QWERTY Keyboard and the Kauaʻi ʻōʻō
Hello and welcome to The Anthropocene Reviewed, a podcast where we review different facets of the human-centered planet on a five-star scale. I’m John Green, and today I’ll be reviewing the QWERTY keyboard layout and a bird species called the Kauaʻi ʻōʻō, or possibly the Kauaʻi ʻōʻō. I don’t have great Hawaiʻian pronunciation.
But let’s start with the QWERTY keyboard. So on most English-language keyboards, the three rows of letter keys are not arranged alphabetically or by frequency of use. Indeed, the two most common letters in English—e and t—aren’t even on the so-called home keys where your fingers rest while typing. You’ve got to reach for them up on the top row, where the letters, from left to right, begin Q W E R T Y. The reasons for this involve typewriter mechanics, a militant vegetarian, and a Wisconsin politician who belonged to three different political parties in the space of eight years.
I love a straightforward story of inventors and their inventions. In fact, in fifth grade, I wrote my first-ever work of nonfiction on the life of Thomas Edison. It begins, “Thomas Alva Edison was a very interesting person who created many interesting inventions, like the light bulb and the very interesting motion picture camera.” I liked the word interesting because my biography had to be written by hand in cursive, and it had to be five pages long, and in my shaky penmanship, “interesting” took up an entire line on its own. Of course, among the interesting things about Edison is that he did not invent either the light bulb or the motion picture camera. In both cases, Edison worked with collaborators to build upon existing inventions, which is I think the central thing that humans are good at. Like, even though fifth grade me loved a story of a rugged individual who invents a light bulb from thin air via the sweat of his brow, the truth is that what makes us special is our capacity for collaboration and accumulation of knowledge. But who wants to hear a story about slow progress through iterative change over decades? Well, you, hopefully.
The earliest typewriters were produced in the 18th century, but they were too slow and too expensive to be mass produced. Over time the expansion of the Industrial Revolution meant that more precision metal parts could be created at lower costs, and by the 1860s, a newspaper publisher and politician in Wisconsin, Christopher Latham Sholes, was trying to create a machine that could print page numbers onto books when he started to think a similar machine could type letters as well.
Sholes was a longtime veteran of Wisconsin politics—he’d served as a Democrat in the Wisconsin state senate before joining the Free Soil Party, which sought to end legal discrimination against African Americans and to prevent the expansion of slavery in the U.S. Sholes later became a Republican and on the political side is most remembered today as a vocal opponent of capital punishment. He led the way toward Wisconsin abolishing the death penalty in 1853. And then there’s his other legacy—the typewriter.
Working with his friends Samuel Soule and Carlos Glidden, Sholes set out to build a typewriter similar to one he’d read about in the magazine Scientific American, which described a “literary piano.” They initially built a typewriter with two rows of keys—literally ebony and ivory, just like a piano—with a mostly alphabetical layout. But because their typewriter was a so-called “blind writer,” which is to say you couldn’t see what you were typing as you typed it, you also couldn’t see when the typewriter had jammed, and the alphabetical layout of the keys led to lots of jams—common letters like S and T were adjacent, and other common letter combinations were also problematic—R was right on top of E in the alphabetical key layout, for instance.
There were many typewriting machines using many different key layouts and design strategies at the time. One of the great challenges of humanity is standardization. Like, learning a new key layout every time you get a new typewriter is wildly inefficient, just as most of us don’t really care if a computer uses USB-A or USB-C; we just want something consistent that works, a cry the world’s tech companies seem unable to hear, but we’re not here to review Apple’s 1-star practice of changing standards every 12 months; we’re here to review the QWERTY keyboard, which blessedly Apple has not yet attempted to abandon.
While designing their typewriter, Sholes and co received help from a wide array of collaborators and advisors, including Thomas Edison. They also found investors, most notably Sholes’ old friend James Densmore. Densmore was a proper eccentric—he was a passionate vegetarian who survived primarily on raw apples, and he was known for getting into arguments with strangers at restaurants who ordered meat dishes. He also cut his pants several inches above the ankle for comfort, and he happened to have a brother, Amos, who studied letter frequency and combinations in English. According to many reports, Amos advised the typewriter manufacturers on how to minimize jams. Meanwhile, stenographers and telegraph operators used prototypes of the machines and provided feedback, leading to more than twenty different iterations of what came to be known as the Sholes and Glidden typewriter. By November of 1868, Sholes had designed a four-row keyboard in which the first row began A E I period question mark. By 1873, the four-row layout began Q W E period T Y. That year, the gun manufacturer Remington and Sons bought the rights to the Sholes and Glidden—with the U.S. Civil War over, they were looking to expand outside of firearms. Engineers at Remington moved the R to the top row of the typewriter, giving us more or less the same key layout we have today.
