The New Age of Reason (continued)
                            By John Culkin

Science Digest, August 1981


  Change the alphabet and you must change the typewriter. Few technologies are more in need of basic reform. We have improved and modernized every part of the typewriter except for the 26 letter keys, throwbacks to the year 1867 when Christopher Latham Sholes of Milwaukee developed the first practical commercial machine, Attempts to produce such a device date back to 1714. Sholes has been referred to as "the fifty-second man to 'invent' the typewriter."

  How did the conventional QWERTY keyboard arrangement, named for the first six of 
the top row of letters, come to be? Sholes originally arranged the letters in alphabetical order. A remnant of this system remains on the middle line of keys on a keyboard with four rows of keys. He encountered serious problems with jamming when adjacent keys were struck in rapid succession. He and his brother-in-law rearranged the keyboard to disperse the most frequently recurring letters, then conned the public into accepting this as a scientific advance instead of a non-technical answer to a technical problem. The common keyboard is programmed for inefficiency. To type almost any word in the English language, a maximum distance has to be covered by the fingers.

  There are two roads out of Qwertyville: the keyboard can be entirely eliminated, or it can be reformed.

  When the vocal cords can replace the fingers as typing instruments, as promised by voice-activated typewriters, now in the works. The keyboard will ultimately be superfluous. We can make voice-activated typewriters the hard way by employing our existing alphabet and forcing computers to deal with the more than 2,000 exceptions that are part of our spelling system. Or we can get ourselves a proper alphabet (UNIFON comes to mind) with an unambiguous, one-for-one correlation between sound and letter and create simpler and cheaper voice-activated typewriters. Material typed or printed in such an alphabet would also easily lend itself to re-translation back into sound.

If, however, we are to be burdened for a few more years with what I affectionately call the stupid alphabet, we can still improve on the fingering futilities of our current keyboard (hereafter to be known I as the stupid keyboard). Sholes didn't know much about frequency counts and finger movements when he produced his machine. By 1932, Dr. August Dvorak knew a great deal about both. As professor of measurements and statistics at the University of Washington, he studied letter frequencies and sequences and the digital movements of typists for several years before producing a new keyboard that reflected these facts. It is known as the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard (DSK) and, in a slightly modified form, as the American Simplified Keyboard (ASK). Smith-Corona manufactures a model using this keyboard.


  As Casey Stengel, "the old professor" might observe: "The shortest distance between two points is the shortest distance between two points." Using this norm, we can report that for every 16 miles of "linear walking" on the QWERTY keyboard, lite ASK typewriter requires only 1. All major international records for typing are currently held by operators using the ASK keyboard. The Guinness Book of World Records lists Barbara Blackburn  of Everett, Washington, as a record holder for sustained rapid and accurate typing. She cruises at 170 words per minute, using a DSK typewriter. Her chief rival, Howard Hudson  of Decatur, Georgia, also uses this machine.


Compared with the alphabet and the typewriter, the calendar is in relatively good shape. It just needs a little fine-tuning. The Julian and Gregorian reforms got the calendar calibrated with the length of the solar year. Externally the year has been tidied up, but internally things are a bit messy: the weeks don't divide evenly into the months or the year, the quarters are irregular, the months are uneven in length, the cycle takes 28 years to repeat itself.

When the League of Nations solicited proposals for calendar reform in 1923, it received 185 plans for a new calendar. The most popular submission and the one that has endured as a possible model for reform was that of Moses Bruines Cotsworth, an English statistician. It was called the International Fixed Calendar, or the Equal Month Calendar.

According to this scheme there would be 13 months of 28 days each. Each month would be exactly the same beginning on Sunday the first and ending on Saturday the twenty-eighth. This adds up to 364 days. The extra day ("Peace Day" or "World Day") would occur on December twenty-ninth, but it would not be counted as a day of the week and thus not disrupt the cycle of 13 equal and identical months. In leap years, a similar "blank" day ("Leap Day") would be intercalated on June twenty-ninth. The thirteenth month would be inserted between June and July and would be named Sol, in honor of the sun. If this plan were put into effect on January 1 of a year that began with Sunday (1984 is the next such year), then the system would be in place and the Equal Month Calendar would serve for every month of the year forever.

Under the Cotsworth system, the year can be divided evenly by weeks (but not by months) into half years and quarter years. The quarter points are April 1, Sol 14, September 21, December 28, each month begins on a Sunday and ends on a Saturday (February 1981 was such a month). Without even referring to a calendar, we would soon know the day of the week on which each day of the month would fall: the thirteenth is always a Friday; if today's the tenth, it must be Tuesday. The advantages are obvious.

Everyone would be inconvenienced a little, and some groups will be especially put upon: calendar manufacturers, astrologers and thaidekaphobes (those who fear the number 13).


A more modest proposal offered to the League of Nations, the World Calendar, suggests that we maintain the current 12-month approach and arrange the months in each of the four quarters in a 31-30-30 day sequence. This plan would also use the "blank" days for the 365th and 366th days of our inconvenient year.

To many, the idea of reforming things as familiar as the alphabet, the typewriter and the calendar is comparable to tampering with the law of gravity or taking a referendum on the tides. We have a cultural and psychological investment in these institutions that discourages change. But as a planetary culture evolves and the interdependence of people becomes more crucial, the reasons for simplifying English, typing and the calendar will become even more compelling. We can't inflict on the next generation an inefficient alphabet, an illogical keyboard and an untidy calendar. We wouldn't fly an airplane with the 20 percent efficiency rate of our alphabet, is human communication any less important?

John M. Culkin, Executive Director of The Center for Understanding Media wrote substantially this article for the Science Digest, August 1981. Kind permission to electronically re-create this material has been given by his family to continue his kwest for an augmented alfubet for future generations of English writers. In his memory we dedicate this version of his article.


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