Shady Characters on Alan Alda’s Clear and Vivid podcast

I’m still pinching myself, but recently I had the distinct pleasure on appearing on Clear and Vivid podcast, hosted by the great Alan Alda. I knew of Alan’s work as an actor and writer from the likes of M*A*S*H*, of course, but I hadn’t known that in recent years he has moved into the world of science communication, not least with the foundation of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, New York.

Clear and Vivid is the podcast arm of Alan’s science communication work, and I was very happy to be able to contribute on the subjects of punctuation and writing. We even took a little detour into the history of counting. Have a listen here, and let me know what you think!

There’s a title for connoisseurs of unusual typographical marks, if ever I saw one. 

Shady Characters at MacGuffin magazine: interrobang!

The following was published in issue 13 of MacGuffin Magazine. It recapitulates some of the contents of my interrobang series and adds some new details to boot. I think — I hope! — it’s a little more Enjoy!

The Speckters lived in a postwar apartment near Gramercy Park in Manhattan. Their collection of printing presses lived in a rented apartment across the hall, a three-thousand-pound Columbian press balanced carefully across the beams under the floor. The couple were steeped in the world of printing: their kitchen hosted what they called the “Four Penny Press”, and their apartment(s) were visited by a parade of typographic celebrities such as Hermann Zapf and Steven Saxe.

They shared a day job, too. Martin was a one-time journalist and, during the war, Penny had worked with the Red Cross, but in 1956 they founded an ad agency named Martin K. Speckter Associates, where they attracted clients such as the Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones. It may have been a time of loosening social mores, but in a 2012 interview Penny insisted that their firm was a stand-up kind of place. Other agencies might have been swept up in the swinging sixties, but Martin K. Speckter Associates was professional to a fault. Even so, in 1962 Martin would push at some boundaries of a different sort.

Since 1959, Speckter had edited Type Talks, a magazine dedicated to typography in advertising. Out for dinner one night early in 1962, and with four pages still to fill in the next issue, he announced a plan to invent a new mark of punctuation—a mark to be publicised, of course, in Type Talks. He called the agency’s preferred art studio, asking “Is there anybody there who can draw?” The answer was yes, so the Speckters dashed to the studio and stayed for hours, thrashing out the appearance of the mark that would become the fabled exclamaquest. Or the interrobang, where “bang” was printer’s slang for an exclamation point. Speckter could not decide on a name.

Proposed interrobangs from Type Talks, March-April 1962
Proposed interrobangs from Type Talks, March-April 1962, drawn by Jack Lipton of Martin K. Speckter Associates, Inc. (Image courtesy of Penny Speckter.)

The new mark took a bow in the March-April 1962 issue of Type Talks, accompanied by a clutch of examples showing how it mingled exclamation with interrogation: “How do you do?!” lay at the mundane end of the spectrum; “What the hell?!” at the other. To illustrate the article, Jack Lipton, the Speckters’ art director, drew a suite of prospective designs that mixed and matched exclamation and question marks with varying degrees of harmony.

Even lacking a settled form or name, Speckter’s new mark struck a chord with Type Talks’ readers. In the following issue, he aired suggestions for names from the magazine’s mailbox: “emphaquest”, “exclarogative” and “interrapoint” took Speckter’s original formula and ran with it, while “quex” and “rhet” favoured brevity instead. One reader coined the peerless “consternation mark”, but even that gem could not keep up with events in the wider world. Because in the meantime, the Wall Street Journal, New York Herald Tribune, and other publications had got hold of and reported on Speckter’s proposal for a new punctuation mark, and, uniformly, they preferred his own suggestion of “interrobang”.

And then, for four years, nothing. The interrobang lay unused and unremarked. How could it have been otherwise? It was absent from all stages of the content mill: Writers had no such symbol on their typewriters. Compositors had none in their type cases. Linotype operators had no interrobang matrices in their machines. The few interrobangs that made it to the printed page were either hand-drawn or carefully sculpted out of rubber cement, and neither route was quick or easy.