And so the QWERTY key layout wasn’t really invented by one person or another, but by lots of people working together. Interestingly, Sholes himself found the key layout unsatisfactory and he continued to work on improvements for the rest of his life. A few months before his death, he sought a patent for a new keyboard where the letter keys begin XPMCH. But it was QWERTY that hung around, in part because the Remington 2 typewriter became very popular, and in part because it works. There have been many attempts to improve upon QWERTY in the 150 years since its introduction. The most famous purportedly easier typing layout is the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard, created in 1936 by August Dvorak, which features all the vowels on the left-side home keys. Some studies found that Dvorak’s layout improved typing speed and lowered error rates, but many of those studies were paid for by Dvorak, and more recent scholarship has shown little if any benefit to the Dvorak, or any other keyboard layout. The QWERTY keyboard—partly by accident—is pretty good at alternating hands within words, which means that one hand can be reaching for a key while the other hand is typing. It’s not perfectly efficient—the most common keys are typed by the left hand, whereas most people type slightly faster and more accurately with their right hands—but for most of us, most of the time, QWERTY works.
It has certainly worked for me. I had terrible handwriting—hence it requiring an entire line of notebook paper to write the word interesting in cursive. I just couldn’t write well and still can’t, but even as a kid, I was a hell of a typist. Typing on a QWERTY keyboard was the first thing I ever became good at, initially because I wanted to play the text-based video games of the early 1980s, but eventually because I liked the feeling of mastery. I wasn’t the best in my class at anything, but by sixth grade I could type eighty words a minute. These days, I can type as fast as I can think—or maybe, since I’ve spent so much of my life thinking through typing, my brain has just learned to think at the speed of my typing, in the same way that my brain has learned to think of the alphabet as beginning Q-W-E-R-T-Y.
The keyboard is my path to having thoughts, and also my path to sharing them. I can’t play an instrument, but I can bang on this literary piano, and when it’s going well, a certain percussive rhythm develops. Sometimes—not every day, certainly, but sometimes—knowing where the letters are allows me to feel like I know where the words are. I love the sound of pressing keys on a great keyboard—the technical term is “key action”—but what I love most about typing is that on the screen or on the page, my writing is indistinguishable from anyone else’s. As a kid on the early Internet, I loved typing because no one could know how small and thin my hands were, how scared I was all the time, how I struggled to talk out loud. Online, back in 1991, I wasn’t made of anxious flesh and brittle bone; I was made out of keystrokes. Now, I don’t want to wax nostalgic about that Internet; it had all the problems of the current Internet, just on a smaller scale. My point is only that when I could no longer bear to be myself, I was able to become for a while a series of keys struck in quick succession. And on some level, that’s why I’m still typing all these years later. I give the QWERTY keyboard four stars.=
After the break, we’ll turn our attention to the Kauaʻi o’o, but first . . .
The Kauaʻi ʻōʻō was a bird. It lived on the Hawaiʻian island of Kauaʻi, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. That any bird, or for that matter any human, ever found its way to Kauaʻi is a real testament to the magnificent stubbornness and curiosity of Earth life: the Hawaiʻian Islands are over 2,000 miles away from any major land mass. They’re actually closer to southwestern Alaska than they are to California.
Adult Kauaʻi ʻōʻōs were a little less than eight inches long, with mostly black plumage except for a thin strip of white on their sides and a tuft of gold on their upper legs. Those little flourishes of certain birds always get me—the shock of red on blackbird wings, the bright green of a male mallard’s head, the ridiculously long tail feathers of Jamaica’s red-billed streamertails. It’s weird that evolution has made so much room for decoration—in fact, it’s one of the more contested arenas of evolutionary biology. Some scientists argue that beauty is just another functional adaptation, that for instance a peacock’s wildly ornate tail is proof that the bird in question is extremely genetically healthy and therefore an attractive mate. But others argue for so-called “aesthetic selection,” that one of the factors driving evolutionary preferences may be pleasure, and that a large part of the reason male peacocks have such elaborate tails is because female peacocks find them, for lack of a better term, hot.
I don’t know why the Kauaʻi ʻōʻō had such beautiful leg feathers, but indigenous Hawaiʻian people prized them. There were four ʻōʻō species on the Hawaiʻian islands, of which the Kauaʻi was the smallest. All the ʻōʻō’s had patches of yellow feathers, but in different places—for instance, Bishop’s ʻōʻō, which lived on the island of Maui, had yellow feathers on its neck and chest. Native Hawaiʻians used these yellow feathers in capes and headdresses, and they even served as a form of currency—an article in Birds of North America writes that golden ʻōʻō feathers were “gathered in small, loosely tied bunches as tax payments.” All four species were common in the 18th century.
The ʻōʻō’s lived in forests, at sea level and at mountain tops, and they were cavity-nesters, which is to say that they nested inside holes in trees. Although ʻōʻō’s ate fruit and invertebrates, they mostly consumed flower nectar through their tubular tongues, which functioned like drinking straws. By the time humans made their acquaintance, the ʻōʻō’s had been around for about five million years—twenty times longer than our species has lived. They mated for life, and would sing back and forth to each other. People said that the Kauaʻi ʻōʻō’s warbled duets sounded like flutes playing.
