Condensing the World: The Mosse [sic] Code

For the umpteenth time, my (currently five-year-old) son wanted to visit Hamburg’s Museum of Work (Museum der Arbeit) today, and as always, I agreed promptly, if only to marvel at the permanent exhibition of typesetting machines.

One exhibit, though, has been fascinating me for years now, and today I know why. It’s the Mosse Code, invented by Rudolf Mosse, a German publisher and one of the first ad brokers.

Back then, telegrams were the quickest method of securely transmitting messages. Payment was calculated by character count, so sending longer messages was more expensive than sending short ones.1 So Herr Mosse made a long list of everything a telegram sender might need to say, and a list of everything a receiver of a telegram might need to know, and codify everything into five-character strings. What he came up with was a list (that is on exhibit in the museum mentioned above) that contains obvious entries such as:

  • Expect you Monday morning (Code: OAAZK)
  • Seaworthiness Certificate (Code: OLZYZ)

… and not-so-obvious ones as …

  • Expecting large difficulties (Code: OLVYG)
  • In-Laws (Code: OLPYU)

Utterly fascinating stuff. The compression ratio is amazing enough, but what really gets me is that Herr Mosse (and all the others who compiled similar codes) managed to capture the reality of telegram users and compiled a highly structured list of surely not all, but most of the situations of daily life and business, sorrows and wishes of telegraph users.

Although I’ve only barely scratched the surface, this feels like a treasure trove of human language and understanding and, yes, content strategy at its best. I’ll be in my bunk.

If you want to dive in, here is an excerpt from the Mosse code, and here’s a list of other telegraphic codes.

  1. Thought experiment: What if the sender of an e-mail would have to pay for sending an e-mail? And what would happen if they’s have to pay for each character? Inbox bliss, or communication catastophe? (Hint: The meaning of “short ’n sweet” largely depends on the communicative contract between sender and recipient.) ↩︎