Designs for Richard Isbell's Americana
Designs for the extra bold weight of Richard Isbell’s Americana. (Image courtesy of Fritz Klinke on Flickr.)

Yet in 1966, Specker’s mark made an abrupt comeback. That was the year that a type designer named Richard Isbell decided—unilaterally, say some; at the Speckters’ bidding, say others—to include the interrobang in a showy serif typeface called Americana. The Americana type specimen went all-in on the new mark, with the “interabang” name-checked and printed on almost every page. Isbell’s publisher, American Type Founders, announced that every one of their new fonts would henceforth come with an interrobang. Two years after Americana, a typewriter company named Remington Rand released a key bearing the new mark for some of their electric typewriters, and a year later a competitor called Smith-Corona followed suit.

A 1969 brochure from Smith-Corona showing their interchangeable interrobang key.
A 1969 brochure from Smith-Corona showing their interchangeable interrobang key, a competitor to that of Remington Rand. (Image courtesy of Richard Polt.)

Next, the interrobang stepped into the world at large. The proceedings of a philosophy conference at the University of Western Ontario carried one on the cover, while Interrabang, a lurid murder-mystery movie released in Italy in 1969, hung an interrobang necklace around the neck of one of its female stars. Improbably enough, that same year saw the publication of a collection of Lutheran prayers entitled Interrobang, in which author Normal C. Habel described the eponymous mark as “mystery and madness all in one!”

Had the interrobang finally arrived‽

No. It had not. Interest in Speckter’s mark waned rapidly after that second burst of excitement.

Americana would turn out to be the last metal typeface released by American Type Founders, whose movable type business had suffered in competition with typesetting machines such as Linotypes, Monotypes, and newfangled phototypesetters. But those competing machines were no friendlier to the interrobang: each one supported only a limited complement of characters, with little or no room for a novelty such as the interrobang. Americana would be the character’s first and last appearance in metal type.

Elsewhere, Remington Rand and Smith-Corona’s interrobang typewriter keys had failed to raise much enthusiasm from writers. On the rare occasions that the symbol was used in print, it was more often held up as an object for discussion than put to use as a practical punctuation mark.

The reasons for the interrobang’s decline were plain enough. Speckter’s mark was impractical for writers to use, and almost impossible for printers. It was of dubious usefulness, too, splitting the difference between ‘?’ and ‘!’ when in most cases a jury-rigged ‘?!’ worked just as well, if not quite as elegantly. Nor had the interrobang ever been comfortable in its own skin: half a century after its debut, neither Jack Lipton nor any other designer has succeeded in drawing the definitive interrobang. It is hard to call any typographic symbol a success when no-one can agree what it should look like.*

And yet from one particular point of view—perhaps the only one that matters—the interrobang has succeeded wildly.

The Speckters’ time in advertising coincided with an explosion in computing and computers. A host of companies and countries found themselves developing specialised “character sets”, or lists of typographic characters, that suited their particular computational or linguistic needs. When combined, these different character sets could lead to mangled, incomprehensible text: enter a backslash (\) on an American computer, for example, and it would magically transform into a yen sign (¥) when viewed on a Japanese one. Japan has a name for this phenomenon: mojibake, or “character transformation”.

This welter of competing character sets was finally tamed in 1992 by the publication of the Unicode Standard, version 1.0, by a group of engineers from the likes of Apple and Xerox. Calling themselves the Unicode Consortium, they had created one character set to rule them all: Unicode 1.0 contained north of 28,000 characters drawn from the most popular character sets then in use and included a host of additional characters to boot.

