It was how we all joined Twitter in our minds’ eyes. In late October, Queen Elizabeth II walked up to an Apple iPad in her periwinkle dress and matching flowery hat, removed an ivory-colored glove from her right hand, and tapped its display, sending her first tweet—pre-written but signed “Elizabeth R.”—into the world. An orchestra immediately trumpeted fanfare. A gathered crowd applauded. The tweet was retweeted, at a recent count, 42,964 times and favorited 47,152 times. And that was without any hashtags. (#justsaying.)
There was, of course, some controversy. The tweet registered online as coming from an iPhone, not a tablet, so did the Queen really do it? And it wasn’t even the Queen’s Twitter account, but the verified @BritishMonarchy account, which has tweeted more than 19,000 times to its 909,000 followers since joining Twitter in April 2009, the same month the Queen received an iPod from President Barack Obama and sent a rare regal email to 23 children around the world.
No, the Queen is not about to give a TED Talk or anything. She is an 88-year-old great-grandmother. Her full title alone—Her Majesty Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and of Her other Realms and Territories, Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith—is 176 characters long, Twitter anathema. (She might try instead her titles in Papua New Guinea: “Missis Kwin” and “Mama belong big family” in the Tok Pisin language.) But before Internet trolls give her the added title of n00b, they should know she already held the record as the world’s first monarch to send email—back in 1976 (Arpanet username “HME2”), when Steve Jobs and Bill Gates had just ended their teenage years—and she has had the good grace not to mock whatever AOL or Prodigy account from which we commoners finally got around to sending email in the mid-1990s. To be fair, what good is Facebook when you don’t even have an official birthday? (Hers is celebrated on multiple days, depending on the country.)
The Queen is not a classic early adopter. Although she got her first cell phone in 2001, she was still confused by voicemail in 2007, when she asked her grandsons, Prince William and Prince Harry, to help her set it up. (The princes promptly fulfilled every technophobic grandmother’s nightmares, leaving the following outgoing—correction: very outgoing—message: “Hey, wassup! This is Liz. Sorry I’m away from the throne. For a hotline to Philip, press one. For Charles, press two. And for the corgis, press three.”)
The royal household has come around on tech since then. Prince Harry sent his first selfie last year. And Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, announced her second pregnancy on Twitter in September. While these blips may seem as intermittent as an airport Wi-Fi signal, rest assured the royals have a secret weapon in a 200-employee, $128-million computer manufacturer from Bolton, outside of Manchester, in England. Established in 1987, Scan Computers International is younger than the Queen’s famous grandsons.
Late last year, Scan Computers picked up one of the royal family’s 800 Royal Warrants of Appointment, which is like a supremely fancy Good Housekeeping seal of approval. Most British royal warrants, which began issue in 1520 (holders formed an association in 1840) and are currently issued on five-year terms, are very old: Lock & Co. (est. 1676), have been the royal hatters since 1956; they’re located next door on St. James’ Place to John Lobb (est. 1849), royal bootmakers since 1956 as well. The Queen, who has four dogs—Candy, Hollow, Vulcan, and Willow—has had an official dog food supplier (Gilbertson & Page Ltd., est. 1873) since 1955. And on and on.
Not all royal warrants are so inaccessible or unrecognizable. The Queen’s official scotch whisky distillers have been both Dewar's and Johnnie Walker since 1955, the same year she picked up a royal gin distiller in Tanqueray. Her royal purveyor of cereal is Kellogg's. S.C. Johnson is the royal supplier of household products. Hoover is the royal supplier of vacuum cleaners. Cosmetics? Elizabeth Arden. Soft drinks by Coca-Cola.
And not all royal warrants are so regal. (We’re looking at you, Event-A-Loo, the Queen’s “supplier of executive toilet hire.”)
But what of technology? Since 2012, the Queen's royal supplier of television and audiovisual products has been Samsung. (Prince Charles’ supplier of consumer electronics has been Sony since 1995.) But Scan Computers offers a catch-all as “supplier of high-performance personal computers and IT hardware,” meaning not just for the Queen but for the 92 offices in Buckingham Palace, too.
Elan Rajas, Scan’s 40-year-old director, defines “high-performance” as “large storage, fast processors, powerful graphics cards.” He goes on: “We tend to be able to offer bespoke solutions. The higher the specs, the more noise they make because the more heat there is, the more fans. It gets obtrusive, sounding like a helicopter. Our models are very cool, very quiet, aesthetically pleasing PCs. All the cabling on the inside is intricate, hand-built. It doesn't look like a computer. It looks modern art. It's the Aston Martin of PCs.” (Incidentally, Aston Martin has for three decades held a royal warrant from Prince Charles.) Rajas points to his site’s Dream PCs, with names including the Bear, Cyclone, and White Tiger. He highlighted the Swordfish, which retails at around $9,780 including tax. He is quick to note, though, that highlighting the Swordfish “does not necessarily mean that this precise model is in use within the royal household,” citing privacy agreements.
The closest analog Americans might have stateside to a royal warrant is the choice of dress made by the First Lady. Certainly breakout designers including Jason Wu, and Prabal Gurung can attest to the effect of having Michelle Obama’s implicit stylistic seal of approval. But how much louder is that echo when the seal comes from the Queen, who serves as head of the entire 53-nation Commonwealth, 16 of which count her as their own head of state?
“We win awards, but those are industry awards. The royal warrant was from the outside. Typically, they're all multinational or boutique,” Rajas says. “You're talking about an age-old establishment that is turning into a modern heritage. They've maintained the tradition for the period over a century. The value in having a warrant is being consistent. But technology isn't like that. It isn't a static function. Chinaware is the same today and will never change. But technology is constantly evolving. It will change dramatically throughout the ages. And we can help with that. Our skill is not just in the bespoke artifact, but also of our expertise in how to use it and what it's capable of. In innovation, flexibility. You can't hide from technology. Rather than resist the changes, the monarchy has embraced them—everything from it being productive to fun.”
An expert on the monarchy, Paul Ward, a University of Huddersfield British history professor and author of the book Britishness Since 1870, says technology has long crept into official royal use. "In the nineteenth century, the monarchy tried to popularize by focusing on 1,000 years of tradition and becoming even more anachronistic—keeping horse-drawn carriages as the public embraced motorcars, for example. That didn't last. Edward VII loved riding in motorcars."
In the 21st century, mobile technology—and in particular social media—is counterintuitively an ideal royal tool because it can allow the monarchy to engage with people in a mediated fashion.
"They're just a normal family, and in that way it's a bit like the Kardashians, it's a similar business," Ward says. "They tweet or post to Facebook and you know it's not really them. But it's exciting anyway." (A recent post-mortem of Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign by a University of North Carolina professor revealed that a single tweet required the approval of 22 campaign aides.)
"Again, it's always been like this," Ward says. "On your 100th birthday in Britain, you get a telegram from the Queen. Everybody knows it's not really from her. Even if you get a letter, it's from her ladies-in-waiting, not her: 'The Queen has asked me to thank you for whatever.'"
The Queen is tweeting and Facebooking at us, not with us. And she faces another personal challenge in her navigation of tech, notes Ingrid Seward, editor-in-chief of Majesty Magazine, a monthly publication about the lifestyles and personalities of the world’s royal families. “Prince Philip’s eyesight is very bad,” she says of the Queen’s 93-year-old husband. So here's a modest tech tip for the world’s first couple: turning that tablet sideways makes the text bigger.