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  • Following Orders:A History of Amharic Typing
  • Matthew S. Lindia (bio)

Upon the coronation of the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, the United States was to unofficially offer a radio, a refrigerator, five hundred rose bushes, three films, and a typewriter along with the official gift of an autographed picture of President Herbert Hoover.1 The typewriter, the author notes, boasted a red enamel finish and the coat-of-arms of the new emperor. It seems, however, that the typewriter's keyboard was one of standard English with Roman characters, not Ethiopian script, given the author's lament that "since there are 240 letters used in the Amharic language it was impossible to construct a special keyboard."2 Oddly enough, this was not the first time American officials presented the Ethiopian government with a typewriter. In 1903, U.S. delegates presented a typewriter to Emperor Menelik II, who reportedly immediately asked about the possibility of modifying it to accommodate Amharic script.3 His enthusiasm, however, was likely met with a similar response: the character set of Amharic was simply too large for the standard American typewriter with only forty-four keys.

In reality, Amharic typewriters are not an impossibility, even though they require a significant redesign of typewriters that imprint languages using Roman, Cyrillic, or Greek alphabets. In fact, by the time of this 1930's gift, several attempts at accommodating the Amharic script for typewriters had been attempted and failed, and the Ethiopian engineer, Ayana Birrou was only two years away from patenting his working design in England. This article outlines the historical process by which Ethiopian engineers and typographers overcame this so-called impossibility while also describing the typing techniques which emerged as a result of this triumph. This story is ultimately indicative of one of the major technical limitations of typing machines: because keyboards were designed for languages with small character sets (namely, the Latin alphabet), the design of keyboards for writing systems with large character sets posed a critical problem for typing machines. [End Page 425] Either the script could be redesigned or reformed in order to accommodate the constraints of typewriters, or typing machines could be redesigned in order to accommodate the constraints of the written language. The history of Amharic typing involves two attempts of the former variety: one attempt which included slight modifications of the Amharic script and the typewriter design and one attempt which preserved the form of the Amharic script by utilizing the affordances of digital technology. Both attempts ultimately failed.

Histories of the typewriter and typing machines tend to exclude the development of typewriters for scripts such as Amharic for several reasons. First, all major manufacturers of typewriters from the late nineteenth through the late twentieth century based their operations in Europe or the United States. Histories which follow the cultural life of the typewriter through the surrogate of their commercial manufacturers often limit themselves to the European and American markets where the largest shares of sales took place.4 When non-alphabetic typewriters are mentioned, such as in Beeching's 1974 book, they are often addressed in little more than a paragraph and certainly not given full histories.5 Similarly, the typewriter was (and is) a uniquely Western machine designed for Western alphabets. This means that in addition to being geographically removed from typewriter manufacturers, many non-Western scripts had characteristics incompatible with the Western keyboard, specifically designed to accommodate small, non-cursive character sets.6 Thomas Mullaney has written on attempts to design a typewriter for the expansive Chinese character set,7 and, similarly, J.R. Osborn has written on the difficulties of accommodating for Arabic script in print and typographic machines.8 Chinese and Arabic, however, do not exhaust the list of scripts that are not optimally compatible with the design of the QWERTY keyboard and the related technology of typing machines. Other features that conflict with the fundamental design choices of typewriters include non-cursive scripts that require every character to have its own key while the keyboard requires small character sets. In many instances, problems surrounding the implementation of such languages for typewriters (like Arabic, Amaharic, and Devanagari) have been overcome; since technical affordances inherent in...