2.5 fail sail
Uncovering an Archive
fail sail begins with an investigation in the Lownes Science Collection within the John Hay Library at Brown University. This collection is an archive of significant books in the history of science as a bequest from Albert E. Lownes. His final gift of over 5,000 volumes plus hundreds of prints and manuscripts spanned the centuries of scientific thought from Ptolemy to Einstein. Its physical site has a distinct presence with eccentricities, treasures, rules, and hours of operation particular to it. Our prompt was to create a narrative based on any object within this archive. I was drawn to the book, The American Coast Pilot. Printed in 1793, it is a nautical journal without any illustrated charts or cartography, relying solely on text-based descriptions of sailing directions, tide tables, navigational landmarks, as well as other critical information of use to sailors. I find the letterpress typography, simple layout, aged leather cover and frail parchment paper to be exquisite qualities of this book. Reading through the book I was intrigued to find a typographic character I’ve never seen before. The long, medial or descending s or ſ is a form of the minuscule letter s formerly used where s occurred in the middle or at the beginning of a word; for example the word sail ( ſ ail). The modern letterform was called the terminal or short s. The long s is subject to confusion with the lower case or minuscule f, sometimes even having an f-like nub at its middle, but on the left side only, in various roman typefaces and in blacklister. Everywhere I was supposed to be reading the word sail I was reading fail. fail sail examines the peculiar typographic forms within the The American Coast Pilot. I can imagine the confusion it would cause if a navigator needed to use a guide with the long s character today. This is an example within my methodology where concepts develop naturally from form as opposed to being predetermined in research.
Originally published at http://jamesjgrady.com on June 16, 2012.