I’m writing this on a TA Adler-Royal Satellite 40. It’s among the last typewriters ever made, the final breath of a dying species, arriving just before personal computers with Word took over.
Even the Triumph-Adler-Royal name is a sad story of companies needing to merge in order to survive
In time, 1980s electronic typewriters like the Satellite became derisively known as “wedges.” Wedges cheated you out of all that was good: precisely machined metal was replaced by cheap plastics, rich bell sounds by electronic squeaks, the beloved typebars by an unpleasant cacophony of the daisy wheel. They’re really just shitty personal computers dressed up to resemble typewriters, loved by pretty much no one.
This Satellite belongs to the San Francisco Public Library, available to anyone in a special study room. This particular library has as much glamour as the typewriter. Its 1990s redesign made it cold and impersonal, the smell reminds me more of jail than a bookstore (yep, I know both), and the library’s duties to provide shelter sometimes result in unpleasant interactions – ask me one day about a guy sitting opposite from me saying to his phone “hey, Siri, show me bondage videos” at casual conversational volume. (But really, don’t ask me. I’d rather talk about the jail.)
And yet, after all this, this is still a library.
I wonder if every aspiring historian goes through the same motions. Here are mine.
I started research on the internet assuming that’s where I’d find most of my stuff. In time, I learned this was misguided: most of what’s worth anything is hiding somewhere on paper, or in heads of people who are still around.
At the library, I started looking at books – but only later went further. I picked up magazines; I learned the difference between microfilm and microfiche; I eventually went to other libraries in San Francisco, and even paid a researcher to visit one much farther away and report back.
Despite all this, I still have a lot to learn about being a historian. Sometimes, sitting in a library like I am now, a fear grasps me: somewhere, right next to me, on a piece of microfilm no bigger than a movie ticket, there might be a real smoking gun, an answer to one of big keyboard mysteries… but I won’t ever know it’s there.
And “right next to me” is complex: if you can’t find something locally, you can request it from another library. This is known as “interlibrary loans.” I learned of them only recently, and since then I’ve sustained an endless ribbon of obscure books and materials coming my way from all around America.
But since they’re so hard to find, I promised myself I will scan each one of them, and then put into that library in the cloud, so that perhaps some historians of the future won’t have to fear as much as I do.
I started scanning in October of 2017. I am up to about 200 titles now, counting 3½ million words. I often scan watching TV or doing other things – it’s almost a meditative thing – and it brings the preservationist inside me a lot of pride, this idea that even before my book, I’m already giving back.
Many of the scanned documents are dead ends to me, and some only have a sentence or two worth of interest. But sometimes, I get lucky.
Recently, I somehow convinced Harvard to send me a book via interlibrary. It was a 135-year-old volume, perhaps the first real typewriting manual in history. I scanned it all carefully, then promptly returned it.
Later, I started leafing through my scan. And on one page, I found something very weird:
No, it wasn’t the Space Board. It was the thing right above the 5 key, looking like r. – a key legend I haven’t seen before. I checked my database and found a few more mysterious r.s around, but that was all I could get.
And so, as I often do, I asked two people on Twitter. Soon, others joined us. Some suggested that perhaps it was a nice ligature for Mr. and Dr., but that felt pretty luxurious at a time when typewriters sacrificed even most basic symbols. Others speculated that it was a misprint of a more common character (& or %, perhaps?). They also found other places where r. appeared – but just like my references, they were all abstract. It wasn’t even obvious a typewriter with that key was ever actually made.
Then, on a whim, I searched eBay’s completed auctions for remington perfected, and after going through a bunch of common typewriters, I found one that made me gasp:
The r. was real.
I messaged the seller, but they no longer had it. I asked him to pass on a note to the owner, but they couldn’t bother. And then, someone on Twitter pointed out the answer was staring us in the face in the very same book I originally looked at, just a page over: “In such abbreviations as Mr. or Dr., the small letter r and period can be made with one touch by using the fourth key from the left in first row.”
And a few pages after that, there was an example of its output:
Mystery solved, right? But some things still didn’t make sense. Why dedicate half a key to something so obscure, and something that looks exactly the same as typing r and . separately? The answers to both, as it turned out, required just a bit of context.
