Shift Happens newsletter
This is a newsletter for Shift happens, an upcoming book about keyboards.
What am I typing this issue on?
Here’s one thing that’s been bringing me a surprising amount of joy when writing the book. No, it wasn’t figuring out final answers to puzzling questions (there really aren’t many), or finding Some Thing’s definitive first appearance (history, it turns out, generally dislikes the word “first” as much as it does “best”). It was encountering all the seemingly confused concepts, machines that didn’t quite belong, ideas before or after their time. The in-betweeners.
For a hot 19th-century second, the first popular typewriter looked like a sewing machine, complete with a foot pedal for “return.” Early 1960s computer keyboards had an extra component inside to… hit the case and make typewriter-like noise when typing. Along the same lines, there was an early computer with typewriter knobs. And a joystick to be mounted on top of arrow keys. And a typewriter with AM radio built in:
And many forgotten pocket keyboards:
Both the Canon Cat and the Ryan Seacrest case we talked about before are good examples, too. So are iPhones with built-in keyboards, early screen-less teleprompters, a Polish computer that repurposed a toy piano case, many amazing watch keyboards, or this monstrosity. Even your very keyboard has a few in-betweeners: Print Screen, Insert, Pause, Num Lock, and Scroll Lock all once helped bridge a gap between two eras, only to be half-reinvented or simply… abandoned.
All these examples often seem funny today, each one a horseless carriage of its time. But each one has something to say if you care to listen: it might be a story of comfort and familiarity, of a once-needed connective tissue, of the negotiations with — or simply the fear of — that steamroller that is The Future.
I am typing this on Olivetti Praxis 48. This 1964 office machine is an in-betweener in more ways than one. It’s an electric typewriter, from that now-forgotten era of electrically assisted keyboards that came after typewriters and before computers. It’s also an office machine that does something few other office machines dare to do: it looks absolutely gorgeous. You can fall in love with its compact size, its cantilevered keyboard, its ultra-symmetric buttons, its floating keys dipped in green. Once you get closer, it becomes a catalogue of deliberate details: you can press any key to turn it on, ridges on the side make it slender, green accents reappear in different places.
There are many beautiful keyboards — I keep a running tally of them in a Twitter thread — but the 48 goes one better. It tries to bring its playfulness and thoughtfulness into an environment that usually cares little about all of these things. There was no 47, and there would be no 49. In a worse world, the 48 wouldn’t exist and no one would miss it. In this one, we’re lucky that it did.
(Adam Richardson recently wrote an ode to this machine, filled with amazing photos. It’s worth checking out.)
Here’s a confession. I often feel like an in-betweener myself: an engineer turned designer, a European still getting used to America, someone that took a break from his professional career to write a random book. I am still figuring out how to navigate those largely unlabeled areas, and how to be less and less afraid of uncertainty. Your words of support help. Knowing kind people in similar situations does as well. But, in a strange way, so do the in-between machines. In all of them, I find comfort; in those that succeed — like the 48 did — I find validation.
What’s going on with the book?
I finished reading the first draft. It was an unusual experience. It felt so familiar, and yet I learned new things — even new words — from my own writing. It was peculiar, being able to read a book and rewrite it on the spot if needed. There were (few) moments I stopped in frustration; other times I ended up thoroughly elated.
I was prepared to hate it all. I didn’t. The beginning needs to be rewritten, and there are many rough edges. But the book didn’t feel boring, or long, or confused. It came together as a whole. I felt proud of it.
But whether this is good or bad, I have no idea.
Here’s a confession. I’m not actually writing it on the 48. I can’t. I broke it while attempting to fix it. Turns out, trying to glue together a broken-in-transit spacebar is harder than it seems. Turns out, using toothpaste to make metal more shiny makes that toothpaste go inside the mechanism and clog the entire thing. Turns out, electric typewriters are much more complicated and deserve much more respect than I gave them.
This is my first book. It’s hard for me to know how much to trust my own feelings, and how much to allow more experienced people to tell me what to do. I will continue trying to figure it out. I know I will bring my 48 to a mechanic and they’ll fix it. With the book, it’s more complicated; the more I look at it, the more it itself feels like an in-betweener. Despite trying, I honestly cannot point to another book quite like it.
Right now, I’m halfway through rewriting big parts of the book to arrive at the second manuscript. Then, it’ll be time to show a whole of it — or individual chapters — to other people. I hope you’ll be one of them.
A mini milestone
From the first day, I wanted to celebrate all the milestones, no matter how small — to reduce the pressure on the actual book having to live up to unreasonable expectations, and to help carry me through the arduous process. The most recent one? Someone just called me “author of Shift Happens,” and… seeing it phrased this way, for the first time, felt wonderful.
“I forgot what it’s called, but it’s this special typo machine.”
A keyboard mystery
Can you figure out why does this keyboard look unusual? (And if so, can you tell me how you arrived at the answer? I’m genuinely curious.)
A secret document I’m sharing with you
Here’s the bibliography for my book, including links to things you can read online for free!
Come hang out with me
If you’re in Berlin in November, come see my talk at a conference called Beyond Tellerrand! It’s titled “An abridged history of having fun with the keyboard,” and it will be recorded. Can’t wait for you to see it.