to be taught in Arabic, and for it to be learned any other way is regarded as erosion of the purity of the religion. Well, in West Africa, we've tried to learn Arabic for several hundred years, with indifferent results. It would be much easier, it seems to me, to teach and learn about the religion if we used our own language. My brother translated some passages into Fulani, and it helped a lot. But the religious leaders, the few who know the texts, want to be the interpreters, the shepherds, have the power. They don’t want us to read for ourselves and form our own opinions”(23).

Coming to America

In 2007, with a destination of Portland to be with his brother, Ibrahim left his home in West Africa to come to the United States.  On his way, he stopped to visit the Fulani community in New York. 

“I joined my brother in Portland after spending three weeks in there, and in Portland I first learned English language and worked for a high tech company. While working I was continuing to develop the ADLaM script. From this job, I saved most of my paychecks in order to pay for the first ADLaM software. After ten months of working and saving, I was able to pay for the first ADLaM keyboard software. A year later, I went back to New York after we had the first software developed in order to show it to the community. I also went back again during the summer of 2009 for three months to teach the Fulani language and the ADLaM alphabet”. New York has become a learning center and the headquarters of the organization “Winden Jangen”(24)  which is a non-profit group promoting the further support and dissemination of literacy through ADLaM.

The software that Ibrahim developed enabled him to write more books in ADLaM for the Pular language. At this time, about 2008, Ibrahim decided to enroll as a student in Civil Engineering at Portland Community College. “Being an engineer is an old dream which I had since my childhood. When I was a kid whenever we traveled from my hometown of N’Zerekore to my parent’s native region, it would take as many as 3 weeks and sometimes more than a month to travel on just over 700 km because of the state of the road. During those trips, I use to think of how one day I will study about fixing those roads”(25)

Encountering Calligraphy 

Portland Oregon is home to Reed College. Steve Jobs spoke of taking classes in Calligraphy there in his now famous address to the Stanford University graduating class of 2005. Jobs related how these classes had a profound effect on the development of fonts in the burgeoning Apple Computer interface(26).  As Ibrahim continued his studies in Engineering, he continued to have a desire to refine the forms of ADLaM. He had a similar experience in noticing Calligraphy as Jobs did all those years ago: “One day I saw posters made by calligraphy students and the letters were so beautifully crafted. I was very impressed by what I saw and I thought that having the skills that these students have could be very helpful in re-designing and improving ADLaM”.  

Rebecca Wild was the teacher of that calligraphy class and recalls meeting Ibrahim for the first time: “The first day of each term I ask my students, ‘what brings you to a calligraphy class’?  The responses range from, ‘I want to improve my handwriting,’ ‘I want to be able to decorate cakes with text,’ ‘I want to use it as a tattoo artist,’ ‘I need an art elective.’ Never has a reply impressed me like the one that the quiet man with the French accent gave… He had used his limited funds to have a font designed using his alphabet.  But the results disappointed him.  The forms were crude and lacked beauty.  It was the font technician that suggested he take a calligraphy class to learn about subtle nuance and detail”.

This class allowed Ibrahim to learn different aspects of the calligraphic form and apply it to ADLaM. He began, as did the scribes throughout history, to make adjustments in his script to create uniformity, rhythm and as a result the forms have greater flow in readability and in the writing of the text. The alphabet continues to evolve as it is developed for new applications.

Rebecca proved to be a nexus in some of the next steps in the ADLaM journey. She related Ibrahim’s story to the Portland Calligraphy Society, who happened to be hosting the International Lettering Arts conference that year, which is where our story began. As a result of that meeting, Ibrahim and I were invited to make a presentation for the next conference “The Summit” held in Colorado Springs in 2013; this article is derived from that lecture. 