The arrival of Europeans proved disastrous for every species of ʻōʻō—in part because muskets led to more hunting of the birds, but mostly because in 1826, native Hawaiʻians reported for the first time a new kind of insect—it made itself known, according to one account, “by a singing in the ear.” The mosquito had come to Hawaiʻi, surviving the ocean passage in the hold of a foreign ship. Mosquitoes aren’t native to Hawaiʻi but they love the weather—in which respect, come to think of it, they resemble most visitors to the islands.
A few years later, avian flu was introduced to Hawaiʻi via non-native bird species, and soon after that, another disease called avian malaria arrived. The invasive mosquitoes spread these diseases to the ʻōʻō’s and many other Hawaiʻian birds. Invasive animals also destroyed birds and their habitats. The O’ahu ʻōʻō was gone by 1837. The Bishop’s ʻōʻō went extinct around 1904; and the Hawaiʻi ʻōʻō a few decades later, leaving only the littlest cousin of the family which survived by retreating to high ground. The Kauaʻi ʻōʻō was believed extinct twice—once in the 1940s and again from the 50s until 1971, when an ornithologist named John Sincock discovered a nesting pair of the birds in the Alaka’i Swamp. Sincock would later make the only known video recording of a Kauaʻi ʻōʻō. The footage is shaky, and only a few minutes long. A dark, narrow beaked bird sips from the red buds of a flowering tree.
Humans have long contributed to species extinctions. The first Polynesian people arrived in Hawaiʻi over a thousand years ago, and brought with them animals, including pigs and rats, which destroyed habitats and likely contributed to the extinction of many species that had long been geographically isolated. That noted, since 1500, the rate of species extinction has been around a thousand times higher than historical averages. Between the year of my birth, 1977, and the year I graduated college, 1999, six bird species likely went extinct—in Hawai’i alone.
I know that extinction is natural. I know that it’s inevitable. But those extinctions weren’t inevitable. As humans have become more powerful, our unintended consequences have also become more powerful. And yet no matter how much we might imagine otherwise, we still aren’t gods—we cannot, for instance, manage to rid the world of the damned mosquito, which is possibly the only one-star multicellular creature on Earth today. And even though we want to preserve biodiversity, we can’t seem to manage it. Nobody wished for the ʻōʻō’s to go extinct. But we caused their extinction anyway.
Anyone who has ever lived with loss knows what it is like to stand on the shore and see water out in front of you, water not just as far as you can see but much farther. We all know what it’s like to feel alone. We will all call out some day to someone who cannot answer us.
By 1981, only a single nesting pair of Kauaʻi ʻōʻō’s were known to exist. Jennifer Kahn has written, “Our role as stewards of the Earth is becoming more and more like that of doctors in a global intensive-care unit, trapped in a cycle of heroic, end-of-life measures.” Ornithologists tried desperately to protect this pair, but the female was never seen again after a devastating hurricane struck the island in 1982. The male lived for several years after that. In 1986, an ornithologist named Jim Jacobi was with a group when they heard the last surviving Kauaʻi ʻōʻō begin to sing. Jacobi later described the encounter to Ben Shattuck in The Rumpus:
“I took out my tape recorder, clicked it on,” he said. “The bird sang again, then flitted away. I quickly rewound the tape and then I played it again to see what I got, and I turned up the volume so John and Pete could hear it. And then, bam! All of a sudden, the bird came right back. I thought, this is great, it came back! And then it hit me: The reason it came back is it heard another bird. And it hadn’t heard another bird in, you know, how long. And it turns out this was probably the last one there was.”
That’s the song. It’s supposed to be a duet. You can hear the silences, where the ʻōʻō still waits for a reply.
We cannot save this bird, gone now for more than three decades. All we can do is hear its call.
I give the Kauaʻi ʻōʻō four and a half stars.
Thanks for listening to The Anthropocene Reviewed, which was written by me, edited by Stan Muller, and produced by Rosianna Halse Rojas, Tony Phillips, and Jenny Lawton. Joe Plourde is our technical director. Hannis Brown made the music, with help of the last Kauaʻi ʻōʻō. Thanks also to Isaac, who suggested a review of the Kauaʻi ʻōʻō’s last recorded call, and to Jamar, who wrote in to suggest a review of the QWERTY keyboard. Thanks also to Jim Jacobi and the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, where you can find many bird calls, including that one. If you’d like to suggest a topic for review, or just say hi, you can email us at anthropocenereviewed at gmail dot com. Rosianna tells me that we are also on Twitter and Instagram, where you can see Nadim Silverman’s extraordinarily beautiful illustrations of each episode. Thanks again for being here with us. We’ll leave you today with the call that received no response, except God willing our response.