love letters straight from your heart

Making a remote letter-writing tool for the Martian house

Liz Lister, August 2022

“Love letters straight from your heart

Keep us so near while apart

I’m not alone in the night

When I can have all the love you write”

Love Letters, lyrics by Edward Heyman and music by Victor Young

One of the challenges of Martian living is the vast distance it will put between humans on Earth and humans on Mars. For the purpose of this project, the assumption is that no physical objects can be cost-effectively exchanged between human populations on Mars and Earth, and that relocating humans between Earth to Mars is a non-trivial, hazardous process that costs many millions and is limited to those who, among other things, accept that they cannot ever return.

Humans in most developed communities are culturally acclimatised to being at most a couple of days by plane from another human they wish to directly communicate with, or prior to air travel maybe a few weeks or months overland or by ship. In both of these cases the physical journey to see someone could be overcome by the sending of a letter, a physical object delivered to someone who, as well as reading the words, could trace the movements of the hand which created them.

There is a reason that even now we still prefer to receive physical greetings cards or postcards written by hand, even if the sender would rather generate something more convenient. And for the big moments in life, like when another human is born or dies, it is the handwritten communications that retain meaning for the recipient long after they’re sent.

An email is not the same. Even if it is written most considerately and formatted with a beautiful cursive font, it lacks the intimacy of a physical handwritten letter. A digital photograph attached to an email or a fax message of a handwritten letter might be better, but is still just an image of a thing and not the thing itself. 

So as long as a physical letter is still a desirable object but one cannot be sent to or from the Martian house, the challenge is to produce a handwritten letter that retains at least some of the qualities of an actual letter but can digitized in order to travel between Earth and Mars in the same way an email or fax message would travel, i.e. by radio signals, and for a physical facsimile of that letter to be manufactured on receipt.

I have tested the principle of creating the .svg and “writing” it on an XY plotter and it works. I now have a letter that was sent to a grandmother (on Mars) from her grandchild, that the grandmother has folded up and keeps in her pocket to show people when they come to visit:

So this was written on a tablet computer acting as a graphics pad, into Inkscape running on a laptop computer, to create the .svg file. This .svg file was then sent to a Cricut machine, an XY plotter that can hold a pen. The Cricut then “wrote” the message out on a piece of paper.

(and no I don’t know who Uncle Ali is either, maybe that’s the subject for the next letter?)

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