Modernizing text for today’s use

One of the goals that Ibrahim has for ADLaM includes digitization for a presence on the internet. This has to be accomplished through a conversion of the script to Unicode. In addition, mobile apps will be
important for future communication in today’s ever changing technological communication age. The presentation at The Summit Conference led Ibrahim to be able to make connections that helped him with further skills in font design and contacts that eventually made it possible for him to obtain digital programs like Adobe’s Photoshop and Illustrator to facilitate those designs. A further connection enabled him to obtain an introduction to the team at Cal Berkeley that can help him develop the script into Unicode which will allow ADLaM to have a presence on the internet. As of the writing of this article, an app has been developed for smartphone with an ADLaM based text. Yet still, an overriding need is to raise funds to produce textbooks for traditional education. 

Back to basics – How Alphabet Changes Culture

Plainly, the ability to read and write, something we take for granted every day, can have an enormous impact on a people and society. In the case of the Fulani, it has the ability to change the socio-economic structure of the tribe. Preservation of tribal history and lore through the ability to transcribe into a writing system that reflects their native tongue will allow cherished traditions to continue and heritage to be preserved. Even now, as you are reading this, a new literacy is being spread throughout the traditional Fulani tribal region and beyond. One example of something we take for granted every day illustrates how ADLaM is changing a culture. Ibrahim, responding to a question after our lecture, relates that many women have come to him and thanked him for teaching them to read and write; they now can make grocery lists when they travel to market (sometimes great distances away) enabling them to buy only what they need instead of returning home to find they have forgotten one thing or that they already had another.  This simple ability enables a family to save much needed currency – over a period of years this can make a significant difference in their ability to educate children, provide proper nutrition or obtain needed household goods or services.

A Reevaluation of Alphabet - The Letters we work with

In the exploration of modern Calligraphy as an art form, we have reversed the process and gone back to explore, at one level or another, the distillation of letterform from character to the basic structure of individual marks. This exploration is an artist’s attempt to innovate and as an artist I love the process, yet this encounter with Ibrahim causes me to frame these marks we make with a new seriousness and in a fresh light.

Ibrahim and Abdoulaye Barry
The ADLaM website states: “If language is the vehicle of culture, then writing is the vehicle of language”.  The spoken word is transitory… it is here for a moment and then gone forever. The original, overriding concept of a writing system is communication among a people through time and space.  Ibrahim and Abdoulaye began with a problem to solve; communication and education was their goal, and ADLaM was created to give their people greater opportunity to be a part of those aspects of society. 

Please consider with me– what if we had no writing system? Would you develop your own? How? What forms– what tools would you start with? Do you think that you, one person in a sea of many, could have an effect on an entire culture, to change their lives for the better? 

Woodrow Wilson’s words seem appropriate to this subject: “You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand(27)."  

Randall M. Hasson is an artist whose work combines traditional imagery with calligraphy to form “Paintings that inspire conversation”.  He has taught and or lectured at 12 International Lettering Arts Conferences since 1998. He resides in Santa Fe, NM.

Ibrahim Barry (with his brother Abdoulaye) is one of the co-creators of the Pular language alphabet ADLaM. He is currently a student of Civil Engineering in Portland OR. The Winden Jangen organization is the non-profit vehicle for the support and dissemination of ADLaM. 

This article ©2014 Randall M. Hasson and; All rights Reserved. To reproduce all or part, please contact the author or go to to contact Ibrahima Barry with your request.

[23] Barry, Ibrahim - excerpt from a transcription of a Spring 2010 interview  “Ibrahim Barry Conversation” with Timothy Leigh; The Timothy Leigh Company, Portland OR. 
[24] Winden Jangen Adlam is a not-for-profit organization formed for the purpose of promoting literacy and education in Africa and around the world by providing access to learning and information through alphabetization using the ADLaM Script.
[25] Barry, Ibrahim – text from lecture given at ‘The Summit”, The International Lettering Arts Conference; July 2013, Colorado Springs College, Colorado Springs, CO.
[26] Jobs, Steve. "You've got to find what you love." Stanford University Commencement Address. Stanford University. Palo Alto, CA. 12 Jun 2005. Address.
[27] Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) 28th US President