Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Dispatches From Oiba Peivki

Thomas Stedman Whitwell was a British architect who lived from 1784-1840. His main claim to fame was laying out a planned community and going in with cotton mill owner Robert Owen on buying the land for what would become New Harmony, Indiana in 1825 (Owen gets top historical billing). His goal was the same as a lot of architects who let their heads get a little too big: the utopian community, infused with the peace-bringing power of perfectly-laid-out infrastructure.

A lot of cities have been laid out with aims like this, way too many to list. (Though Wikipedia will try.) A couple key names are Fairhope, Alabama, Ruskin, Florida and Zion, Illinois. Most are laid out with some sort of religious motive, and most are designed for small populations. Sometimes they work out, though 'utopia' always has this pesky way of eluding all involved. Sometimes they don't, and the community dies off, often due to the factor that any community wanting to be utopian really has to rely on: the townspeople in it. If they're not getting along, kiss your utopia goodbye. If they turn out to not like the master plan for the utopian community, they will start fighting that plan. That's what happened in New Harmony, which ended up only hanging on to its utopian drams until 1829, before becoming a regular old community.

Replacing money with "time money" will tend to do that.

Whitwell, though, had another idea cooking right alongside New Harmony: renaming every city in the world. You see, somewhere along the way, Whitwell decided that travelers were getting needlessly confused by the fact that a whole lot of places had the same name. Sure, it might make the Simpsons writers' lives easier, and it gives rock-ribbed Republicans the opportunity to potentially name everything in the world after Ronald Reagan, but come on. There's a Portland, Oregon AND a Portland, Maine! Who can tell them apart? And I can't even tell you how many people have gone on a trip to San Jose, California and wound up in Costa Rica.

Well, Whitwell was going to fix this problem. He was going to give every city in the world its own unique name.

Let's go over the basics of how this was supposed to work (the full rules couldn't be found, but we have the basics). You start with a city's latitude and longitude, measured in degrees and minutes. (Go on Google Earth and look at the coordinates of any point. Let's say a latitude reads 42° 17' 33" N. That reads 42 degrees, 17 minutes, 33 seconds.) Each of those individual numbers- the 4, the 2, the 1 and the 7- gets converted into a letter of the alphabet.

According to The New Harmony Communities by George Browning Lockwood (copyright 1902, free in e-book form!), the name construction works out roughly as follows:

*Every city name is two words.
*When converting latitude numbers, convert to a vowel when possible.
*When converting longitude numbers, convert to a consonant when possible.
* If the city is south of the Equator, insert an S somewhere into the first word. If the city is north of the Equator, leave the S out.
*If the city is west of the Prime Meridian, insert a V into the second word. If the city is east of the Prime Meridian, leave the V out.

The conversions are:
0 converts to A and B.
1 converts to E and D.
2 converts to I and F.
3 converts to O and K.
4 converts to U and L.
5 converts to Y and M.
6 converts to EE and N.
7 converts to EI and P.
8 converts to IE and R.
9 converts to OU and T.

The rest of the rules are apparently based on making the result something that can be uttered by human mouths. A few of the sample conversions given seem to allow some movement up or down on the conversion scale in order to get a more usable letter. Everyone that tells this story seems to love latching onto the conversion given for New York City, listed at 40 degrees, 43 minutes N and 73 degrees, 59 minutes W: Otke Notive. One location in New Harmony, the Feiba Peveli Institute, carries the name that this system gave it. Given the latitude and longitude for my local post office, Watertown, Wisconsin became, as best as I can tell, Oiba Peivki. Or at least it would have had Watertown not been founded two decades after Whitwell came up with this. Just from looking at the name, a traveler was supposed to be able to tell where the city was.

Remember, this was supposed to be a simpler, easier to understand way of doing things. At least in Whitwell's head. The fact that Feiba Peveli is the only use it's actually gotten is a testament to the fact that everyone else figured that it's actually simpler to just use the names that people have been using and go with it, and those that heard of it have just politely ignored the suggestion. (How many of you still call what is now the Willis Tower the 'Sears Tower'? I know I do.)

Besides, you've seen all those stories about people not being able to find their home state or other well-known places on a map. If they can't get that, how are they going to get latitude and longitude right, let alone translating latitude and longitude into what looks like some ambiguously foreign language?

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