14 February 2012

Writing about writing: What is the big deal?

I just shipped out the first reason I am excited. The second reason was of course the Corona 3. I will let you all in on what the first reason was. It is one of my first Ebay purchases, a Remington Portable. I originally thought it was a No. 1, but is actually an early No. 2 (although, I do not think Remington numbered them like that, basically, it an of the first line of four bank portables which caused all the other makers of typewriters to step it up a notch (Corona would release a four bank, non-folding typewriter, Underwood would release one, etc). I found someone who said he'd repair it for a very good price and I bought the Corona 3 in celebration. I know that doesn't make much sense, but it seemed logical at the time.

But, is this just some sort of obsession/hobby which has no real basis? No, of course not, I had expressed that typewriters are the ultimate pen. Basically, a typewriter is the means of getting ink on paper manually for a single copy, but much better at it than a pen, therefore, I use typewriters. This choice is also heavily influenced by dysgraphia, which makes the act of writing uncomfortable for me (as well as illegible for others). So, a typewriter is a good tool for me, but why the interest in their history and diversity? Why couldn't I stay with the first typewriter I bought on Amazon.com (note, it was one of those modern made ones in China, which are under a variety of names and designs, but all have the same basic features)? It worked.

The reason why is less functional, but important. It is part of an overall interest with human communication and writing. I study, for recreation, many aspects of human communication, both current and historical. I could write at extreme length on this topic, but I will try to keep it focused.

It all starts with human language. Humans seem to have language as part of the natural design of humanity. We eat, walk, and walk. These features may not be entirely unique, but I think it is clear that a human will develop language, in some fashion, during development. Even people who are born unable to hear will develop language. Even those who are both unable to hear and see will be drawn towards developing language. It is part of our brain.

However, writing and reading is not part of us. Most societies in history never did develop a way to write (and therefore read). It developed with human society, probably started in several places independently, but ancient Sumer is notable for developing a form of writing by cutting wedges into clay (Cuneiform), the Egyptians developed a writing system similar to Cuneiform (in general development) which we call Egyptian Hieroglyphs, the Chinese developed a writing system also which was similar in development which they call Hanzi, and what we call Chinese characters (which is essentially what 汉字 means). But the history of these systems are stunted. Egyptians used Hieroglyphs, a cursive variant, and a simpler writing system called Hieratic, which developed into Demotic, until it was replaced and forgotten. The Cuneiform writing system was used for a while and even adopted by other languages until it too was replaced. The Chinese, due to the suitability of their writing system to their languages, have flourished with their writing system, and it has even been used in entirely different languages (Japanese, most notably), but it is not a system which now inspires adoption by others.

There was an early writing system, developed by the Phoenicians. Phoenicia, in Canaan (around the coast of the modern nations of Israel, Lebanon, and some other nearby regions), used a Semitic language, much like Egypt, Sumer, and other cultures in the area, but their writing system was an abjad. That means the symbols represented consonants. There were around 22 symbols. Semitic languages, if you are not familiar with them, are often focused on the consonants because the consonantal roots are the basis for the language. The hieroglyphs of the Egyptians could also be used in this manner. There were a set of hieroglyphs which could be used to write any consonant and in theory this could be used to write any Egyptian word and most foreign words, although they never used the system purely as an abjad like that. The Phoenicians, despite their language and civilisation not being known in detail now, were the basis for almost everything we write now. That includes typewriters. An ancient civilisation which is largely lost to time is responsible for the Sholes-Glidden typewriter.

Why? Because this is a picture of the Phoenician writing system coupled with the basic corresponding sound in a modern writing system:

This system was spread by the widespread trading of the Phoenicians. It is found all over the area where the Phoenicians could reach. Unlike other writing systems, nearly any other language could use it. And use it they did. This writing system was adopted by many Semitic cultures and languages (with modification over time) and notably the Greeks. The Greek writing system was based directly on this, and a form of the Greek writing system was used by the Latin tribes in Rome, leading to the Latin alphabet. This Greek writing system was different from the system which eventually lead to the modern Greek writing system, so that is why some letters are different. The Greeks altered it to make some letters vowels (being non-Semitic, this was useful) and this was used in Latin as well.

