A post from Shady Characters

Miscellany № 30

The typewriter has had quite an impact over the years, influencing, among other things, working practices (and gender stereotypes in the workplace), typeface designs, and punctuation usage — witness the stunted hyphen-minus that stands in for the en and em dashes on your computer keyboard, beneficiary and victims, respectively, of the “Great Typewriter Squeeze”.12 Carrying all this baggage, as it does, I was intrigued to read Jimmy Stamp’s recent article “Fact of [sic] Fiction? The Legend of the QWERTY Keyboard” over at the Smithsonian Magazine’s Design Decoded blog. Theories abound as to the origins of the QWERTY keyboard layout, and though Stamp runs through the usual suspects — it was designed to separate common letter pairings to avoid jamming, say some; it allowed Remington salesmen to type the word “typewriter” using only the top row of keys, say others — he also adds a more obscure suggestion, put forth in 2011 by researchers at Kyoto University. As Koichi Yasuoka and Motoko Yasuoka explain, the QWERTY keyboard layout may have more to do with Morse code than anything else:

[Morse] code represents Z as ‘· · · ·’ which is often confused with the digram SE, more frequently-used than Z. Sometimes Morse receivers in United States cannot determine whether Z or SE is applicable, especially in the first letter(s) of a word, before they receive following letters. Thus S ought to be placed near by both Z and E on the keyboard for Morse receivers to type them quickly (by the same reason C ought to be placed near by IE. But, in fact, C was more often confused with S).3

An interesting idea, and one I’ll be reading more about as soon as their paper becomes available online.


In other news, and coming slightly out of left field, Shady Characters was lucky enough to get a mention in a frenetic and enjoyable YouTube video about the history of the interrobang by graphic designer Karen Kavett. Continuing the audiovisual theme, Tusk, a Newcastle-based band from whom we’ve heard before, have just released their Interrobang EP. I’ve been listening to it non-stop for the past few days; if you’re into guitar music at all, I highly recommend that you check it out.


That’s all for now, but check back tomorrow for some book-related news!

1.
Unknown bibtex entry with key [FFI2013-HYPHEN-MINUS] ↩︎
2.
Unknown bibtex entry with key [bell2009-dash] ↩︎
3.
K. Yasuoka and M. Yasuoka, “On the Prehistory of QWERTY,” ZINBUN, vol. 42, pp. 161-174, 2011. ↩︎

2 comments on “Miscellany № 30

  1. Comment posted by Solo Owl on

    Oh good grief! Karen Kavett speaks in imitation of scriptio continuo in all majuscules, with excessive exclamation points.

  2. Comment posted by Solo Owl on

    I found the Yasuoka & Yasuoka paper fascinating. They make the big point that experts in American Morse Code were employed as “alpha testers” on the prototype typewriters, the result being that the first commercially successful typewriter already had the QWERTY layout.

    The third model, Remington Type-Writer No. 2, introduced shifting the platen to (almost) double the number of printable characters. Judging from the illustration, this one had properly curly double quotation marks and a curly apostrophe. So, the Great Squeeze occurred fitfully.

    On this model, the period (full stop) was an upper case character. This makes a lot of sense. Almost always the next visible character after a period is a capital letter. Also helpful in typing initalisms, if the house style required dots after each letter.

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