A book worth googling

Colour plate depicting the Gogo (or Camel Bird)
The Gogo (or Camel Bird)

Long before the Internet was invented, an English economist named Vincent Cartwright Vickers (1879-1939) wrote and illustrated The Google Book. This charming children’s book features a colourful assortment of imaginary Google birds described in humorous verse.

The Gogo (or Camel Bird), the Lemonsqueezer, the Flabbytoes, the Shivver-Doodle and the Poggle, to name just a few, inhabit a make-believe place named Google Land. Amongst the birds lives the Google, a frightening creature who sleeps by day in his garden and silently prowls for food at night:

THE sun is setting—
Can’t you hear
A something in the distance
Howl ! ! ?

I wonder if it’s—
Yes ! ! it is
That horrid Google
On the prowl ! ! !

The book was first published in 1913 by J. & E. Bumpus in a limited edition of one hundred copies. The author Vickers was working at the time as a director of the Bank of England. He was passionate about animals, however, particularly birds, which he painted at every opportunity, and was a Fellow of the Royal Zoological Society. Two further editions appeared in 1931 and 1979 featuring selections of illustrations and verse from the original. In the foreword to the latter edition, published by Oxford University Press, the author’s grandson Edward A. Dawson provides a biographical sketch of his grandfather, ‘an economist of considerable distinction and energy.’ A graduate of Magdalen College, Oxford, Vickers had received no formal training in art yet some of his Google bird pictures were later exhibited at the Royal Academy.

But from where does the word ‘google’ come?

The verb ‘google’ was originally used in the game of cricket for bowling a type of spin delivery, a googly. An early published reference is found in the September 1907 issue of The badminton magazine: ‘The googlies that do not google are about the poorest tosh which ever reduced cricket to an absurdity.’ The noun ‘googol’ has a different origin. It is a mathematical term which first appeared in Mathematics and the imagination (New York, 1940) by Edward Kasner and James Newman. Kasner’s nine-year-old nephew had invented the word when asked to think up a name to describe a very large number, that is, 1 followed by one hundred zeros. The search engine Google apparently based its name on an alteration of ‘googol’. Curiously, the crime writer Raymond Chandler references a character called ‘Google’ in an amusing letter of 14 March 1953 to his literary agent H.N. Swanson. The author’s paragraph-long parody of science fiction novels ends: ‘I had exactly four seconds to hot up the disintegrator and Google had told me it wasn’t enough. He was right.’ In June 2006 the Oxford English Dictionary added the verb ‘google’ in the sense of using the Google search engine to find information on the Internet.

The Mirabelle
The Mirabelle

We can only wonder where V.C. Vickers found his original inspiration back in 1913! The Google Book is currently on display until mid-February 2016 in the exhibition case in the foyer of the Berkeley Library.