A post from Shady Characters

Miscellany № 71 — ‘⋮’ redux

Last time round, inspired by Marcin Wichary’s tweet, I wrote a short post about the curious case of the character ‘⋮’, which was present on some of the earliest typewriter keyboards but that mysteriously disappeared from later machines. The comments came in thick and fast, and reader Thomas A. Fine was moved to carry out his own investigation into the life and death of the elusive vertical ellipsis.

Thomas turned up a host of intriguing evidence of the early years of the ‘⋮’, but there’s one reference in particular I thought was too good not to share here. Thomas points to Shaun Usher’s Letters of Note blog, where Shaun writes that none other than Mark Twain bought and used a typewriter in 1874, four years before one of Christopher Latham Sholes’ patents depicted the QWERTY keyboard for the first time. Shaun explains that on composing his first letter with this new-fangled writing machine, Twain’s daughter Susie got to the keyboard first and bashed in the following string of characters:1

BJUYT KIOP N LKJHGFDSA ⋮ QWERTYUIOP:_-98VX5432QW RT

Notable here is the absence of the digits 0 and 1 (to be typed with the uppercase ‘O’ and ‘I’ respectively), along with the lack of punctuation marks other than a hyphen, an underline and a colon — and, right in the middle of the line, a very clear vertical ellipsis. As a ex-compositor, Twain would have been quite at home with uncommon marks such as the pilcrow (¶), double dagger (‡) and manicule (☞) — as per the editors of his collected letters, he used these and other marks in his correspondence — but the ‘⋮’ never appeared again.2 Even if he knew what the mark meant, evidently, he never saw the need to use it. So near, and yet so far! Who would have been better than Mark Twain to enlighten us as to the meaning of the ‘⋮’?

Detail from page 2 of Christopher Latham Sholes' 1878 typewriter patent, showing the '⋮' on the leftmost key of the third row. This was likely similar to the keyboard arrangement present on Mark Twain's 1874 Remington № 1. (Image courtesy of Google Patent Search.)
Detail from page 2 of Christopher Latham Sholes’ 1878 typewriter patent, showing the ‘’ on the leftmost key of the third row. This was likely similar to the keyboard arrangement present on Mark Twain’s 1874 Remington № 1. (Image courtesy of Google Patent Search.)

For his part, Thomas concludes that the vertical ellipsis only existed on the very first of Sholes’ commercial typewriters, the so-called Sholes & Glidden, or Remington № 1, and that the character had already disappeared by the time of the 1878 Remington № 2. After all, he says, why type a paragraph character when a flick of the carriage return lever would start a new line? I’ll let Thomas take it from here; his post is a treasure trove of historical appearances for the vertical ellipsis, and it is well worth a look.


Separately, I was happy to see that Michele Buchanan, featured here back in 2014 as the creator of a number of new punctuation marks that included the sarcastic asterisk, the confused question mark (?~) and a doubled right parenthesis (‘))’) for jokes, has published her work in the pages of Communication Design.3 You can find Michele’s paper at Taylor & Francis Online, or you can check out her website at getthepoint.me. Many congratulations to Michele for publishing her paper!


Lastly, I’m sure that many readers will already have heard the sad news of the death of Ray Tomlinson, the inventor of our modern email addressing system and the man who, in essence, rescued the @-symbol from a life of obscurity. I never got the chance to talk to Mr Tomlinson while he was alive, but I was happy to be able to discuss his work here, in the Shady Characters book, and, more recently, with Clare Bates of the BBC for an article on the @-symbol’s remarkable rise to fame.

1.
S. Clemens, “SLC to Orion Clemens, 9 Dec 1874,” Mark Twain Project ↩︎
2.
Guide to Editorial Practice,” Mark Twain Project ↩︎
3.
M. A. Buchanan, “@ face value // expanding our typographic repertoire,” Communication Design, vol. 3, iss. 1, pp. 27-50, 2015. ↩︎

3 comments on “Miscellany № 71 — ‘⋮’ redux

  1. Comment posted by Brian Inglis on

    If Sholes hoped typewriters would be sold to and used in telegraph offices, the vertical ellipsis as paragraph separator may have been intended for use as a telegram tape cut mark, like the ASCII Art separator ---8<--->8--- used to indicate sections of a post to be copied and pasted.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Brian — very true. Three vertical dots (or perhaps a virgule/slash, as Richard Polt suggests) would work well as a “cut here” indicator on a long, thin strip of paper.

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