Spring 2019–Winter 2020

Ingestion / A Manhattan Project

The libationary permutations of Hans Peter Luhn’s Cocktail Oracle

Daniel Rosenberg

“Ingestion” is a column that explores food within a framework informed by aesthetics, history, and philosophy.

Hans Peter Luhn’s Cocktail Oracle at your service. Courtesy Luhn family. All photos University of Oregon Libraries.

What if you know what you’ve got but don’t know what you can make with it? This question was explored in a kind of manhattan project in 1933, when Hans Peter Luhn, who two decades later would achieve fame for innovations in information processing at IBM, filed a patent for a cocktail recipe guide.[1]

Born in Barmen, Germany, in 1896, Luhn’s first interest was not cocktails but printing, the trade that he studied in Switzerland until the start of his service in the German army during World War I. Back in Switzerland afterwards, he designed one of his first machines, a device for recording bookkeeping entries on ledger cards. In 1924, Luhn traveled to the United States representing a German textile firm that was trying to establish overseas factories. When that effort failed, he found work in the American industry, obtaining ten US patents for textile-related devices in three years. The most enduring of these, still widely used today, was a thread counter called the Lunometer. A marvel of simplicity, the Lunometer was nothing more than a clear acrylic strip the size of a small ruler on which fine patterned lines and numbers were printed. When laid on fabric, the device produced a moiré pattern that pointed to a number on the instrument’s edge indicating the thread count of the cloth. The optical effect was well known; Luhn’s insight was to employ it as a calculator.

In light of these successes, in the early 1930s Luhn established his own engineering consultancy, H. P. Luhn & Associates, in New York. In the 1940s, he went to work for IBM, where he would spend the rest of his career. By the time of his death in 1964, Luhn had earned more than eighty patents, often clever remixes of earlier inventions, or to use the language of the patent office, prior art. These included designs for calculators, code translators, switches, breakers, relays, and data storage devices, not to mention a hosiery hanger, a system for making toy furniture, a folding game table, and a disposable raincoat.

Luhn’s 1958 Keyword-in-Context (KWIC) index, toasted in academia and industry, offers a good example of his way of mixing ideas. To make a KWIC index, a computer breaks down a text into a list of words. Each instance of each word is then listed in alphabetical order along with the words that originally appeared before and after it in the source text, making it easy to visually scan the index for entries of interest. The approach put the capabilities of the new IBM computers of the 1950s to excellent use, and very soon it was widely employed in technical indexing. In addition to the American Meteorological Society, the American Chemical Society, and other scientific institutions, the KWIC index aroused the interest of the National Bureau of Standards and the Central Intelligence Agency. New as it was in its details, Luhn’s system was old in its basic premise. As he himself explained, it was really just a mechanical implementation of the “concordance indexing” approach that had been used for centuries for the study of literary texts, tracing back all the way to the Bible index designed by the thirteenth-century French Dominican monk Hugh of Saint-Cher.[2]

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