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One of the informative pages from Frederick Marryat and G B. Richardso’s “The universal code of signals for the mercantile marine of all nations,” which is linked to on How We Think (via Google Books)

Whenever we zip up a file and send it through the web, we’re compressing data. Part of the theory behind lossless compression is that redundant data gets compacted meaningfully, so that they take up less space but can still meaningfully be re-opened to their original, pre-compression state. It’s a simple strategy that saves time and energy, and, if you’re counting the number of megabytes you can spend on your account, you can save a little money too.

I recently learned about a new compilation of digitized telegraph code books, made available on N. Katherine Hayles’s How We Think website. One of the fascinating aspects of studying the history of communications is how often we repeat the same strategies, and telegraph code is a great example of this. While these days the financial cost of sending a short tweet vs. sending a diatribe of an email is pretty much identical, in the days of Morse code, users had to count each character to make sure it was affordable. (Those of us don’t have unlimited text message plans might understand this sentiment a bit.)

Some of the books are very technical like the private cable code for the timber trade or international radio weather code for ships at sea. Everybody’s Pocket Code offers a simple list of basic phrases and their compressed versions. For instance: “etevu” means “At the following rate of exchange”; “idviz”, on the other hand, means “Why is it not confirmed?” And yes, dear reader, they do have “lolzu”, but in this context it means “Not legal(ly)”, though one could argue that’s somewhat apropos.

There are dozens of books compiled, and though the digitization isn’t always great — many of them are straight-up images, rather than searchable text — it’s well worth a stroll through history.

An Xiao

Artist An Xiao (aka An Xiao Mina) photographs, films, installs, performs and tweets and has shown her work in publications and galleries internationally. Find her online at @anxiaostudio and

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