The Latin writing system replaced the Runic and Ogham writing systems used by the Germanic nations and the Celtic Irish as they converted to Christianity in the Latin rites where Latin was used for both liturgy and common communication. The system was adopted for use, but the same general system was used, or they used Latin and occasionally wrote their native language in the same script (many Old Irish texts are notes in otherwise Latin texts). Likewise, the Church which used Greek spread the Greek writing system, and it became the basis for the Cyrillic writing system.

And of course, I did not forget the Indic civilizations. Sanskrit was not written until after it was beginning to be not spoken. They used a Brahmic script, most likely based on a Semitic (Phoenician derived) script which became the basis for the many scripts of India.

So what is the big deal with typewriters? Before, the form of a letter was heavily based on the means of writing it. Egyptians wrote with reeds on papyrus. Sumerians wrote on clay tablets with with a reed. Some carved on wood. The forms of the written word in the early writing systems were heavily based on the means of writing. Some are full of straight lines, or some are full of curves, because they were written in stone or on leaves. The basis for our modern forms are from the hand written forms of the pre-printing press era. We have two forms of letters because it is more or less a combination of two different ways of writing the same alphabet.

Writing by hand was the means of writing used by all and how the letters were formed were based on the tools and methods of writing, the speed of writing, and the ease of reading. Even to this day, the development of various cursive hands, etc are based by the need to write quickly but also have it legible for others. Cursive was not an attempt at beauty, but a way to write quickly with some element of legibility. Most writing systems had cursive forms for this purpose although most people do not ever see cursive hieroglyphs, cursive Chinese characters (a major pain to read!), or cursive Latin (the Romans had a cursive system which is a complete mess and a far cry from the distinguished capitals we see in their inscriptions).

In the 1450s, someone did something new. He printed an entire book, without writing anything by hand. This book was, and still is, noted for great quality, clarity, and legibility. Johannes Gutenberg created a better ink, a new way of printing, and showed it worked and his works survive to this day, and we still print books in more or less the same fashion and form. People would use this invention from that day forward for publishing books when possible. But, there was one problem: people still had to use the ancient writing techniques if they did not want many typeset copies. There would be developments in making copies, but in general, a person who wanted to write something had to do so with a pen, just like the ancient Egyptians.

In the mid-19th century, Christopher Lantham Sholes, Samuel W. Soule, Carlos S. Glidden, and James Densmore worked on a new machine which started as an indexing machine (not very useful) to a way printing any text with a single small machine. A gun manufacturer, E. Remington and Sons, was interested in developing and selling the resulting machine. This lead to:

Sholes-Glidden Typewriter

Which eventually lead to:

Corona Zephyr

(That's my Corona Zephyr)

Which lead to:

IBM Selectric

Which got hooked up to an early computer system.

Eventually leading to:

Xerox Alto

(Note, that is the Xerox Alto, made by PARC, and has many familiar things in it. Xerox never sold it, although they did let some people study it...such as Steve Jobs.)

Of course, the use of PCs has lead to all the computers and devices we use now, which I had marveled seem to just copy the original typewriter design even when there is no reason to.

So, perhaps it is just me, but typewriters are not just a segment of interesting history, they are part of the continuous extension of the natural human development of language, to the development of writing systems, especially that of the Phoenicians, to the development of the printing press, to the development of the typewriter, to the modern computers and digital keyboards we use today.

When I look at my typewriters, I see not only the typewriter itself, but its place in the history of humanity.

Yeah, I kept this short. I had to hold a lot back, but I hope some of you found it interesting. And I hope no one goes insane when the realisation that typewriters are part of such a big part of the humanity reality throughout history.

And when I am studying Egyptian hieroglyphs, Chinese characters, Indic languages, Runic history, etc, and I get tired, I unwind by typing...on my computer or on a typewriter or on both.

People think I'm weird, but I think such people are missing a lot.

The next post will feature a typewriter of mine not shown here yet. Sometimes, I get the urge to share information (just be glad you are not one of those people who naively come up to me and ask "What did you do on the weekend?").

1 comment:

  1. wow, excellent post. I want to follow you around and read over your shoulder.