My last post, where we took a look at Birmingham’s over-punctuated street signs, stirred up quite a bit of discussion. Rich Greenhill suggested that Birmingham’s commas-and-tilde motif could have come from an abbreviated medieval ‘a’ or, perhaps, “ditto” marks. H James Lucas wondered if the paired commas might be a single inverted comma, used by the ironmonger to save typesetting effort; Brian Inglis took the opposite tack and suggested the commas could have been added purely so the manufacturer could invoice for an extra couple of characters. And, on street signs in general, Korhomme pointed out Bern’s colour-coded street signs, imposed by Napoleon’s invading armies. Read about these and other ideas in the comments from last time round.
We moved from London to Birmingham a couple of years ago now, and one of the first things I noticed when we arrived were the street signs: extravagant, cast-iron behemoths far removed from London’s restrained licence plates for buildings. Above is a typical street sign in Edgbaston, our then-new neighbourhood; below is an old-style enamelled sign from Wandsworth, our previous one.
Those innovators who have designed new typographic symbols make up an eclectic bunch. Interrobang creator Martin K. Speckter was an ad man by trade and a printer by temperament; Bas Jacobs, designer of the ironieteken, and Choz Cunningham, creator of the snark, are type designers; and Doug and Paul Sak of Sarcasm Inc., responsible for the much-maligned SarcMark©, are an accountant and engineer respectively.
The typewriter has had quite an impact over the years, influencing, among other things, working practices (and gender stereotypes in the workplace), typeface designs, and punctuation usage — witness the stunted hyphen-minus that stands in for the en and em dashes on your computer keyboard, beneficiary and victims, respectively, of the “Great Typewriter Squeeze”.12 Carrying all this baggage, as it does, I was intrigued to read Jimmy Stamp’s recent article “Fact of [sic] Fiction? The Legend of the QWERTY Keyboard” over at the Smithsonian Magazine’s Design Decoded blog. Theories abound as to the origins of the QWERTY keyboard layout, and though Stamp runs through the usual suspects — it was designed to separate common letter pairings to avoid jamming, say some; it allowed Remington salesmen to type the word “typewriter” using only the top row of keys, say others — he also adds a more obscure suggestion, put forth in 2011 by researchers at Kyoto University. As Koichi Yasuoka and Motoko Yasuoka explain, the QWERTY keyboard layout may have more to do with Morse code than anything else: