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Shift Happens celebrates 150 years of typewriters, keyboards and the people who used them

Shift Happens celebrates 150 years of typewriters, keyboards and the people who used them

Shift Happens is a book, launching today on Kickstarter, that attempts to tell the winding story of keyboards: from the concept of the QWERTY layout a century and a half ago, through early computers, to today's mechanical keyboard communities.

It's the work of Marcin Wycheri, a Polish designer based in Chicago who's been blogging about keyboards on Medium for years. Part coffee-table book, filled with wonderfully detailed photographs of historic keyboards and typewriters, and part deeply researched textbook, Shift Happens is the work of a man who cares deeply about the design and function of a device that is an essential yet unseen part of our professional and personal life.

This change dates back to the Shift Wars, when competing typewriter companies had very different ideas about how their machines should accomplish the most basic of tasks: making upper and lowercase letters. It explores why Qwerty succeeded when competing layouts like Dvorak failed to gain widespread traction, and even goes on to discuss some of the allegedly worst keyboards that came along with the ZX Spectrum or PCJR. gone. also takes time.

I sat down with Marcin on Google Meet to discuss how the book came together and to ask if he's ever been able to figure out where the hell Qwerty came from (spoiler alert: it's complicated. Is.)).

The following transcript has been condensed for length and clarity.

I want to start by asking what is your background and how did you come to this project?

Professionally, I'm a product designer or UX designer, so always somewhere on this line between engineering and design. I'm originally from Poland, and I moved here to America a while back and started working at Google and Medium, which is probably part of the story of my interest in keyboards. I am currently in Figma.

When I was in Medium we were really encouraged to just write. And I started it partly to use what I'm making, and partly to try it out. In Medium, offices had individual typewriters, almost as decorations, and had rooms named after typewriters. I started looking at them and said, "Oh, these keys are interesting. Why is there backspace on this other side? Or why is it called that? Or why does this typewriter look so weird?"

My original idea was to write a bunch of medium stories about keyboards, but at some point, I literally counted the words. I was like, okay, I've written these two stories. They actually ended up being a lot more than I expected. And now if I just multiply by 10, that's the length of a book. So I almost mathematically worked myself into the idea of the book.

that's hilarious. Sorry, I'm on mute while you're talking. This is because I have a stupidly loud keyboard in front of me, and I don't want to ruin the transcription. Anyway, it's interesting that the book includes typewriters and both retro keyboards and then modern keyboards. How did you go about setting the boundaries of what you wanted to cover? where did you draw the line?

I wasn't initially thinking of this as a comprehensive history of all keyboards forever. I just wanted to center it around the stories. Luckily I found enough good stories and moments to actually sustain a narrative.

In half a year the qwerty keyboard will be 150 years old. So the book kind of starts from there. There were obviously typewriters before that, but they weren't as mass-produced, they weren't as important as the first QWERTY typewriters. So basically, I'm trying to go from that moment to today. It's obviously very typewriter history, but it's actually spent a bit more time on the computer side, especially since the eighties. So the book goes from early typewriters to computers, and includes a lot of the mechanical keyboard charms of today.

I think that last thread is a reflection of how keyboards were actually used throughout the decades. If you grab Christopher Latham Sholes, the creator of the first typewriter, and sit him down today, he'll know it's a QWERTY keyboard. But the way we use keyboards is very different. Typewriters used to be professional tools for people who had to undergo training. Now we just chat. We talk through typing. Most keyboards are now used for casual chatting rather than professional work.

Over the years I have come across many stories as to why Qwerty is the way it is. This is the idea of being able to type the word "typewriter" on a single line or to spread out vowels to slow down typists. I suspect the answer to this question may be "it's complicated", but did you get to the bottom of why qwerty is the way it is?

Yes, it's complicated. I found what I think is the bottom, but there may not be a bottom. The gist of it is that we will probably never know. Nothing was written. He was running his typewriter company as a startup. Christopher Latham Sholes really didn't want to document certain things for fear that they would be stolen. So they were a bit messed up. They didn't care to document it.

So some things I know it's not random, right? All signs point to this being incredibly deliberate. It wasn't to slow people down, it was to move things around carefully enough that you could still type quickly and you could type really fast even on the first typewriter. He discussed the same issue when qwerty was adopted in other languages long ago. You could argue that they did a minimum viable product. They moved a lot so it worked.

You can look at it and say that Qwerty is actually based on some very interesting ideas. Like every country, every language should have its own layout, you know? But on the other hand, you can look at qwerty and say, it's great that we have this universal standard. You can sit at a keyboard, configure it in software, and you can write in Japanese, you can write in Chinese. I'm not saying there's a right answer here, but I think there's something to appreciate about qwerty, even if you don't like it.

You mentioned the gimmick of the word "typewriter" on the top line, which I think from some statistical no accident. It was a deliberate marketing effort, and yes, it's cheap, whatever, but we're still talking about 150 years of it!

The other side of this is Dvorak. August Dvorak analyzed all the things we admire about how fingers move around the keyboard and how we change hands and stuff. So why didn't it work? And in a way the answer might be that all the things he cared about are important, but not important enough. They didn't market it well. He didn't tell the story properly.

Remington invests in training people. Remington invested in making keyboards universal and standardized. I think we see in some of those layouts that the math or physics or whatever goes into coming up with the layout... it's not enough.

Is there any part of the keyboard stuck that you think has a particularly interesting history?

I think backspace is the one that's really interesting to me. This did not happen on very early typewriters because the assumption was that professionals would never make mistakes. This was clearly proven wrong very quickly. So he bolted the backspace to the side of the typewriter. It was literally just back-space right, which in today's parlance is literally a left arrow. It didn't delete anything because how would you delete something like that? You can't make an atom out of paper.

Buried in this key are basically people 80 or older trying to make it easier to deal with typos. Today we completely forget about it because backspace gets erased, and it's not a big deal. Computers eventually made this possible because in the world of electrons, it's almost the opposite. Holding on to something to keep it from disappearing is the hard part. Things just disappear on their own if you are not paying attention.

It was that beautiful moment in history where people worked backspace into the physical universe in a way that is incredibly complex, but also mind-blowing at the same time. It's like watching the last fully practical effects movie before CGI takes over.

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