Artemy Lebedev

§ 105. Where once was a comma

June 14, 2004

The American engineer Christopher L. Sholes had been busy creating typewriters since the late 1860s.

Nearly all accounts of his work retell the same myth: in the first models typebars would clash and get stuck because of the high speed of typing, so Sholes tried to set the most frequently used letters as far apart as he could (the typebars still jammed in the late 20th century in the most advanced models, though). This is the way the letterkey layout called QWERTY (the first letters placed in the first row of the layout) allegedly came into being. Nobody knows the precise history of the origin of this sequence of keys, while Sholes didn’t leave any records.

Howstuffworks Why are the keys arranged the way they are on a QWERTY keyboard? (wrong)

Wikipedia QWERTY

In the first models of typewriters letterkeys were arranged in the alphabetical order (the traces thereof are still visible in today’s keyboards: see the letters FGHJKL in the middle). It didn’t take inventors long to conclude that alphabet was not the best pattern of arranging the letterkeys, because in writing some letters tend to be used more often than the others, and typing on a typewriter with letterkeys arranged in the alphabetical order was not that easy. By the way, one of the particular features of the key layout was that all Latin vowels stood in the upper row (except for the letter A, but it was still there in the French layout: AZERTY).

The QWERTY layout was exactly designed to speed up typing: at that time typists used to type with two fingers; the blind 10-finger method (touch typing) was not used until the late 1890s.

Housekeeping tip

All the letters of the word TYPEWRITER stand in the upper row. This is believed to have helped persuade customers in shops: a salesman would quickly type the key word and thereby reveal the advantages of a typewriter.

Anyway, after Sholes sold his patent in 1873 to Remington (a company that manufactured sewing machines back then and produces firearms nowadays), the QWERTY keyboard became a de facto standard.

The Russian letterkey layout originated from America in the late 19th century. The author has failed so far to find any credible evidence of the first company to produce typewriters with this layout, let alone its authorship. The only thing definitely known is that all firms that produced typewriters with the Russian key layout employed the same one— ЙIУКЕН (or ЙЦУКЕН after the reform of the Russian language) that was dubbed “Standard”.

“Standard” Russian letterkey layout. The numerals row lacks one, zero and three that would be replaced with I, О и З respectively. After the spelling reform of 1918 which resulted in eliminating three letters, i, yer and yat started to be withdrawn from typewriters, while the letterkeys earlier occupied by them were amended and assigned arbitrary symbols like plus and minus, which had remained there among other keys for quite a while.

Underwood, the world’s best American typewriter. Catalog. Odessa. 1907

There’s still not enough space for the letters Ц and Э in the lower three rows, but all punctuation marks are strictly in lower case

Mendeleyev, I.P., Potapova, A.N. (1914). Rapid and Confident Typing Manual. Petrograd

We can presume that searching for the best letterkey layout, the inventors consulted composers. The fact that the ЙЦУКЕН layout is in some ways similar to the Russian type case is evident (which allows one to go further and draw conclusions regarding the similarity of the QWERTY layout to the Latin type case—comparing them is all it takes to see that, although this similarity is not mentioned in literature).

All small letters in large sections in the middle of the type case stand in the middle of the Russian typewriter layout, too

Kolomnin, P. (1899). Concise Printing Manual. St. Petersburg

Housekeeping tip

The first typewriter (the Yanalif model) was produced in the USSR in Kazan only in 1929. At first it was manufactured with Latin (!) letterkeys. It means that for at least 30 years after being put on the market all typewriters with the Russian font had been made abroad.

Capital letters, infrequently used symbols and numerals were placed in the upper case of typewriters’ layout. Punctuation marks were always in the lower case.

In the 20th century letterkeys were slightly rearranged in Russian typewriters due to the advent of electric typewriters and changes in typing methods. It took some time for comma to move and stand on the left hand side from the full point.

Makarova, N.V. (1971). 50 Lessons of Typing. Moscow: MGU Publishing House

Although Soviet computers are now extinct like dinosaurs, their keyboards were developed in view of the special traits of the Russian alphabet. All Soviet models were two or three keys broader than their American and European counterparts, which allowed for enough place for all characters and punctuation marks to be placed on the right.

Punctuation marks are in the same case as small letters
Iskra 007–32. 1986

Punctuation marks stand in the upper case only because all letters of the Russian alphabet are in the upper case
Microsha PC. 1991

But in the late 1980s foreign personal computers arrived in the USSR. Producing keyboards with account for the length of the Russian alphabet was and is uncommon. Therefore, some imbecile was told (or did he volunteer?—whatever) to Russianize a keyboard that was available. And this imbecile, apparently a programmer, did not do just a silly thing, but perpetrated a crime by putting comma in the upper case, his reasoning being the Russian alphabet is long, while the number of keys on the keyboard is only enough for the Latin alphabet.

Commas and full stops. Two buttons on the left hand side are for the English layout. The button on the right hand side—the Russian layout. This is how comma became a symbol of secondary importance, although it is used more often than full stop

Logitech Internet Navigator Keyboard. 2003

In the Latin layout full stop and comma are traditionally placed in the punctuation marks zone, namely, in the right hand area of the keyboard. In the Russian layout punctuation marks have always been in the upper row under numerals due to lack of space. Our imbecile certainly didn’t even suspect that the Russian layout had been around for a good hundred years—he just Russianized whatever was readily available.

There’s no upper case comma in any language of the world except Russian (and Ukrainian, Tatar and other languages of the former USSR with Cyrillic graphics, with the outcome of our imbecile’s efforts coming handy as a “standard” for the illiterate).

Housekeeping tip

There’s a layout imitating the one of a Russian typewriter. Its difference from the one described above is that punctuation marks are in the upper row of letterkeys, but not in the lower case. This is still worse, because typing the full stop requires moving the type basket to shift to the upper case.

The entire history of the mechanization of text typing shows that clever people tried to reduce the hours of the typist’s time. Ten minutes of a casual stranger’s efforts sufficed to make the awkward layout—the one that resulted in slower typing—a standard produced in multiple copies. This is a gorgeous illustration of every designer’s responsibility.

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