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Old Codes and Symbols Reinvented Through Modern Technologies

Post/ZIP Code Technology in New Uses - Irate
New technologies mean most old ways of doing things end in museums. However, some flourish with fresh applications and vital restyling for modern times.

Technology for playing music has long been digital, consigning records (singles spinning on a turntable at 45 revolutions per minute, or long-players at 33 rpm) to history. Cameras with film developed in dark-rooms are by-gone curiosities.

However, many people enjoy old film processes, including black/white, and prefer background crackles from scratched records. While the retro-nostalgia market is alive and many things are naturally recycled in music, film and the arts, others are absorbed into Now.

Post Codes and ZIP Codes Have Modern Applications

British Postal districts were named in London and large cities from 1857, refined in 1917 to include numbered subdivisions, extended in 1934 and incorporated into the UK post code rolled out nationally from 1959 -1974. There are approaching two million post code units, unique identifiers of around 28 million addresses.

Electronic sorting for mail delivery depends on post coding; Royal Mail have decided to phase out counties as part of addresses. They find any residence by building name/number, street and post code alone.

Among other uses,the post code has been given a new lease of life in satellite navigation systems to locate specific addresses. The codes are used by insurance companies to assess premiums and risk for motoring and domestic policies. Crime rates can be matched to them, as can socio-economic groupings for data research and marketing.

Mary Bellis in a history of Post Office Technology, describes how increasing mail volumes, rising manpower costs, transportation changes and new technologies made the USA’s ZIP code essential. Zoning Improvement Plans began in July 1963, responding to rail declining, moving from agricultural to global industrialisation, overtaking of social mail by business correspondence.

Other delivery services like DHL, UPS and FedEx require ZIP codes for routing of packaging, indeed, cannot deliver without them. ZIPs gather US geographical and census statistics, and their use by companies in-store and on-line is widespread.

The Ampersand: Long History & Big Future

According to webdsigner depot the ampersand is ‘one of the most unique typographical characters out there, and designers can exercise artistic freedom’. It’s a strange surviving quirk of history; & is a logogram representing ‘and’.

Traced by some observers to the Roman first century AD, it was originally a ligature of the letters E and T (Latin for ‘and’ is ‘et’), and in some designs, separate E and T can be made out. Over the years, there have been graphic and printing changes, but it’s basically unchanged, its meaning transparent and universally understood in written English.

The word itself reached a dictionary in 1837, made up from ‘and per se and’, meaning: ‘the symbol which by itself is’. Historically, as webdesigner depot explain, ‘and per se’ preceded any letter in the alphabet that was also a word in its own right (‘I’, ‘A’), and was the last character in the alphabet.

It has dropped out of the alphabet, but is still used in contemporary expressions, like business titles ‘& Sons’, or other titles: ‘Dungeons & Dragons’. Text messaging and on-line shorthand use it widely, and it’s common in programming, like MySQL, C and C++, XML, SGML and BASIC.

The @ Sign May Have a Financial Origin

Used globally to denote the location of an email address, in some countries the typographic sign @ simply means ‘The Internet’ itself. In fact, it was the advent of the world wide web and early emails that gave new life to a virtually moribund symbol.

The 1885 keyboard of the American Underwood typewriter had it, mainly for accounting and commercial invoices, for example: 9 items @ 15 cents = $1.35. Some think the mercantile shorthand began from abbreviation of an ancient Greek preposition meaning ‘at the rate of’, or later Latin ‘per’. Medieval monks transcribing documents sometimes put it next to numerals, to indicate ‘about’ or ‘by’.

A Spanish document about wheat in 1448 and an Italian one from 1537 about the price of wine are believed to carry @. In Spanish & Portuguese it’s long been a symbol for a unit of weight. In 17th century France and Sweden it may have also meant ‘at’. Today in Iberian tongues, it can be used as a gender-neutral ending to words, for example, ‘amigos’ (friends). If the friends are both men and women, it can become ‘amig@s’, though not all native speakers accept that.

Through online forums, blogs and microblogging and text messaging, it’s use is evolving. It can be a substitute for other symbols or meanings, and in computer programming it has become part of the vocabulary, without attaining universal agreement on precise usage.

In chemical formulae, genetics and some science data/technical literature, it’s used. In some journalism, it replaces ‘aka’, itself an abbreviated ‘also known as’ to describe somebody’s alias.

Different languages have different words for it: Italian, ‘snail’; Dutch, ‘monkey tail’; Hebrew, ‘Strudel’; Chinese, ‘little mouse’; Swedish and Danish; ‘elephant trunk’; Finnish, ‘meow, meow’ and Russian, ‘dog’.

Whatever it is called, it’s here to stay: a code-symbol from the past meeting the present and being valid for the future.

First published on Suite 101, 1 August 2010.

Photo: Post/ZIP Code Technology in New Uses – Irate

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