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Scotland, Weeks 10-11: 23 October

Have you ever heard of rope core memory? No, me neither. But in effect it means hand-knitted computer software, and it was used to navigate the Apollo moon landings safely to the Moon and back.

We first learned of this when we were driving through the beautiful (but damp) Border country on our way to the English border (driving time from Wick: 8 hours), listening to classical music radio. Sadly the BBC is under the impression that no one nowadays wants to listen to classical music for more than ten minutes at time, so they fill up the Radio 3 schedules with prattle: at such moments I usually switch it off, harrumph and write letters in green ink to the Times (or at least the Radio Times) bemoaning the collapse of Western Civilisation; but as I was driving, with all those badgers and red deer and wildebeest to avoid, and not having my fountain pen to hand, the moment passed.

Well, the programme was fascinating. As I understand it, conventional computer memory back then just didn’t have the capacity for the complicated processing required to navigate such vast distances. But, as we all know, knitting is essentially binary: replace knit and purl stitches with ones and zeroes and you can perform (literally) astronomical calculations. Teams of experienced knitters were employed to weave copper wire either through a magnetic core (a knit stitch, or 1) or around it (a purl, or 0). As a result you could store about 18 times as much memory per cubic foot than conventional methods.

The engineers referred to it as “LOL memory”, for “little old ladies”—be still my aching sides—but the astronauts at least seem to have valued the women’s contribution to the Apollo missions. And how could they not? Their lives were (again, literally) in those ladies’ skilled hands. [and here’s a short video on YouTube.]

In gansey news, we have lift off too, in a manner of speaking. I finished the Scottish-bepatterned gansey while we were down in Northampton, and it’s been washed and blocked and handed over to its new owner already, driven off the forecourt and out into the world. This is very much a Scottish “Sunday best” sort of gansey, and the colour really shows off the elaborate pattern combination. But as ever, I’m already onto the next project, in navy—not sure what the pattern will be yet, but probably something a little simpler—something that doesn’t involve a slide rule, let alone rope core memory.

Oops

Anyway, I can’t help thinking of all the useful numbers I could encode into a gansey. The lock code on my phone, for example. The number of my landline telephone. The date of one’s wedding anniversary, on the remote, very remote, chance that one was, as it were, perhaps the merest smidgeon absent-minded on the subject. The grid coordinates of all one’s assets, buried in a field for one’s heirs and assigns to find and so avoid inheritance tax. Hmm. Now I come to think of it, one gansey may not be enough…

16 comments to Scotland, Weeks 10-11: 23 October

  • meg macleod

    I saw the finished gansey today..it partook of lunch and tea, tho` removed for the eating bit…just in case……
    it is beautiful, a perfect fit for its owner …perfect colour .the intricate stitchwork a joy to behold.lucky lady who owns it.

    • Gordon

      Hi Meg, you’d be amazed how nerve-wracking it is, that period between finishing a gansey and the person trying it on! So when it comes out all right it’s a massive relief, a huge endorphin rush that gets through the next few days until you start worrying about the next one…

  • Judit M./Finland

    Gordon, this is the finest gansey I have ever seen ! The new owner may be one of the happiest persons in the UK ! Best regards to both of you !

    • Gordon

      Hello Judit, and thank you, you’re very kind. (Of course it helps having photogenic people to model them, as opposed to my hangdog, sheepish let’s-get-it-over-with attitude to having my picture taken…!)

  • Anita

    Another Gordon Masterpiece!

  • Lois

    Just WOW! I didn’t think you could surpass the past glories, but, by Jove, you’ve done it.

    • Gordon

      Hi Lois, and again, thank you. As ever, the real credit has to go to the incredible knitters of the past who did it all first, without pattern charts and pocket calculators: I like to think of myself as the knitting equivalent of a reenactment society like the Sealed Knot, maybe I should start one? (How about the Gnarled Knot? Or the Knotted Seal?)

  • Jane

    Superb in every way, a total triumph, many congratulations.

  • Lynne

    What a gorgeous piece of work and it looks stunning on the grateful recipient. I love Hebredean ganseys, so much work but so rewarding!

    • Gordon

      Hi Lynne, there’s no question that Hebridean ganseys are the gold standard in many ways, though for Sunday best, not for everyday wear and tear. But then I’d hate to be without those wonderful Yorkshire patterns, Whitby and Flamborough and the rest, or Cornwall, even the simplicity of The Lizard. In fact, the only patterns I’ve never tried are East Anglia, Yarmouth and Sheringham. Bit of a blind spot there!

  • Ruan

    Oh what an inspiration, I so must find my wool and needles, I may even forgo the purist and use circs! but first find the very expensive wool! Your work is so good though!

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