23    Jun 20100 comments

From Antiquated to Hi-Tech: a Specific Genealogy of Communication

1868. Business is changed forever.

2010. Every day hundreds of millions plop down behind a desk. It is a stationary space collecting mementos and notes, candy wrappers, pencil shavings. It is plugged in. A cup of coffee, a stretch to wish away sleep and the screen flickers on. Another day of business.  Fingers rip across their QWERTY keyboards, and a mouse click takes us from our private enclave to a public sphere for minds to gather, reflect, and comment. Because of the advances in technology, modern day business is closer and more integrated than it has ever been. It has changed our perception of branding, reconfigured how we market, and most importantly how we interact. Now, there’s real-time editing, conference calling, social networking, screen sharing, voice to text decryption, semantic web browsing. We harness not just the power of our human intellect but a collective group of machines, whose internal parts hum hot in deduction and translation of the mega tons of data.  In fact, the information is becoming so boundless that Google’s new database “Caffeine” takes up 100 million gigabytes of space adding information by the hundreds of thousands of gigabytes per day. Just to give a rough estimate about how much information we’re talking this is 100 Petabytes, think 500 billion pages of standard printed text or 2 billion 4-door filing cabinets full of text, or an estimated 2% of all the words ever spoken by man.  Let’s just be glad Google is using up their basement for storage.

But how did it all get to this? Well, this week is a week to celebrate just that fact.

Although not the exclusive contributing factor, the typewriter has defined much of how we interact with modern day computer. It is a sort of Godfather character, establishing what is today of the most fundamental forms of communication, typing.

Christopher Latham Sholes patented the first “practical” typewriter in 1868. This was five years and two patents after he had produced the first typewriter with his partner James Densmore.  The modern typewriter embodied the significant development of the QWERTY system. The idea was to gather keys that were often used in succession closely together. The practical reason was to slow down typing to solve jamming problems. It stuck. QWERTY has become the de facto key arrangement on modern day computers. So while solving one jam, they unknowingly slowed down communication more than 100 years into the future!

So in 1868, technology was the typewriter. Our form of communications was the letter and telegraph as the telephone would not be invented four 8 years by Alexander Graham Bell. It is easy to see why the typewriter was so widely adopted and became the standard for business and for writers across the world. It made it possible to work faster while being more legible. But it took a few years to work out the kinks. By about 1910 typewriters were more or less standardized. A significant innovation that led to the standardized instrument was the development of the “shift” key. This key literally shifted the basket carriage meaning a different portion of the keys would be in contact with the ink ribbon. This made it possible to cut the number of keys in half, and have one key that delivered all capital letters. Because the basket was heavy, and the pinky finger struck the shift key, it was very difficult to hold this key for more than a few letters. This led the invention of the “shift lock”, which suspended the basket to access capital letters, which has become our modern day “caps lock”.

Today, much like years ago, we have early adopters. Those of you who ran out and get the IPad, are tapping your fingers waiting for the IPhone 4.0 or the next Droid before the rest of the crew, hot and fresh off the assembly line. There are a few test pilots of yesteryear who claim their rights to a piece of technological history. Authors such as Mark Twain who claimed his novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was not penned but typed and is what he claims to be the first important typewritten manuscript. E. E Cummings famously used the typewriter for its machine like effect; one famous example is the Grasshoper Poem.  And philosopher Nietzsche is reported to have used the typewriter in attempt to quell incipient headaches.

There is also the vintage appeal of the typewriter. Many writers have come back to use the machine as “new” medium or instrument to create – maybe we could call them “late adopters”? Authors such as Hunter S. Thompson in his article “Hey RUBE!” and passages from David Sedaris’s Me Talk Prette One Day are some of the many examples.

Oh yeah, one last interesting fact, the word typewriter is the longest word that can be typed using one row of keys on the keyboard.

So this week, cut a slice of birthday cake and celebrate the history of the way you communicate with the world.

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