Shift Happens newsletter
#7: Shift + Shift
This is a newsletter for Shift happens, an upcoming book about keyboards.
This happened about two years ago. It was close to the end of a workday. I was a little stressed out, more than a little tired, a coworker was standing next to me asking for a certain file, and so I went to my computer’s terminal, keyed in three simple characters: c:\…
…and then I froze.
c:\ is a perfectly fine incantation for when you want to find a file, and you intend to start at the very top. It will work on every PC ever made. Other computers have equivalent sequences that achieve the same purpose; on a Mac, for example, you would type in cd ~instead. The thing is, I was using a Mac that day. What was even more interesting: I’ve been using Macs — exclusively — for the past twelve years.
Somewhere in the depths of my muscle memory, c:\ was still there from my long-gone PC days, dormant for over a decade, apparently just waiting to be awakened under certain conditions — such as being tired, stressed out, and absent-minded.
That seemed like the most incredible discovery (what else is hiding in there?) and some time later, in the course of researching the book, I ventured out to learn much more about muscle memory.
Lesson one: don’t call it that. The proper term is “motor memory.” Second discovery? Motor memory is completely independent from our main, declarative memory. Did you ever experience someone asking you about a keyboard shortcut, and realize you had to watch your fingers perform it in order to answer the question? Turns out, it’s just how we’re built.
But then, motor memory is also still memory. Which means it has that one counterintuitive property that we take for granted: you can’t actually forget anything. Sure, memories get reshaped, bundled with other memories, moved behind certain triggers — but they never truly disappear. It’s the same with motor memory. There were studies of people sitting down to a keyboard after twenty-five years — and picking up typing with very little trouble. Put two of these together and you will arrive at the same astonishing realization I once had: at some point in your life you might forget who you are, but you will still know how to type.
I am writing this on a machine called Z88. It’s a British portable computer, made in the eponymous year, lent to me by my friend Scott in one of my favourite unexpected moments: he simply brought it to a random lunch and showed it to me without fanfare — and then, to top it all off, let me have it for a while.
Z88 is a gorgeous computer. Just like Canon Cat, released around the same time, its purpose is to allow you to write and do little else. But its demeanour couldn’t be any different. It’s a light, dark, flat slate, hinting at a faraway future filled with iPads. More than half of its face is occupied by a keyboard, and the rest by a small monochromatic screen. Z88 is elegant, and possibly the most beautiful machine of its kind: gentler than the reliable American journalistic workhorse TRS-80 Model 100, simpler than the messy AlphaSmart, and with much more integrity all around than the modern hipster annoyance that is the FreeWrite.
It also has one of my favourite keyboard shortcuts ever. There is no on/off switch, or a dedicated key to turn it on. To get the machine running, you press the left Shift and the right Shift together.
It’s a shortcut that’s easy to remember. It’s pleasant to press, as Shifts are among the biggest keys on most keyboards. But it’s also really clever. It breathes a new life to the first key ever added to a keyboard in its history, and criminally underused afterwards. And it immediately sets the tone: this machine might look simple, but it’s not simplistic — it’s a thoughtful tool that will reward mastery. Those two Shifts pressed together are just as good a prelude to using the Z88, as Slide To Unlock would be to the iPhone twenty years later.
When one day I took the Z88 to a café, it immediately became a conversation starter. Just like other thoughtful British computers — ZX81, ZX Spectrum, and Sinclair QL — you could put the 39-year-old Z88 on your desk today and it wouldn’t look terribly out of place. And just like all those computers, Z88 was designed by Rick Dickinson.
I mentioned Rick in the first issue of this newsletter. I talked how much the interview with him meant to me (it wasn’t the last time I would). One of my first “real” interviews for the book, it ended up being great fun, gave me a lot of material for the ZX Spectrum chapter, and assured me I’m not a complete disaster when interviewing. But it also did something else. It renewed my faith in storytelling about design. That way Rick enthralled me by telling me how he cared about the design of his products? That way was possibly mine to have, too.
But I’m not writing this to reminisce about the interview again, or focus on portable typewriters, or talk about the fascinating and — to America — exotic years of British computing. I’m writing this because Rick Dickinson died a few weeks ago, on April 24, after a failed battle with cancer.
I wasn’t ready for this aspect of writing the book. At all. I used to say it’s nice to be a historian of computers, since you can walk among the people who invented them. But I forgot that only works up until a point. The daughter of Dr. İhsan Sıtkı Yener, the inventor of Turkish keyboard I wrote about in 2015, contacted me and promised to put in touch with her father — but I procrastinated and was devastated to hear of his death a year later. After I did some serious digging, I found the (awesome) name of the project manager behind the infamous PCjr keyboard — Ralph Crawford Byxbee Jr. — and got excited about the prospects of talking to him, just in time to find his obituary from a prior month. Later on, I found out why Regis Magyar, an IBM keyboard designer I really wanted to talk to and tried to contact a few times, never responded to my letters.
And then, I learned of Rick’s death through an offhand, semi-related tweet.
I’d like to think Rick liked our interview, too. I was nervous and technical issues abounded — at one point my MacBook went haywire and started playing back the beginning of our conversation to both of us. But at the end of our chat, Rick said “We’ll talk again,” and I was genuinely excited to do so. I imagined I’d send him the finished book and say “hey, I have a whole chapter about your machine, and I feel I made a pretty great case for why it was actually a really well-designed one.” And then, one year, I’ll happen to be in the U.K., and perhaps we’d meet in person, now both civilians.
(Rick’s “we’ll talk again” sounds so much more different today, when I realize that he already knew his cancer was back then.)
I don’t know if I was the last person that interviewed Rick, but I think I will be the last one to publish the interview. It’s a strange responsibility. I’ll pour over video and audio from our chat once again, to make sure I capture as much of that conversation, as much of what Rick tried to express, as much as who he was, as possible.
But I couldn’t wait until whenever in 2019 to tell you about him. I am sending this off newsletter cycle, the moment I figured out what to say. I struggled for a few weeks — how do you talk about a death of someone close to you in this unusual and abstract way? — until I grabbed the Z88, and turned it on by pressing both Shifts at the same time without even thinking about it.
Throughout his life, Rick designed keyboards that taught millions of people in the U.K. (and poorer countries like Poland) how to use computers. Most people don’t know that it was him; like with good design, most will not even realize it was anyone at all. I’ll be happy if my book makes the connection more obvious, in a chapter that talks as much about Rick’s keyboards, as it does about the beauty of design that appears pedestrian, and the importance of careful design that feels like it never even happened.
Rick will live on in the memories of people who knew him, who worked with him, who were lucky to get a bit of his time that one morning in early 2017, despite his advancing illness. But when you design a few great keyboards, something else happens, too.
In a strange way, Rick will also get to live on in the memories of all the hands that learned programming on the ZX81, hands that played games on the Spectrum, and hands that wrote office memos on the QL. And in the hands that typed on the black rectangle of Z88, hands that unbeknownst to their owners will forever wait for the right circumstances to once more, instantly, automatically, touch both Shifts to turn it on — something they learned in the fading years of the 1980s, and something they will never forget.
This was newsletter №7 for Shift happens, an upcoming book about keyboards.