But Unicode was not a free-for-all. The consortium warned that it did not entertain “rare, obsolete, idiosyncratic, personal, novel, rarely exchanged or private-use characters”—an admirable stance, although one that has sometimes led to inexplicable exclusions from the standard. Over the years, a number of characters, symbols, and even entire scripts have been left out for one reason or another. (A 2015 article on the subject in Model View Culture magazine, by Aditya Mukerjee, was entitled “I Can Text You A Pile of Poo, But I Can’t Write My Name”.)

Except for reasons that remain unclear, the interrobang, a character that was simultaneously rare, idiosyncratic, personal, novel, and rarely exchanged, managed to sneak into the very first version of Unicode. And, since the consortium almost never removes characters, there it has stayed ever since. This is the reason that I can copy-and-paste ‘‽’ into a tweet or an email and readers across the world will see the same symbol that I do.

Martin Speckter died in 1988, just a few years shy of the interrobang’s Unicode investiture. Penny lived until 2020, sustained by a daily scotch and soda, and was formidable to the last in her promotion of her husband’s creation. She ran a web site dedicated to the mark, gave generously of her time to those interviewers who periodically rediscovered it, and accessorised her immaculate outfits with a gold interrobang lapel pin as she did so.

As for the interrobang, it has achieved a kind of accidental immortality etched in the binary of the Unicode standard. No-one may ever use it again, but it will live on all the same, to be forgotten and rediscovered every decade or two by a new generation of users.

The interrobangs, like this one (‽), shown here at Shady Characters were drawn by Sindres Bremnes of Norway’s Monokrom type foundry
Good luck finding one on a keyboard; the interrobang may live on in Unicode but it has not yet broken into the hallowed QWERTY layout. 
Penny’s site is still live at

Shady Characters advent calendar 2023: the Sinclair Executive

It was 1972 and Sinclair Radionics of Cambridge, England, was riding high. Founded a decade earlier on an excess of pluck and a surfeit of ambition, inventor Clive Sinclair’s company had matured from home-built transistor radios to stylish hi-fi gear. But a visit to the USA had inspired Sinclair to design a new product: the thinnest, lightest pocket calculator the world had ever seen.

A Sinclair Executive calculator. (CC BY-SA 3.0 image courtesy of MaltaGC on Wikipedia.</a>)
A Sinclair Executive calculator. (CC BY-SA 3.0 image courtesy of MaltaGC on Wikipedia.)

The Sinclair Executive was a huge gamble, and an equally huge hack. The calculator’s elegant silhouette was possible only because its Texas Instruments’ microchip was periodically starved of electrons by a circuit designed at Sinclair Radionics. This meant the calculator could run on tiny coin-shaped cells rather than the bulky cylindrical batteries of its competitors.

Some time later, in Moscow, a Russian diplomat thought he was having a heart attack. He was not: instead, his Sinclair Executive had exploded in his shirt pocket. A defective on/off switch had caused the calculator to grow so hot the batteries burst. An official investigation was begun; an international incident loomed.

Or did it?

The story of the exploding Executive seems to have grown out of a real, although much less dramatic incident. Chris Curry, Sinclair’s friend and one-time employee, explained some years later that the batteries had leaked — not exploded — in an Executive belonging to one Lord Rothschild, a British aristocrat. Curry had been dispatched with a replacement calculator to placate Rothschild, who had once been Sinclair’s banker. Thus, if a Sinclair Executive had ever met its demise in the pocket of a notable personage, it most likely happened in England, not Moscow — yet without much proof either way, there remains the tantalising possibility that there is more to the story.

In time, Clive Sinclair would become famous, and then infamous, for a string of other inventions, eventually to be felled by the disastrous Sinclair C5, an electric trike that placed the rider at car exhaust level and came to halt after 20 miles. Yet among his hits and misses, the Executive stands tall. It was driven by a hack, but an elegant one. It was an alluring electronic device at a time when the very idea of consumer electronics was still in its infancy. And maybe, just maybe, an overtaxed Executive popped its batteries in the pocket of a Russian diplomat who had obtained for himself a token of wealth and influence, and gave him the fright of his life.

