June 17–29, 2011

Lewis Hine, Frank Hastings, 107 Hampshire Street, Cambridge, 1917

Lewis Hine, Frank Hastings, 107 Hampshire Street, Cambridge, 1917

The invention of the telegraph in the nineteenth century made it possible to deliver information across spatial distances without the aid of messengers. This development paved the way for Twitter, among other modern communication technologies. But what was lost in the radical disappearance of the message’s physical journey? To explore this question, David Horvitz (@davidhorvitz) will produce a hard copy of every tweet containing the hashtag #VadeMecum (Latin for “Go with me” and meaning a reference book designed to be carried) between June 17 and June 23. On June 24, he will carry the materialized tweets by train from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., following the route of the first transcontinental telegram (sent in 1861 from San Francisco to President Lincoln in the nation’s capital). Upon arrival in Washington, D.C., the entire collection will be submitted to the Library of Congress and donated to a public archive, where it will remain accessible.

During the trip, Horvitz will tweet his own observations and reflections on the journey, as well as on the history of communication technologies, by sampling from A.C. Baldwin’s 1853 book The Traveler’s Vade Mecum; or Instantaneous Letter Writer, by Mail or Telegraph, for the Convenience of Persons Traveling on Business or for Pleasure, and for Others, Whereby a Vast Amount of Time, Labor, and Trouble is Saved, which contains 8,466 prefabricated sentences intended to aid travelers in sending letters home by telegraph. The sentences each carry a numerical code that allowed writers to construct longer messages within the limited information capacity of the then-new medium.

Through the project, Horvitz will give his audience’s tweets literal and metaphorical weight. Serving as an anachronistic messenger in an era in which distance is no longer an obstacle to communication, Horvitz will re-engage with the relatively slow pace of the physical journey as a meaningful and transformative phase in the life of the message.

View a transcript of #VadeMecum.

The Traveler’s Vade Mecum is legally in the public domain, and can be viewed and downloaded here.