Shift Happens newsletter
#10: A time machine behind the cypress trees
This is a newsletter for Shift happens, an upcoming book about keyboards.
I’ve had, so far, a lot of luck with keyboard-related adventures. Two years ago I stumbled upon a magical typewriter museum in Spain, just a week later I visited what felt like its equally astonishing computer counterpart, and my recent trip to Japan also became a keyboard safari.
The lucky streak continues. Earlier this year, I was looking at my friend’s map, and noticed a few yellow stars fifty miles north of San Francisco. One was some sort of an interesting cypress tree tunnel. Another one, right next door? An old radio station. The combination seemed irresistible, and I immediately started scheming a road trip.
That trip happened a few days ago. After a beautiful drive through winding roads of Point Reyes National Seashore, we arrived at the tree tunnel. It was gorgeous and apparently well-known locally, as evidenced by a steady trickle of visitors and — I’m assuming — an unending voyage of their megapixels to the Instagram servers.
But what awaited at the end of the tunnel — the building with prominent No public restrooms signs and an unassuming side door entrance — was what became a highlight of this trip.
The building — KPH radio station — was once a radio station in the less common, maritime sense: handling Morse code and teletype communication between ships, and allowing to exchange weather info, distress calls, personal messages, and news (sometimes printed on ships within their own newspapers).
I didn’t know that before I went. I didn’t know that this station was specifically dealing with non-voice communication. I also didn’t know that the entire building was effectively a time capsule.
The facility closed in 1998 as the last Morse code coast station in North America. By that time, a lot of its equipment was already obsolete and with little value. That, combined with the precarious location amidst parkland, effectively froze it in time. Today, the radio station is managed by volunteers, “a bunch of radio squirrels” (their words, not mine) who occasionally open it up to visitors.
Inside, it’s not just 1990s technology, but also snapshots from many prior decades. Old lifeboat radiotelegraphs from the 1950s…
…workplace warnings from the 1980s…
…and well-used rolodexes that remember the arrival of both of the above:
And since none of the communications uses voice, there are keyboards. Many, many keyboards. Early teletypes with distinctive tubular keys and evocative stickers…
…beige typewriters for beige offices of the 1970s…
…distinctive blue keyboards and dot-matrix printers of radioteletypes…
…and an earlier generation of the same, underneath a notice board that stopped caring:
In an adjacent room, I slowly pieced together I was seeing something incredible: many generations of keyboards all gathered in one area.
But there was a problem — one of the volunteers was in the way, sitting in the chair in the exact middle. After about an hour, I got tired of waiting for him to leave to get my perfect shot, and started taking photos with him. This ended up the best one:
There are keyboards here spanning a century. An early Morse key, from before 1900, predating the typewriters and aiding in construction of the first typewriter prototype. A classic turn-of-the-century Underwood typewriter. A 1930s perforator keyboard, turning keystrokes into paper tape and allowing them to be stored. A 1950s teletype. Hanging above, two radioteletype keyboards from two decades later. And, up close and personal, a boring beige 104-keyer from late 1990s. This frame is one iPhone away from the entire history of typing in a single photograph — except it’s ruined by the presence of a guy with a surprisingly capable bladder.
Until, that is, someone told me what that guy was doing. He was listening to the Morse code transmission from a nearby ship — SS Jeremiah O’Brien — and writing it down on the typewriter for others to read:
This blew my mind. This was one of the original use cases of the typewriter. Yes, from very early on typewriters were used for office correspondence, but the typewriter and the office had to grow up together, both enabling and accelerating each other. They only fully came into their own a few decades into the joint adventure.
Using typewriter to aid with Morse transcription, on the other hand, was needed from day one. Writing someone else’s Morse down by hand was slow and tiring, and the results sometimes difficult to decipher. Typewriters solved all of these problems in one go, and therefore many of the 1880s or 1890s models were employed as Morse transcribers, or “mills.”
Within decades, the problem was solved in better ways. Long-distance typewriters known as telescriptors and teletypes improved on the process by automatically translating your keystrokes into Morse code and its successors. Already a hundred years ago, typewriters as mills were a thing of the past.
And yet, here I was in 2018, seeing a typewriter being exactly that. This was something I thought I’d never witness. The idea that I knew only from old black-and-white photos was now happening in front of my eyes — and the 40-megapixel sensor inside a camera I almost forgot to bring.
It was a thrilling moment. In that instant, the building that was a time capsule became a time machine.
The entire experience felt wonderful in a number of different ways, too.
First of all, the importance of many of the typewriters and computers in Spain back in 2016 went over my head. But at the radio station, I understood most of what was going on. The research I’ve done and the time spent embedded in the world of keyboards, were now paying off. This wasn’t just fascinating as a random freeze frame of the past — just like with at least one earlier road trip, it was past I could read with ease.
I understood that the paper tape I saw in various places — dots on one side, dashes on the other — was what eventually led to ASCII and Unicode. I knew that the yellow areas on the cool 24-hour clock were there to aid with radio silence in the literal, not figurative sense. I understood the value of a more modern, semi-automatic Morse keyer. And I knew typewriters being used as mills was the first building block in QWERTY’s path to domination. In time, QWERTY keyboards would take over everything: creative writing, desktop publishing, calculations, games, Chinese typewriters… but the long-distance typewriter superseding the Morse key was an earliest example, happening even before typewriters turned penmanship into a rare skill.
If knowing all this context feels so great to me, I thought, perhaps people who’ll read the book might feel the same?
I am also happy with this photo because this is exactly the kind I’d love to see in my book. Not just a competent, sharp photograph of a keyboard, but a photo that is itself a story, providing depth, context, and emotion.
I took other photos that were small stories themselves — a modern keyboard facing a reflection of its predecessor, a set of parking garages for personal Morse keys, a note on the wall explaining confusing keyboard shortcuts. And one that I really liked, not only because of its gorgeous 1970s esthetics, or because it rewards closer inspection, but because despite spending years with keyboards, it still taught me something new:
This is a more modern Morse keyboard. It’s thoughtful enough to arrive with custom keys for pro-signs — Morse’s name for shorthand like BK for interrupting transmission in progress (BreaK in), SK to say good-bye (Stop Keying), the famous CQ… or, in other words, lol’s and fwiw’s grandparents — originally keyed by hand.
Before last week I had no idea these keyboards even existed. On one hand, it’s an invention bringing Morse closer to people, allowing them to just type without knowing anything about dots and dashes — just like today you don’t have to understand TCP/IP or WiFi to send an iPhone message to a friend.
On the other hand, those keyboards also take away some of the humanity of keying. Morse outputted by these will be perfectly timed, automatic, mechanical. On the other side of the link, you will sound like a machine. The volunteer operating the mill told me later he knew exactly what person was keying in the messages from SS Jeremiah O’Brien based on the peculiarities of their timing. Morse key didn’t just allow you to chat. It also gave you a voice. The keyboard, as great as it was, took that away.
This is the last secret I discovered, long after coming back home, but I bet KPH has more secrets to share. I will try to arrange for a tour of the transmitting station further away — one that I suspect has even more keyboards. But I’m also excited to go back to the 1920 art deco building at the end of the cypress tunnel. I’ll go past people instagramming their photos, oblivious to the fact that they drove dozens of miles and missed the true magic just yards away. I’ll take off my lens cap and open the side door. And then, once more, I will step back in time.