The QWERTY keyboard, an iconic and widely used keyboard layout, is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. To commemorate this milestone, designer, engineer, and writer Marcin Wichary has spent the past seven years researching and compiling a comprehensive history of the QWERTY keyboard. His work, titled “Shift Happens,” is a two-volume, 1,200-plus-page book with over 1,300 photos.
“Shift Happens” is not just a simple history book; it delves deep into the significance and impact of the QWERTY keyboard. Wichary explores the evolution of keyboards from mechanical typewriters to modern-day computers and mechanical keyboards. The book connects the realms of ink/type-based machines and modern computers, shedding light on the evolution and importance of keyboards throughout history.
Preorders for “Shift Happens” are currently available, with orders placed before October 4th being shipped in time for Christmas. Orders placed on or after October 5th will be shipped in December or January. Additionally, preorders made before October 4th will receive a 160-page “volume of extras,” adding even more value to the already substantial book.
Wichary’s passion for typography and design is evident in his previous work at Google, Medium, and Figma, where he focused on type, fonts, and text design. His meticulous attention to detail is seen in the elaborate link underlines at Medium and his explanations of font fallbacks at Figma. “Shift Happens” is the culmination of Wichary’s fascination with the little things that make typography and keyboards so intriguing.
Undertaking an endeavor of this magnitude required extensive research and effort. Wichary conducted 40 interviews, created two custom fonts, wrote 5,000 lines of InDesign automation code, and uploaded 350 research materials to the Internet Archive. His dedication to the subject matter is apparent in the level of detail and depth presented in “Shift Happens.”
One captivating chapter in the book delves into the “Shift Wars,” a fierce competition among typewriter companies to prove which keyboard layout was more efficient. The companies engaged in press-announced typist showdowns to showcase their respective layouts. While the reasons for the shift mechanism’s victory may not be immediately apparent, Wichary explores the intricacies and nuances behind this outcome.
When asked about the lack of comprehensive research connecting typewriters, computers, and mechanical keyboards, Wichary observed that while there have been interesting books about typewriters, they mostly focused on the machines themselves. Prior to the recent surge in popularity of mechanical keyboards, it seemed that the intersection of typewriters and computers was not a subject of widespread interest. However, Wichary believes that keyboards are a rich source of captivating and multifaceted narratives that deserve further exploration.
The process of designing the book posed its own challenges. As a web designer, Wichary initially believed that the web had stripped away many typesetting nuances and traditions. However, he soon realized that the web also presented new opportunities and simplified certain aspects of typesetting. The book required specialty footnote glyphs and key characters to be incorporated into the text, a task that required creating a custom font and writing Python scripts for typesetting. The book features numerous keyboard symbols from throughout history, adding a playful and engaging element to the overall design.
“Shift Happens” is a testament to the enduring legacy of the QWERTY keyboard and its impact on the world of typing and communication. Wichary’s meticulous research and genuine passion for the subject shine through in this extensive and visually stunning work. As we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the QWERTY keyboard, “Shift Happens” provides a comprehensive and fascinating journey through the history and significance of this beloved keyboard layout.