Selling the Typewriter in the Arab World

By Andrea L. Stanton
Submitted to Session P4952 (Arabic-script typography: history, technology, & aesthetics, 2017 Annual Meeting
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This paper charts the appearance of the typewriter in late 19th century Middle East, focusing on the Arabic-speaking world, and asking what we can learn from this history. An American invention in its dominant form (the Remington), the typewriter was by the turn of the century being promoted to various language communities around the world – even those for which its technical limitations also limited its utility. For Arabic, the early typewriter’s lack of an upper and lower case register meant similar challenges with respect to mechanically reproducing a letter’s initial, medial, and final forms. Nor was it able to reproduce diacritical marks, including voweling. Once the shift key was introduced, it was possible to introduce an initial, connected letter along with the freestanding form. Aesthetically and technically, however, questions remained – particularly with respect to the perceived attractiveness of the font, and the smoothness of the letter joinings.

Yet typewriter usage did not become standard business or governmental practice until well after World War I, as assorted scholars have noted. This paper proposes shifting the historical focus away from the question of its “successful” diffusion, and towards two other questions. It uses a blend of United States consular and trade reports, supplemented by period newspaper articles, memoirs, and corporate documents, and draws upon scholarship on the history of typewriting in other parts of the world, as well as histories of technology adoption and innovation in the Middle East. It investigates the ways in which the Arabic-speaking Middle East was conceived as a ripe and politically salient market for typewriting, particularly in the 1890s and 1900s. While typewriter manufacturers saw a growing market, US officials saw the typewriter as a symbol of a forward-looking, modernizing, commercially oriented region – starting with Egypt. How did the typewriter figure into this powerful Middle East imaginary, and how did its slow adoption in the region impact US officials’ view of the region? Looking ahead to the later 20th century, what might the history of the typewriter teach us about the introduction of Arabic-language word processing, considered a similarly vexed technological development?