Shift happens: Writing about the history of keyboards

Marcin Wichary and his keyboards. “It sounds really boring, right?” he says. “But if you look at it throughout the ages ... it becomes a lot more interesting.”

Shift happens: Writing about the history of keyboards
MIT Technology Review, April 26, 2023
Field Notes
by Allison Arieff

“After discovering that a history of keyboards— from typewriters to iPhones—had yet to be written, designer and typographer Marcin Wichary got to work.”


When the designer and typographer Marcin Wichary stumbled upon a tiny museum just outside Barcelona five years ago, the experience tipped his interest in the history of technology into an obsession with a very particular part of it: the keyboard.


“I have never seen so many typewriters under one roof. Not even close,” he shared on Twitter at the time. “At this point, I literally have tears in my eyes. I’m not kidding. This feels like a miracle.”

He’d had a revelation while wandering through the exhibit: Each key on a keyboard has its own stories. And these stories are not just about computing technology, but also about the people who designed, used, or otherwise interacted with the keyboards.


Take the backspace key, he explains: “I like that [the concept of] backspace was originally just that—a space going backward. We are used to it erasing now, but for a hundred years, erasing was its own incredibly complex endeavor. You needed to master a Comet eraser, or Wite-Out, or strange correction tapes, and possibly all of the above … or give up and start from scratch whenever you made a typo.”

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About the Author:

Allison Arieff is MIT Technology Review Editorial director, print.

See also:

  • Shift Happens: A Book About KeyboardsShift Happens tells the story of keyboards like no book ever before, covering 150 years from the early typewriters to the pixellated keyboards in our pockets. Book by Marcin Wichary.