Dad was an inconspicuous lexicon of muted, linear elements — sans serif digits on a plain wristwatch, a faint ticker stripe on a button-up shirt — that marked him as one of an emergent species. They called their field telecommunications or computer science before it became IT. They belonged to the tribes of Apple, IBM… In fact, dad formerly worked for Bell Laboratories. That was when we lived further east. Bell Labs was, at the time, facilitating some pretty out-there cultural experiments in New Jersey. Dad marked his preference instead to work in the Illinois office, where practical networking was the priority. Dad was a nerd. Now that is cool and when I deliberate over garments for myself, my criteria is would dad have worn this in the ’80s. His glasses were especially great: rectilinear, slightly outsize, rose-gold or maybe silver, lightweight. Dad loved the psych band It’s a Beautiful Day. He smoked cigarettes, was losing his luxuriant black hair, might have taken to something artistic like free jazz if he wasn’t so busied with C++, a programming language then in its nascent stages. His shirts were not so much striped but, like paper, ruled. He appeared ready for coding. A flat-knit V-neck sweater, another slim shirt thinly striped in clinic red. Notebooks had black-speckled covers with taped spines, their pages pale greenish and gridded.
His shirt pocket stowed a pen, substantial, gold, prolate, thin, frequently sidelined by a pack of cigarettes. He did not have a pocket protector. That was the crass joke version of a nerd, but it’s true that the breast pocket is where pens and cigarettes lived. A laminated badge clipped to the pocket edge, affixed with a jumpy silver claw. The badge retreated to the same spot on the kitchen counter each evening, chilling out by the ashtray and maybe a whisky. I was uncurious about the tumbler with its urinary yellow stink. I did contemplate the white ash in the glass tray of smoky grey-green. The company badge signalled that dad was somebody. He had permission for entry. But it was also something to relieve oneself of, to be dumped on the counter, not to take particular pride in. I played with the irascible clip. I intuited its keenness to chomp, to clench like mandibles. I let it pinch.
Dad’s design elements, the ticker stripe, sans serif, v-necks, graph paper, were a kind of rubric, as if comprised of so many points waiting to be connected, blanks to be filled in. It was a note-making aesthetic, suggesting a series of adumbrations. I think of the # symbol: open-ended, an uninitiated game of tic-tac-toe, an embryonic or erstwhile piece of a larger grid. Recently, in writing an essay about the inaugural exhibition at a new south London gallery, I fixated on an awkward moment at the threshold, in which I didn’t know how to ring for entry. I eyed up the keypad along the front door and resorted to pressing # — communicating nothing. As this metaphor took over as the object of my piece, J. suggested I listen to an episode of the radio programme 99% Invisible, which specialises in design history. It informed me that the # symbol is officially an octothorpe, so named at AT&T Bell Laboratories. The *, at the other base of the telephone keypad, was exciting: it signalled footnotes or omissions. The # looked both highly functional and a mystery. The * and # could have been anything. With the development of the touch-tone phone, directors at Bell Labs initially wanted a star and diamond, until a prescient engineer angled for symbols that could be recognised by computers, the # being already resident on keyboards. As a proofreading mark, # means insert space. In a sense, it stands for nothing. When it means number, it is extraneous. Someone from marketing named it the octothorpe, briefly octotherp — referencing its eight points plus adding a suffix that sounded “kind of Greekish”. Therp became thorpe, possibly in homage to Olympian Jim Thorpe, a versatile athlete of European and Native American ancestry. His Sac and Fox name, Wa-Tho-Huk, can be translated as bright path. Called a pound sign in the US, # was originally cribbed from the Roman unit of measure lb. The British appellation hash was gleaned from the term cross-hatching. Now that the hashtag has become a powerful navigational tool, it is, according to Chris Messina, the first Twitter user to employ it in this way, a “typographic superhero”. It’s always a pound sign to me.
My father developed, with two partners, an apparatus called the telemeter. We were more excited than he was the day the prototype was delivered. We saw a finished object. To him, it was problematic, the result of a series of compromises. He worried about its commercial prospects. It looked like a normal phone keypad but kept a toll and printed a receipt. It was proposed as a means for a business — say a hotel — to profit from a guest’s phone call — say from the lobby. Like many inventions, its moment was fugacious. It wasn’t that it missed the beat so much as hit slightly off. Another group did put a similar item onto the market that little bit sooner, but ultimately, the product didn’t foresee that the process and value of phone communication was rapidly evolving into something looser, more customisable, visual, digital, nothing so clumsy and greedy as a Bible-sized, matte black plastic machine and its spool heartlessly carbon copy-issuing.
I sat and looked at it as if it were a magic box. On an afternoon sitcom called Out of this World, Evie, half-alien, who could halt time by joining her index fingers, spoke to her extraterrestrial father through a pulsing, luminous, zigguartic device, perspex but with the transportive powers of an arcane crystal. It glowed instead of ringing, mystical lucite. The telemeter was opaque, sensible, doomed. It very quickly went back into its box. I stared at it there between the cardboard flaps, willing it animate, wanting it to be clever, meritorious and popular like the Speak & Spell, which offered the world something pedagogical and amazing. Ours was given to us by an aunt who worked for its issuing company, Texas Instruments. It was so harangued by my fingertips that its buttons were popping off, especially to the lower right of the keypad, where I apparently landed my emphasis. The telemeter never had the chance, like Speak & Spell, to be customised by rascally indie musicians, inspire the name of an album by Depeche Mode, resented by consumers as cheap shit. The telemeter was resented by my dad, though. To be resented in one way or another was like its teleological destiny: a device that reified time as money. I thought it was cool. I was proud. I told schoolmates that my dad invented the telemeter. Its name was spatial and futuristic, and only one of many hybrid schemes mustered by my family, so enamoured by the notion of the mixed-breed, to be never fully realised, monikered in a portmanteau somewhere between cumbrous and catchy.