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Engineer Ayana Birru

By Dr. Aberra Molla (
ዶ/ ኣበራ ሞላ)

This Ethiopian engineer (ኢንጂነር ኣያና ብሩ) was born in Horro-Gudru, Wellega province, and educated in Ethiopia and Alexandria, Egypt. He graduated with a bachelors degree in engineering from the Camborne School of Mines in England. He created the Amharic typewriter by modifying the print head of the English typewriter. This was somewhere around (1930?) though my knowledge about this great Ethiopian inventor and patriot is incomplete.

Ethiopic or Geez has taken advantage of Gutenberg's printing press and the press has even been in use in Ethiopia by the beginning of the last century. This has given Ethiopians the power to publish with the Ethiopic characters, symbols and numerals using each glyph in the printing presses in Ethiopia. Introduction of Western technology to Ethiopia accelerated following the victory of Ethiopia over Italy in Adwa.  As Ethiopia continued with industrialization and communication in writing in Amharic increased, the need for some sort of a typewriter became acute. Even Emperor Menelik, who had a keen interest in Ethiopic, wondered why Ethiopia did not have its own typewriter. 


Figure 1: Amharic Typewriter

Ethiopia desperately needed a typewriter as handwritings or printing presses were the only available options and both had limitations. It was at a later juncture that Engineer Ayana rescued the Amharic alphabet and facilitated its use in official environs.

Once the principle of modifying the English alphabet typewriter for Amharic was accepted, two competing approaches surfaced on how to use the less than 100 keys for the more than 200 Amharic characters. This was because the English typewriter was invented to type each of the 26 Latin character cases, symbols and numerals. Replacing the Latin characters with Ethiopic was not a viable option as there were more Ethiopic characters than the Latin alphabet keys of the typewriter hardware. I have my doubts that a new dedicated Amharic typewriter gadget with more than 200 keys would have been practical. 

The first proposal on how to use the English typewriter for Amharic alphabet came from Aleqa Kidane Wolde Kiflie. (This Ethiopian theologian was also one of  the prominent Ethiopians who wrote one of the Amharic dictionaries.) Aleqa's proposal to fit the Ethiopic to the typewriter keys was to eliminate most of the characters and use the reduced characters in a new system similar to the English consonant and vowel usage. Aleqa's new Amharic character set had most of the first order characters as new consonants. He eliminated all of the second to eighth order characters except for some of the Amharic "H" or  "", " W" or "", "A" or "" and "Y" or "" character series. He retained the twenty Ethiopic numerals and his set had a total of 89 Amharic glyphs. His invention was to use the syllables he arbitrarily selected , i.e. "wu" (), "yi" (ዪ), "aa" () "wa" (), "yie" (ዬ), "h" () and "wo" () as vowels by typing them next to the first order characters. Thus, in his method only the first order syllables would retain their shapes and sounds while the rest would be eliminated and the values or sounds of the other seven order characters would be represented by one of his vowel forms that would be typed next to the consonant characters. For instant, the Amharic "hu" or " " glyph would have been banned and instead  typed as "heyu" or "ሀዩ" with two characters, "he" or "" and "yu" or "" and read as "hu" or "" just like the English system.  Eighth order characters such as "hwa" or "ኋ" were to be expanded to two new character varieties and then replaced by more characters.

Aleqa Kidane Wolde's typewriter solution for Amharic was rejected. Fortunately, Engineer Ayana came up with a ligation system that was accepted. Ayanas invention involved ligation by overwriting  displaced characters with new fragments to create fake glyphs. He eliminated the Ethiopic characters by replacing them with characters made out of small pieces.  

Figure 2: Fake Amharic Characters

As shown in the picture above, the bar at the top of the "" or "D" character could be used to concoct "" or "J" and many other characters that share the structure. Similarly, the hammer-shaped structure assigned to a key was used to type many second order characters such as "" or "bu" by typing it next to some first order characters such as "" or "be". The same part was shared by glyphs such as "ሠ", "", etc. to concoct their second order fake characters. Ayana's glyphs were not as good as these improved (GezEdit Amharic P font) version and an example is available here. Unlike Aleqa, Ayana eliminated the Ethiopic numerals while he managed to type more characters that looked like Amharic. Unlike the English, the Amharic typewriter did not accommodate fixed fonts because of ligation. 

The concept behind using the typewriter for Amharic is similar to typing an English "W" character with two "V" characters. The "V" has to be placed on the type bar so that two "V's" would look like a "W" while the "V" should remain isolated so that it won't touch other characters typed ahead or behind it. The end result is a fake "V" character that is neither a "V" nor a "W" and a non- existent "W". 

On the other hand, Engineer Ayana's work has been more than an inspiration to me and those of us who took advantage of his machine should be grateful. Without the consistency created by his writing machine the survival of Amharic as a handwritten official Ethiopian alphabet would have been in jeopardy. Engineer Ayana thus bridged the gap for Amharic characters and symbols between the critical decades Ethiopic took advantage of the printing press machines and my computerization of this unique alphabet. Unlike the rest of us who had the luxury of using powerful machines, Ayana played an important role by rescuing the Amharic alphabet with a machine that never typed Amharic, a typewriter that ultimately became obsolete along with its fake glyphs. 

Engineer Ayana's typewriter has also been computerized since the mid 80's because of its use of only one character set and a few who were unable to present their incompatible sets as Amharic have started calling their fake glyphs Ethiopic. It is important that they start giving credit where it is due rather than  focusing elsewhere. For instance, there is a keyboard named after Aleqa while Aleqa never had one. On the other hand, someone who computerized Ayana's keyboard has falsely claimed computerization of Ethiopic while this paper is the first one to give credit to Ayana for his contribution to Amharic. The Amharic alphabet is one of the subsets of the Ethiopic alphabet. Computerizing the Amharic typewriter is not the same as computerizing the Amharic alphabet. Some of those who computerized the Amharic typewriter should stop their fiction of claiming the computerization or digitization of Amharic or Ethiopic and instead stick to scientific facts. An example of such false claim is available here..


The picture above was presented to Unicode in 1992 as Ethiopic by those who did not know what they were doing. There is no way character parts could fit in the above 16 by 8 grid or 128 spots.

Below is a picture of Amharic character parts of the obsolete typewriter method created by Dr. Aberra Molla in 1994. The GeezEdit Amharic P font used the 128 ASCII and the extended ASCII spots. The two fake character sets were presented for the sake of demonstrating how a useless idea was presented to Unicode in 1992. 



Abugida (1991) Ebugida

Aleqa Kidane Wolde Kifle's Amharic Typewriter Character Set

Feature: the United State and Ethiopia, 1903

GezEdit Amharic Parts Font

The Amharic Typewriter Font (Fake Amharic)

Typewriters - Qwerty - Typing Invention History

Unicode and Fake Ethiopic (1992)

Under construction.

ኢንጂነር ኣያና ብሩ



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