Above, top: The Hamilton Digital Watch, the world’s first digital watch, released in 1970. Above, bottom: Emmett Williams, “IBM,” 1973.
One of the most important things I’ve ever read about typography is Paul Elliman’s essay “My Typographies.” Here’s the sparkling gem of it that I’m so fond of quoting to my students:
Writing gives the impression of things. Conversely, things can give the impression of writing.
Beautifully put. In the essay that follows, Elliman dances among several examples of things that give the impression of writing, each of which is connected powerfully to our own origins and the rhythms of life on this planet. He reads the types of clouds in the sky, looks at constellations and signals sent to outer space through the Arecibo Message, unpacks the passing of Uruk tokens, scans the Talmud, finds our flickering digital beginnings in ASCII text and LED watches, then turns to alphabetic codes, GPS messages, and more. Perhaps his most intuitive example, though, is the alphabet of DNA, on which he quotes genetics professor Steve Jones:
It has a vocabulary (the genes themselves), a grammar (the way in which the inherited information is arranged), and a literature (the thousands of instructions needed to make a human being). The language is based on the DNA molecule, the famous double helix; the icon of the 20th century. It has a simple alphabet, not 26 letters, but just four, the four different DNA bases, A, C, G, and T for short.
And now, via Kottke, we learn of Christian Bök, who will encrypt a poem on a particularly resilient bacteria called Deinococcus radiodurans. As Wired describes Bök’s process, part of the appeal of doing this (apart from seeing if it Can Be Done) seems to be about constraint:
Bök will have to choose his ciphers carefully, as his poem chemically ordains the sequence of amino acids that the bacteria will create in response. There are 8 trillion possible combinations, but depressingly few of them yield useful two-way vocabularies.
In many ways, Bök’s project reminds me of Emmett Williams’s work — Sweethearts, of course, but also his lesser-known IBM poem, which uses a technique called “expansion by alphabet,” a process I intend to write more about in the future. However, for the time being, let me just say that no sooner had I found a computational method for collecting Williams Words then I found out that Williams himself had been experimenting with computational verse using this form. Williams is always one step ahead — beautiful. More on the IBM poem here and here.