Shady Characters advent calendar 2023: the HP-35

Today, a repost of an entry from my Calculator of the Day series. We’re looking at the Hewlett-Packard HP-35, a scientific calculator that today looks quite unremarkable — and yet which, at the time, was revelatory.

Hewlett-Packard HP-35
A well-used Hewlett-Packard HP-35, as many of them were. (CC BY 4.0 image courtesy of the Flygvapenmuseum.)

Depending on the reader’s age, the name “Hewlett-Packard” may evoke calculators, desktop computers or printers. (Or, maybe, nothing at all.) But for the first few decades of the company’s existence, it specialised in electronic “instruments” such as the oscilloscopes, signal generators and other tools that an engineer might use to design or test an electrical or electronic circuit. Conceived by HP’s co-founder, Bill Hewlett, the HP-35 was to be the company’s route out of that niche and into a wider world of consumer electronics.

The thing about the HP-35 is this: unlike many other calculators at the time, no part of it was truly without precedent. Scientific calculators were not new, although they were sized for desks rather than pockets (and nor had anyone thought to market them to consumers rather than engineers). Integrated chips were not new, although they were rarely as complex as those in the HP-35. LED displays were not new, but they were very expensive and not often seen in calculators. What the HP-35 did do that no other device had managed before was to bring all these things together into a package that was portable, powerful, and, crucially, aesthetically pleasing.

HP’s first pocket calculator turned out to be a smash hit. Sold at Macy’s and advertised in Esquire, the HP-35 had an appeal far beyond mathematicians and scientists, and the company could barely keep up with demand. Students sold their cars to buy them. NASA engineers had to lock theirs away to stop them from going walkabout. US army math instructors devised a new course as an excuse to buy HP-35s on expenses. And HP never looked back: the company that had once built engineering gadgets for engineers now aimed its products at the public at large. Some observers, in fact, credit the HP-35 with inaugurating the whole category of consumer electronics; your iPhone, tablet or laptop computer may never have come about without it.

A big thank you to Jim Hughes at Codex99, whose article was the catalyst for my chapter on the HP-35. His writing is excellent, and his site is well worth a moment of your time.

Shady Characters advent calendar 2023: the Canon Pocketronic

Today, a repost of an entry from my Calculator of the Day series: we’re taking a look at the Canon Pocketronic, a machine with a decent claim to being the first ever pocket electronic calculator.

The Canon Pocketronic, a beige and black printing calculator based on a Texas Instruments prototype.
The Canon Pocketronic. (CC BY-SA 2.0 image courtesy of Vicente Zorilla Palau.)

The Pocketronic was both an imposter and a failure. It started life as the “Cal Tech”, a prototype calculator designed by Texas Instruments as a means to sell microchips to the average person on the street. The problem was that TI was not, at first, very good at making those chips. Despite having pioneered the integrated circuit, the Cal Tech’s chips were so complex that the company could not reliably produce them en masse. Another problem was that the usual calculator display mechanisms were inimical to the Cal Tech’s hoped-for pocketable form factor: LEDs were too power hungry, and so-called Nixie tubes — lightbulbs, essentially, with filaments twisted into the shape of numerals — were too large. In their place, TI put a reliable but obsolescent printing mechanism. This was a calculator that could run out of batteries and paper.

TI had never meant to build the Cal Tech itself, and so, years later, when it had solved its production issues, it handed the design to Canon for refinement into a more consumer-friendly device. The Pocketronic was born, considerably later than intended and so bulky that the “pocket” part of its name was as much an aspiration as a statement of fact. It was never the success that TI had hoped, and yet it gave the company a taste of a calculator market that only promised to grow and grow.

By and by, TI worked the kinks out of its manufacturing processes and, eventually, started to make calculators in house. A decade or so later and it was one of the largest calculator manufacturers in the world. And as any US schoolchild will tell you, it still is today.