I’m a bit of a history buff. No, that isn’t true, using the term ‘buff’ implies a bit more working knowledge about history than I have. A fan can still be as ignorant as a tree branch and still be a fan. I can tell people I’m a fan of the Denver Nuggets and not get people too upset if I admit that I don’t have any idea what their record is, or who their coach is, or what sport they play. But I saw their logo once on some kid’s backpack and I’ve been a fan ever since.
See? So that makes me a history fan. As a fan, I can’t be expected to know what the latest news in history is, I heard Elvis is still alive. Besides that not much has changed in a while.
Wow, I usually at least can be counted on to start off on topic before getting off onto a tangent. I’m sure I’ve lost half my audience already, so let me try to cut to the chase: I’m a fan of history. I most enjoy the history of technology, of how sometimes an arbitrary (or practical) decision led to all sorts of ingrained items that we can no longer remove fromproducts and devices we take for granted now, even long after we’ve discovered that the system today is inefficient due to those early decisions.
Case in point. Anyone ever take a peek at their keyboard? Ever scratch your head and give a big ol’ “What the…?” when you look at it? Those letters look like they’re laid out more or less randomly. Doesn’t make a lot of sense. In fact, there has been alternate keyboard layouts over the years that allows users to type far quicker than using the old one we are all used to, the QWERTY.
|Early typewriters also served as toaster ovens|
Of course, the layout we have now is already ingrained, established, it isn’t going anywhere. When I was learning how to type, way back in the day, I was frustrated with how stupidly the keyboard was laid out. Of course, I had a suspicion, even way back then, of why.
When I was a kid we had an old typewriter from the 30’s (or 40’s, 50’s or 60’s I actually can’t tell, but the more I thought about how it looked I suspect that it was a later model) that we kept around the house. It wasn’t considered collectable, or classic, it was just an old piece of junk that was really hard to use. I typed on it all the time, not in any sort of formal way, I would just stick a piece of paper in there an start pounding the keys. If paper wasn’t available then I would stillpound the keys. I liked the way it felt. There was long, metallic, thunk as they struck home. Like a mini sized hammer striking a proportionately mini sized anvil.
If you haven’t used a real typewriter from around that era or earlier then I suggest you do. I think it would impress most people who’ve never used one how sturdily they were built. I’m not referring to the electric typewriter, which was cool in its own right, and I suspect were the source for 60’s and 70’s Kung Fu movie sound fx. I’m referring to the old, manual, typewriters. In those old things, when you struck a key, you might have to depress the thing a couple of inches to getthe hammer to strike the paper, because a metal arm with a letter printed on it would have to travel six inches or so to actually make it to the paper. There was a hinge at the bottom of the arms that would open when you struck the key… If you hit it hard enough. When I was a kid it took a lot of work. I had a hard time getting a whole sentence out within a couple of minutes. I would hit a key and have to depress it so far than my hand would hit the surrounding keys and several arms would leave their home positions and travel halfway to the roller before I could lift my finger from the key I struck. It was really hard.
My mother could type around 60 words a minute using that machine, I would think that is the equivalent to around 200 words per minute today, her fingers must have been built like rock hard sausages to pound out letters on that thing. There was no such thing as finesse when it came to using those.
Oh, but that’s the rub, 60 words a minute was a blazing fast typist at the time. Today, half the people over the age of nine can do that. The technology in those old typewriters by the 30’s (40’s, 50’s, 60’s, whatever), when ours was made, was pretty mature. I would think that using a working model today would make a modern user think of the thing being very steampunk, all sorts of teeny little bears and levers. Those were marvelously engineered devices.
But, as someone who used one of those typewriters can attest, if you hit keys that were right beside each other at close to the same time, the arms would often collide with one another on their long, six inch journey to the paper they were meant to strike. If they hit just right they would get stuck, and if you kept typing, you’d get a bit of mess as keys started banging into one another. Trust me, that happened a lot. I was just a kid playing with a toy. People who were banging out stuff found that sort of thing annoying. It was a real problem, almost from the invention of the typewriter.
The solution: Make sure people can’t type too fast. Design a keyboard that forces the user to strike keys on different portions of the keyboard, separated as far apart as they can reasonably be expected to be.
Years after the typewriter became popular, with its odd keyboard, there was a format war of sorts. A Beta/VHS, HD-DVD/Blue Ray sort of battle amongst the typewriter makers of the day.
|See? Clearly superior.|
See, the problems with the keys could be circumvented, I can’t recall the solutions,* but people are clever, and much faster, more efficient types designed and built. But the whole QWERTY layout was already pretty popular. Legend tells us that the reason you can type the word – typewriter – on a single row of keys is because it was done that way on purpose. Salesmen might not have even been entirely proficient navigating around that mess of keyboard, hunting and pecking doesn’t look so good when you’re trying to tell people how awesome it is, but they could be taught a pitch that ended with them inserting a single sheet of paper into a fancy device and typing in the word – typewriter – to an aghast audience. Sounds stupid, but it was a big deal at the time.
The story of how the competing keyboard lost its format war is sad, and has to do mostly with their arrogance in their superior product, they didn’t count on those 60 words per minute people that had spent endless hours practicing to become adept at a flawed way of doing things. A national ‘type off’ was conducted (no kidding) and the winner was the person(s) that could type the fastest.
It’s sad really. It would be like I’d challenged LeBron James to a slam dunk competition and somehow convinced the world that the winner would determine who was using the better shoe. There is a flaw in the logic there somewhere.
After that crushing public defeat (I believe there was media coverage at that event – national media coverage that was widely reported) that the organizers should never have allowed, no one ever seriously challenged the QWERTY keyboard layout ever again.
And now you know.