This was among the first typewriters with shifting, and shifting was hard – split between Upper Case and Lower Case keys on the opposite sides of the keyboard, and requiring a lot of force to lift a heavy mechanism. Putting r. in a shifted position was a stroke of genius – in common usage (e.g. Mr. Wichary) it followed an uppercase letter, and was immediately followed by another one, so this saved a few shifts and unshifts along the way.
The other part? None of the typewritten parts in the 1884 manual came from a typewriter. They were usually composed using printing presses with fonts resembling typewriters – and so the example r. above was likely just synthesized.
To get some closure, I needed to see the actual typewritten page. Although I knew how unlikely finding one would be – a rare model, and 140 years ago – I spent many hours online trying to. I did dozens of searches: remington samples, 1879 typewritten documents, perfected typewriter… I poured over thousands of documents. No luck.
Some screenshots from my research
I decided to email a few more people who perhaps knew more than me. I also created a document summarizing my findings for the future. But I didn’t want to wait. And just that evening, I tried again, with more clicking and more searches. At some point, I stumbled upon Digital Commonwealth – a Massachusetts non-profit – and noticed they have a bunch of really old documents. And so I focused there, methodically going through everything looking like it was typed before the last century displaced the previous one.
It all felt so close. At some point I found a document with opening and closing quotations – another rare thing on the same typewriter – and that gave me a boost of energy. But the symbol proved elusive for a bit longer. Only around midnight, with my eyes almost closing, I saw it:
Also of note: *four* spaces after a full stop
It was a letter from February 26, 1884, and at the beginning of second paragraph, there it was, a proof of typewritten life. It indeed looked different that standalone “r” followed by a full stop, and it was a confirmation that those few documents we started with actually portrayed a typewriter that once existed. I could finally go to sleep.
Even better? This document is in public domain, and I can put it in my book.
I really want to do that. Not just because this is a very nice looking ligature (the standalone full stop needed to be huge so the force of a key press wouldn’t puncture the paper… but this here could remain small and typographically correct).
Not even just because this was fun, like reaching back in time and shaking someone’s hand in appreciation (I love those moments). Not even because it proved me wrong – it turned out a key to becoming a good historian is to use both books and the internet in creative ways.
But also because this would otherwise be one more forgotten keyboard. The key ultimately was a frivolity, and it disappeared already in mid-1880s, replaced by more practical symbols: %, £, #. And yet, it’s nice to know that even the creators of typewriters fought for better typography, and just like with every creative process, there were some dead ends, blind alleys, and different ideas early on. It’s nice to know that already in 1880s, someone was thinking about keyboard shortcuts.
I know there’s at least one person out there who has the Remington Perfected I saw on eBay. But I don’t know if even they understand the importance of that key. Perhaps to save a keyboard, you need to tell its story: shine a light on one forgotten keyboard from 1880s, and nod towards another one, exactly a century later, in a building that taught me to care more about history.
Another key mystery – this one not quite solved – and a research document I prepared with some theories. Maybe you’ll lend a hand?
I finished the third draft! I didn’t get as far with word-weeding as I expected, but I removed 20% of the book, and rewrote more than a few troubled chapters.
The evolution of the sticky wall (see issue №2)
Rewriting at this scale proved fascinating to me. At times, I was just taking longish bits and pieces from different chapters and reassembling them in different configurations, having no idea whether that would feel any good – only re-reading a few weeks later would give the answer. This wasn’t losing sight of the forest while looking at trees; this was looking too closely at forests.
Next steps? Printing a new prototype, sending individual chapters to people, and otherwise focusing on the visual side for a while.
I’m also nervous, since I didn’t go through every single document I amassed since finishing the first draft – new books, new scans, new links. Doing that would require infinite time. And so, sometimes a fear grasps me that somewhere right next to me – literally right next to me, at home, in the pile of books next to my desk, in the database on my very computer – there is a real smoking gun, or an answer to one of big mysteries… and I will never know it’s there.
But at least the fourth draft will have the typewriter with the r. key.
Dr. Marcin Wichary
This was newsletter №14 for Shift happens, an upcoming book about keyboards. Read previous issues · Check out all the secret documents