Another Mixed (Up) Review

The Battle for Home Row:

Kipply Moses and the Computer Keyboard As We  Know It
By Lilah Dejuju
Lorkshmeer and Son; 388 pp.
 Thanks to Fritz Engelton’s four-hour film on the subject, the evolution of the modern computer keyboard is now widely known, and a short – though undeniably flawed – poem explaining its origins is routinely recited by kindergartners at school open houses: “’Twas in 1978 / Began the great extravaganza / Though to fully explicate / We’re going to need another stanza.”

Despite the public’s familiarity with this modern fairy tale, a new book fascinatingly illuminates the life of Kipply Moses, the man who dedicated his life to devising what he called “the ideal layout.” While Moses’s name has always been identified with the history of the computer keyboard, “The Battle for Home Row” establishes just how obsessed he was with it dating back to the days of the typewriter. (In a hugely embarrassing incident for all parties, Moses was kicked out of Harvard in 1960, after it was discovered that the subject of his senior thesis, Parentheses, was not in fact an ancient Greek playwright.)

In “The Battle for Home Row,” the historian Lilah Dejuju delivers a riveting tale of corruption and backroom deals concerning the layout of the modern computer keyboard. For decades Moses (the son of the legendary and controversial New York City commissioner Robert Moses) was responsible for every single keyboard-related policy matter in spite of never holding a government job, and in 1978 he succeeded in convincing Senator Leopold Pith, the chairman of the Technological Innovation Committee, to move the semicolon into home row by plunging a fork into the senator’s thigh and then laying out a reasoned argument. (Moses’s diary shows that for days before the incident he could not decide whether to stab and then argue, or vice versa, but history has shown the wisdom of his decision).

The book paints a generally damning portrait of Moses, and devotes much space to the consequences of his actions. For example, by moving the semicolon into home row, Moses displaced the Q, which, Dejuju claims, “has never recovered.” Indeed, the very phrase “home row” was Moses’s creation, a distinction of which Dejuju is ferociously critical, citing a study that found home row keys consistently get more state funding and noting that “there is not a single reasonably priced market with fresh produce near the W.”

In spite of his reputation as a bureaucratic gangster, Moses cultivated a jovial public persona. And because no one dared cross him, prominent figures often went out of their way to make a gushing show of loyalty, even if they fiercely disagreed with his policies. The book confirms the apocryphal account of President Jimmy Carter obediently buttering Moses’s beloved wheat toast, and there is a photo of a smiling Moses holding a solid gold keyboard from members of the Typesetter’s Local 2121 who had rearranged the keyboard’s keys to spell out a worshipful limerick about Moses’s niece, Rumula.

 Dejuju’s access to Moses’s diaries yields a treasure trove of insight and philosophical musings. These reveal, surprisingly, that in spite of his supreme power and influence, Moses was never entirely satisfied with the keyboard’s layout. For example, he strongly believed the exclamation point should have a key all to itself and hated the fact that it had to share with the number one, to the point that he eventually renounced the number altogether. “If an exclamation point is meant to express enthusiasm or impulsiveness,” he wrote, “doesn’t it seem counterintuitive that you have to hold down ‘shift’?”

While there is much in this book to confirm the widely-held reputation of Moses as a monster, the diary entries are deeply humanizing. We learn, for example, that the “control” key is named for Moses’s second son, and that, during a long stretch of marital tension with his second wife, Marpa, Moses would lock himself in his room and press “escape” for hours on end.

Gregory Beyer is a writer living in New York. His journalism, essays and (real) book reviews have appeared in The New York Times.