In 1867, a Milwaukee inventor Christopher Latham Sholes showed a prototype of the first true typewriter to an outside investor, James Densmore. Sholes labored over the machine for almost a year at this point, taking it from a crude one-key prototype to a full typewriter.
The investor looked at and said “It’s a great proof of concept.” It stung, this backhanded compliment, this casual dismissal of all the effort made so far. But Densmore was right, and they both got to work. They solved many technical problems. They came up with the QWERTY layout and invented the spacebar. They filed for various patents. They enlisted other people. They built dozens of prototypes, and saw half of them destroyed in use by eager beta testers. They attempted real production a few times – failing, failing, and failing again.
It took them six years to improve the typewriter to the point they were happy with it. Only then they landed a coveted meeting with one rare company that could mass-produce their artifact while keeping the precision necessary for it to function – the arms maker Remington. And so they took the typewriter from the shop in Milwaukee to Ilion, NY. They walked into Remington offices, and they showed off the machine they spent their years and their fortune on, describing all the challenges it took them so long to enumerate and conquer.
Then, the Remington’s Powers That Be nodded, looked at the typewriter, and said “It’s a great proof of concept.”
* * *
I finished the first draft of the book a few days ago, and I feel the same way I imagine Sholes and Densmore did that day in Ilion. The book is written; the book needs so much more work. Now I get to editing, rewriting, production, and publishing. Some of these things I’m familiar with. Many I’m not.
My first draft is still a proof of concept, but I’m also already really proud of it – there are so many stories here, unexpected connections, personal moments, interesting and illuminating facts… and they all connect into an epic story, starting in 1867 and ending just around the corner.
The Remington people improved the machine; after one more year of focused work, they eventually brought it to market. What I’m typing on right now, and what you usually type on, started then and there.
The prototype brought to the meeting vs. the final product
It’s an iKBC F87 and I swear to God, I have to look up this confusing name every single time.
It’s a nice mechanical keyboard, although not a really fancy one. Its keys make a racket, but I live alone. Its missing the numeric keypad on the right, but I never used it. I swapped the key caps for blank ones – and when most people customize their Esc, I celebrated the creative process by making Backspace special instead.
I bought it partly as research; it has lights and things I tried once and never used again. And I like the juxtaposition of it with the typewriter above. After typing on the real keyboard for a day, my MacBook Pro seems like an insubstantial toy.
The most important thing, though: This is a keyboard I wrote my book on. It’s kind of an amazing thing, being able to say that.
I have an ongoing Twitter thread where I keep sharing moments of discovery, delight, surprise, and worry as I’m working on this project. It starts innocently in July 2016, but then it spreads its wings. It’s a nice way to catch up with the whole process.
Now that I have a first draft of the book, I wrote some scripts to analyze it. Here are a few results:
I’m presenting this with pride, but also trepidation. 320,000 is a lot of words. I don’t think I’d mind a long book, but I don’t want a lengthy one. My plan is to work with at least one editor to figure out how to chisel this mountain of prose into something that strikes a good balance between depth and approachability.
(I also want to make this explicit: I wrote enough material for three regular books. If you’re looking at all this considering writing something yourself and worrying it took me a long time, my project might not be necessarily the best yardstick!)
This is fun – these are all the keys I mention in the book at least three times. When I came up with the (temporary) title Shift happens prior to writing a single word, I didn’t really know that Shift will end up being the hero of my book! (Also, check out the list of all the keys; some might surprise you.)
I wrote the book completely out of order, picking up whatever chapter made sense at the time. Sometimes it’d be an easy one right after a hard one, other times writing one allowed me to unblock another. I started with the one about fonts – but of course – and I left the intro and outro until the very end.
(I wrote out of order, but there was an order; I left myself enough breadcrumbs so that I can now tighten it all in rewrites.)
I love my dashes and commas, and my average sentence length is almost 20 words. (I blame Stanisław Lem, whom I read a lot as a kid.) I bet all of these numbers will go down in editing; it will be fun to compare these results with the finalized book text.
And this below is what readable.io tells me about my writing. Is this… good?
One of the enjoyable moments of any longer project – outside of a certain pride of finishing something that gave you a thousand opportunities to bail – is that you can analyze it and see interesting patterns. And so, here are even more charts and stats!
Every one of you, really. I appreciate you reading this, sending words of encouragement, sharing anything keyboard-related. This can be, at times, an incredibly anxious and terrifying process. All of this helps.
What’s next? For me, a vacation – and then finding a job and otherwise reintegrating into society. For you, in the next issue I’ll share more about the process of arriving at the first draft: what I learned, and what was great and… not so great. (We’ll also come back to keyboard mysteries.)
For the book? A bit of a break. It’ll do it good. Then I’ll start taking that proof of concept and making it real.
This has been newsletter №4 for Shift happens, an upcoming book about keyboards. Read previous issues · Visit the secret store