This great means of communication predated e-mail, IM, and texting

It looks and reads like something a novelist might have invented—but it’s real, and awesome, and you can see and read it yourself on Google Books.

The “it” in question is an 1853 book called 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. The code it contains enabled people to communicate on the (brand-new) telegraph in the most economical way possible—by assigning digits to 8,466 different things they might have wanted to say. Some of those things read like antiquated text messages; others (like Nos. 48 to 57) add up to something like a short story. And others still are inexplicable, and excellent: “It is to be feared you will be overcome by so much beauty” (No. 905). “One of the Sabbath-school scholars died the other day, and we hope he has gone to heaven. We all felt very sad” (No. 268). And “I am in one of the famous ventilated cars which professes to exclude the dust, but in my opinion it is a great humbug” (No. 29). This week, an artist named David Horvitz is performing a Twitter piece based on the book, in which you can participate.

Kurt Andersen is the author of Heyday, among other books, the host of Studio 360, and a co-founder of Very Short List.

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This great means of communication predated e-mail, IM, and texting