Redeem the Hours

Write a letter a day for 15 years straight.

That is a rough estimate of how many letters Thomas Jefferson made copies of by 1803.

His method? The polygraph – a series of mechanical linkages that connected to another pen. When you wrote, the second pen would copy your movements. Jefferson deemed the device “the finest invention of the present age.”

That is worth noting. One of the most accomplished polymaths in the 18th century championed a duplicating device as the invention of his age. Why? Hillel Schwartz fills out the context for his choice:

a prolific correspondent who, after the American Revolution, [Jefferson] was wont to keep close records of his letters. Twice, Jefferson's papers had been lost, once in a fire, again in 1780 during a British raid on Richmond. Sensitive to the precariousness of originals, Jefferson tried any device that might redeem the hours he spent entering into journals a précis of each letter he wrote. In 1803 he endorsed the [polygraph] [...]

“I only lament that it had not been invented thirty years sooner.”

This coming from a man whose daily routine consisted of “drudging at the writing table” from sunrise to one or two o' clock – at least seven hours if not more. No wonder he wanted to redeem those hours however he could. For all those words, both from Jefferson and his interlocutors, to be preserved. The polygraph allowed for the redemption he sought.

Think of that in light of the writing we do on the web. From blog posts to status updates to papers to memos to email threads to comments. Our output rivals Jefferson's in scope.

But do we think about preserving those blog posts or emails in some shape or form? Do we think about what will happen to this writing if we do nothing about it? Do we expect it to stay around forever like some eternal library?

There is a lot of talk about publishing on the web, of getting your writing out there.

What time is spent talking about how we redeem those hours?