Throughout the year, we’re going to highlight NPR’s tech coverage from 1984. For example, this piece about the MICROWRITER. It was invented by the late Cy Endfield, who imagined a handheld alternative to the typewriter — with only five keys. In his words:
I was trying to give a keyboard that would be usable by all the people who used personal computers, all the new people to have to come to keyboards, who didn’t have to come to keyboards before the age of the computer. And, well, the answer was, play chords.
(If you’d like to see more, here’s a video of someone using the microwriter.) Have you ever used one of these? Take an Instagram video if you have one. I’d like to see it.
image via wikipedia
The complete transcript after the jump.
BOB EDWARDS: The first practical typewriter was marketed in the United States in 1874 by Christopher Sholes and the Remington Company. Among its original features that are still standard on today’s typewriters are the carriage return mechanism, printing through an inked ribbon, and the positions of many of the characters. The typewriter was to become one of the most useful tools in business and an invaluable aid to writers in all trades. In fact, Mark Twain bought one of these early typewriters and became the first author to submit a typewritten manuscript. We bring you now a variation of this well-established machine. It’s called the Microwriter.
CY ENDFIELD: I had come to an earlier conclusion that the keyboard as we know it, as we see it in all the offices of the world, is just too complicated. It’s the product in an age of mechanics, when pressing one lever across one fulcrum causes one strike of a letter. The one-to-one relationship between the number of letters and the number of keys created a very clumsy device, much larger and much bigger, in an age of microelectronics when everything was being reduced in size. It was impossible to reduce the size of the keyboard.
EDWARDS: Inventor Cy Endfield rethought the typewriter and came up with a new device.
ENDFIELD: It occurred to me that, very simply that in the age of electronics, that it would be possible to combine a set of signals from separate keys, and therefore you could reduce the total number of keys. But, of course, this involved the learning of chords, as chords on a piano or chords, guitar playing - and those are traditionally, unless you are a very talented musician, difficult to learn, abstract, difficult to memorize. I was merely looking for a way to make that memorization simple, because I was trying to give a keyboard that would be usable by all the people who used personal computers, all the new people to have to come to keyboards, who didn’t have to come to keyboards before the age of the computer. And, well, the answer was, play chords. But how do you make these chords memorable? And, one day, staring at a sheet of paper on which I was drawing a set of five keys in sort of the arch formed by the finger ends, it occurred to me, ah! if I press the thumb key, and the index finger key, anybody can do this just listening now, press your thumb key and your index finger down and you’ll see that a vertical line joins those two finger ends, a short vertical line. There is an equivalence between that short vertical line and one letter of the alphabet. It’s the letter “I.” That was terribly self-evident. The next question was, will this work for all the other 26 letters of the alphabet? It was a little more complicated, but not very simple, and ultimately, we were able to create, or I was able to create, on that particular moment of inspiration, an entire set of letters that were shaped by the fingers. So therefore the alphabet, and learning the inputs, no longer relied upon your seeing a letter written on top of a key, all you had to do is close your eyes, in a sense, remember the shape of a letter that you’ve known, that you’ve been using for your entire history as a literate human being from the age of five, presumably, and your fingers were printing out letters that you already knew. Voila, quick memory.
EDWARDS: So you get 26 letters out of five keys?
ENDFIELD: Yes. Out of five keys, right. In fact, there are 31 different combinations of five letters. That’s two to the fifth power, 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2, minus one, and it’s minus one because the five keys unpressed are one of those combinations and not pressing any keys doesn’t produce any letters. So you can produce 31 combinations. Twenty-six are the letters of the alphabet, and the other four; there’s - one of them is a space and the other four are the very common punctuation marks, like a period, a comma, a hyphen and so forth. Now, one of those combinations theoretically could be saved to act as a shift, and then you can go in a new register and do all the other things, like numbers and all the other punctuation marks. But in fact, you will see there is a sixth key, because the thumb is very movable, and the sixth key acting in combination with those keys produces those other shifts, registers, and all the various commands necessary to make this little machine, this tiny - really, world’s very first portable word-processor, to use modern terminology - function.
EDWARDS: Cy Endfield, who has invented a palm-sized replacement for the typewriter. It’s called a Microwriter. Now, to understand the Microwriter better, place the fingers of your right hand onto something solid like a tabletop or counter. The fingers should be spread just slightly, so your fingertips don’t touch each other. This is how your hand would rest on the keys of the machine. By pressing the keys with your fingers, either individually or in combinations, you can produce all of the letters of the alphabet. They appear on a small screen, much like numbers would appear on a medium-sized calculator. For instance, if you simultaneously depress your thumb and index finger, you’ll get the letter I, the theory being that you could draw a straight line between these two fingers. The letter T can be produced by depressing your index and your ring fingers, which in your mind’s eye produces the crossbar of the T. An L comes when you depress your thumb, index finger, and pinkie; thus the downstroke and bottom crossbar of the L. Enfield says, not surprisingly, that anyone can learn to use the Microwriter.
ENDFIELD: An electric-meter man visited our house, and he used the traditional mode of copying down the numbers on the meters. He took a piece of paper and he, on certain lines he checked off the numbers. And as an experiment, because I was interested in the possibility of mechanizing this procedure, I taught him this numeric system, which you see is just as simple as counting with the fingers of your hand. In fact, it mimics exactly counting as done by deaf-and-dumb people. So it’s as simple as counting with your fingers. And in any event, this electric-meter man was confronted with this piece of new technology - which frightened him for a moment, and - but in less than 15 seconds later, he was tapping out the numbers by simple counting procedure, and he said my god, when are we going to get these? That’s the way I want to read meters and do my work. We make a claim that, because of the connection of the selection of the keys used, the combination of the keys, and the shapes of the letters, it’s possible for people to learn all the 26 letters of the alphabet usually in well under an hour.
EDWARDS: Cy Endfield, inventor of a handheld alternative to the typewriter called the Microwriter.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) EDWARDS: This is NPR’s MORNING EDITION. I’m Bob Edwards.