Last updated: 7 months ago
In this article, we will look at the history of the Arabic typewriter and, by extension, the Arabic keyboard – and see what Theodor Herzl has to do with it, even indirectly.
In a following second part I will show how to learn touch-typing in Arabic.
The English keyboard QWERTY
The most common story about the QWERTY-system goes as follows. The QWERTY-system was created to slow typists down. Mechanical typewriters could jam if the keys were hit too fast; hence, they had to put the common letters far apart from each other. But that is perhaps an urban legend.
Japanese researchers1 came up with another explanation. They say that the QWERTY system emerged as a result of how the first typewriters were being used. Telegraph operators who needed to quickly transcribe messages, found the alphabetical arrangement inefficient for translating Morse code. The Japanese researchers suggested that the QWERTY keyboard evolved over several years as a direct result of input provided by these telegraph operators.
The letter “Q” is rarely used in English and is therefore in the upper-left corner. In French, however, the “Q” is more common, which is why the letter is one line below and therefore easier for the fingers to reach. For French, the layout is AZERTY.
The highest typing speed ever recorded was 216 words per minute, set by Stella Pajunas in 1946, using an IBM electric typewriter. The average speed is 41.4 words in one minute.
The Arabic keyboard غفقثصض
Keyboard in Arabic means لَوْحة مَفاتيحَ which is the literal translation of the English word.
Today, an Arabic keyboard is arranged like this:
The invention of the Arabic typewriter
638 combinations of Arabic letters
Back in the days, using a typewriter to write in Arabic was a complicated matter. The majority of the 28 Arabic letters have different shapes depending on the position in a word.
For example, the letter ب has three shapes: we have ﺑ if it occurs at the beginning, ﺒ if it is in the middle, and ﺐ if marks the final letter.
In the patent document of the first Arabic typewriter, it is stated that 638 (!) characters were needed for printing in Arabic. The inventor could reduce it to 53 characters.
Another problem was the spacing. A new mechanism had to be invented, which moves certain letters two spaces automatically.
What also complicated the matter was that Arabic is not written on one, but on three horizontal lines.2
Who invented the Arabic typewriter?
If we define invention by what came first, it would be the Arabic typewriter that was presented at the Egyptian corner of the Chicago Fair in 1893 – but that machine didn't really work.
However, if we were to define the invention in terms of the first usable version of the typewriter, it would be either Selim Haddad or Philippe Waked, and whom you choose depends on whether you think the claim belongs to who first applied for the patent (= Selim Haddad) or who built the machine that worked first (Philippe Waked), who typed the first printed document in Arabic.
Selim Haddad, born 1864, came from a region which was at that time called “Greater Syria”. He was a painter and moved to Egypt to search for business opportunities. At some point, he became interested in typewriters.
Philippe Waked was born in 1871 in Beirut. He also moved to Egypt and by 1890 he was working for the Ministry of Interior. In his spare time, he started to experiment on typewriters. He bought himself a Remington machine and made Arabic letters for it out of rubber, which he stuck onto the Latin letters, then connected the Arabic letters to each other.
TIP: Kerning Cultures (a podcast I can highly recommend!) has an interesting episode on the two inventors of the Arabic typewriter (A Tale of Two Inventors).
How Theodor Herzl tried to bribe the Ottoman Sultan with an Arabic typewriter
The following anecdote shows how valuable and novel an Arabic typewriter was back in the days. One of the first typing machine with Arab letters was created for the father of modern political Zionism, Theodor Herzl (The Jewish State).
But the machine was not for himself.
In 1901 Herzl asked the American company Remington to create an Arabic typewriter. It was a unique gift for the Turkish Sultan Abdul Hamid II. The assignment came amid a heated negotiation between Herzl and the Sultan over whether the Jews could have Ottoman-controlled Palestine as their homeland.
The sultan did not want to move on the question of Palestine. He offered that Jews could settle anywhere else in his empire, including Anatolia, Syria, or Mesopotamia. Herzl refused, and the Sultan refused the typewriter, much to Herzl's annoyance.
Sensing his own dwindling power, the Sultan banned all typewriters from the empire to quell political disagreements. The ban was later lifted by Kemal Ataturk in 1929 as part of his modernization efforts (Ataturk abolished the use of the Arabic script).
Theodor Herzl's typewriter was found among his belongings in 1909, the year the Sultan was dethroned by the Young Turks. Herzl himself mentioned the typewriter in his published letters.3
Theodor Herzl (1860 – 1904) was born in Budapest (Hungary).
He is the founder of the political form of Zionism, a movement to establish a Jewish homeland. His pamphlet The Jewish State (1896) proposed that the Jewish question was a political question, which should be settled by a world council of nations. To further this goal he convened a series of international Zionist congresses, the first of which was held at Basel, Switzerland, in 1897. These led to the formation of the World Zionist Organization.
Herzl met with many world leaders in his attempts to establish a Jewish state. In lengthy negotiations he sought unsuccessfully to win the Turkish sultan's approval for large-scale Jewish immigration into Palestine.
In part two, we are going to have a look at ways to learn touch typing in Arabic.
- On the Prehistory of QWERTY, Yasuoka, Koichi; Yasuoka, Motoko, 2011; Full paper: https://repository.kulib.kyoto-u.ac.jp/dspace/bitstream/2433/139379/1/42_161.pdf ↩︎
- In 1903, the New York Times had a report on the patent: https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1903/01/18/101966525.html ↩︎
- Briefe und Tagebücher, Band 3; Theodor Herzl; page 802 ↩︎