Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A Brief History of Typing

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.

*You know how I’ve bragged in the past about being an amazing conversationalist, well, you’ll just have to take my word for it. But here is a perfect example. This is all from memory people. All my research for this post stems back to an essay I read back in the 90’s about the QWERTY keyboard. And I believe the essay itself was written back in the 80’s, back when the history of the QWERTY keyboard was shrouded in mystery even amongst people who really should have known. Sure, 10 seconds and a decent search engine and anyone can be an expert now. But I go old school. All from a half-remembered reading nearly two decades ago. You can’t Google stuff after the apocalypse. But I’ll still be able to bore my loved ones around the campfire about the most inane subjects imaginable.


Gail said...

I remember the wall chart in typing class. Huge, our eyes should be there and never on the keyboard. I was told the layout was made according to the letters used the most...just imagine A being in X's place, it would tear apart my whole world.

Great read and for those who complain about keyboards, let them try an old manual typewriter for a few days.

When we received an electric typewriter in our class, we all had to take turns...every one wanted the one where "throwing the carriage" was done with the push of a button.

Now, I'm sounding old...but I've never used a quill pen.

Tonja said...

I have my great grandma's black steel typewriter. I don't use it, but it's cool to have. I learned to type fast (yes, 60) on a manual typewriter. But not numbers. I come to a dead stop with the numbers row.

Uncle Grumpy Bulldog said...

That is a pretty impressive memory. I remember using an old typewriter and thinking what a pain it must have been for writers back then to have to retype a whole page just because of one typo.

It seems that happens a lot where there are two competing products and it isn't always the one that's better that wins. I mean at the turn of the last century there was Edison vs. Tesla in electrical current, the typewriter thing, Beta/VHS, HD DVD vs. Blu-Ray. And then you get those products like Laserdiscs that wind up going down a cul-de-sac in product design.

Matthew MacNish said...

Wow. Just wow. Who knew (beside you, of course)?

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

You did your research! I remember those old typewriters. And if you hit two keys at once, you had to manually unstick them.
And I must be eight years old then, because I can barely do thirty words per minute.
Wonder if I should dig out my old post on the history of the video tape...?

Andrew Leon said...

I loved jamming the arms! That was why I played with the typewriter to begin with.

There was a logic to the traditional layout, though; it had to do with putting the most used keys where you could use them more easily. Which is why the z, x, and q are in odd places in the left side.

Rusty Webb said...

Your not the first person to mention that layout and the logic behind it. All I have to say is that they must have loved the semi-colon way back then, because that is very conviently placed.

Andrew Leon said...

Well, yeah, the semi-colon used to be used much more than it is today. But, then, sentences used to also be much longer than they are today.

Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

I saw an antique typewriter today. Funny that you are also talking about them on the blog.

Nancy said...

I loved playing on the typewriter in the den when I was little. I would compose many stories on it before I could read. None with paper, of course. and I also remember the keys getting stuck. Nice memories, thanks Rusty.

Cindy said...

I never knew about the QWERTY typewriter. Thanks for sharing. My mom used to have something like the other one, only it wasn't as big. I used to play with it.

M Pax said...

I learned to type on a manual typewriter in HS, then typed all of my college papers on one. I knew the layout was to try to avoid the letters from getting stuck together when hitting the paper. I love the look of those old typewriters. Someday I'll have the office space to have one.

Brinda said...

I'm SO glad we don't use typewriters anymore.

Sarah Pearson said...

It was only a couple of weeks ago that I finally gave my daughter unopened packs of carbon paper and top copy paper. I guess I've finally admitted to myself that manual typewriters are not making a comeback.

Briane P said...

What I remember about typing class was Hot Ms. Nelessen, who was the first teacher I ever had that I thought was sexy. She was maybe late 20s and would have been perfect for one of those scenarios where a teacher seduces a student, except that I was not the type of student that ever gets seduced in those scenarios.

But I DID learn to type, really well, because if you're a fat kid with glasses in 9th grade who secretly harbors a crush on the typing teacher, you're not going to get her with your bad-boy-ness, so you've got to use the one thing you have: awesome typing efficiency.

She did not fall for it.

More interestingly, to me, is the burgeoning field of Knowledge Superiority. The 100-day 100-question TBOE Star Wars Blogathon spurred a minidebate in which Offutt and Grumpy argued about whether Googling something counted as "knowing something," with me coming down on "It doesn't matter how you find the answer, so Google away."

We place a premium, it seems, on knowledge gained by something OTHER than the Internet, which is weird: here's this great tool that will let us learn anything, and so we go to great lengths to NOT use it.

It's as if knowledge itself is going steampunk.

I will probably have to elaborate on this in a post someday, when I get around to thinking about it after I think about all the other things I think about.

Andrew Leon said...

@Briane: I have no problem with googling information. I had to look up how to spell Snootles planet name, because I couldn't remember precisely how to say it and, thus, couldn't spell it. Considering the types of questions you're asking, I'm sure I'll be googling soon.

Google is a great ender of arguements. Typewriters, unless used as a weapon, not so much.

Cherie Reich said...

Well, I'm a fan of history too, so I enjoyed learning more about the typewriter and keyboard. I have used one of the older typewriters before. I don't know how people ever used them effectively.

The Golden Eagle said...

Interesting post!

We used to have a couple old typewriters; I remember playing on them and hearing the series of clicks and thunks as the keys came down. said...

You're my kinda nerd, Rusty. I can't believe I sat and read an entire (long) blog post about the typewriter.

I remember way back in the year 19** when I started to learn to type...the things were so NOISY that it drove you nutty to sit in a class full of them. DING!

Jo said...

Oh I so loved this!! We had a typewriter like this, too... you made me all nostalgic! :)

boopia said...

Great history lesson. I didn't take typing :)

Claudia Dell said...

Your insights and writings are inspiring.I admire you greatly. Thank you and keep up the Good!

Essay Typing