Computers are not typewriters: this is evident. Even so, it’s easy to forget that Christopher Latham Sholes’ mechanical marvel was the wellspring of the QWERTY, QWERTZ, AZERTY and similar keyboards we use to interact with our laptops, tablets and smartphones. Sholes and his invention play supporting roles in the Shady Characters book, too: the typewriter helped popularise the @-symbol even as it savaged the em and en dashes, but there was always one symbol on Sholes’ embryonic QWERTY keyboard that I never quite got to grips with. Take a look at the leftmost key on the third row of Sholes’ keyboard, as shown in his 1878 patent for “Improvement in type-writing machines”.1 What on earth is that? Or rather, what on earth is this: ‘⋮’?
A few weeks ago, Marcin Wichary, design lead and typographer at blogging platform Medium, posed the same question on Twitter. One of the first suggestions was that ‘⋮’ must be a shift key — it’s in the right place, more or less — but this feature did not appear until some years later; Sholes was happy to TYPE IN ALL CAPS, like a modern-day internet troll, and it was only after his patents had been acquired by Remington that shift-operated lower case letters appeared.
Next came the idea that it the mystery mark was a vertical ellipsis,2 a rotated version of the standard character (…) that has existed in Unicode since 1993, when it was introduced with version 1.1 of the standard computer character set. As Ross McKillop explained,
[⋮] serves same purpose as … but takes up less space so works on monospaced type3
So far, so reasonable — except, of course, that if the character in question is a vertical ellipsis then it has endured one of the most precipitous falls from grace I’ve yet come across. Every other symbol on Sholes’ original QWERTY keyboard survives in one form or another, and yet the vertical ellipsis, if that is what it was, has effectively disappeared from typographic use. The only similar symbol I’ve ever seen in the wild is the ‘⋮’ used in some Android applications to open a menu or to invoke some secondary action.4 The vertical ellipsis exists, certainly, but I’m pretty sure that it is not the same character that Sholes had in mind.
In the end, Marcin himself found the answer lurking in a paper entitled “On the Prehistory of QWERTY”, written by Koichi Yasuoka and Motoko Yasuoka and published in the journal Zinbun in 2011. It so happens that I mentioned this paper in passing back in 2013, when looking into the layout of the letter keys on the QWERTY keyboard. I learned then that QWERTY’s confusing distribution of alphabetic keys may have been intended to help telegraph operators transcribe the dits and dahs of Morse code, where certain letters were often confused with one another:
[Morse] code represents Z as ‘· · · ·’ which is often confused with the digram SE, more frequently-used than Z. Sometimes Morse receivers in United States cannot determine whether Z or SE is applicable, especially in the first letter(s) of a word, before they receive following letters. Thus S ought to be placed nearby both Z and E on the keyboard for Morse receivers to type them quickly (by the same reason C ought to be placed near by IE. But, in fact, C was more often confused with S).5
But that is not all that the paper held. Marcin, who was rather more diligent in reading it than I had been, found that Koichi and Motoko also had a theory about our mysterious mark:
‘⋮’ was added at the left edge of keyboard to indicate “paragraph separator” (“– – – –” in Morse Code of the Western Union Telegraph Company) that was often used when receiving newspaper articles.5
In other words, Sholes’ three-dot mark was the visual representation of the four audible dashes of a Morse code pilcrow: ‘⋮’ = ‘– – – –’ = ‘¶’, if you like.
I’m indebted to Marcin for uncovering this, but I’m also left wondering why Sholes didn’t use the more familiar pilcrow for his Morse code paragraph mark. Perhaps a reader can help shed some light on this — was the vertical ellipsis ever a common paragraph marker in telegraphy or otherwise?