Friday, October 05, 2012

Typewriter: relic that left us with QWERTY, carriage return, backspace and shift

Terms such as carriage return, backspace and shift, as well as the QWERTY keyboard layout, remain as hangovers from typewriter technology.

Older than you think
There is evidence of an early typewriter having been patented and built in 1714, but the modern version is recognised as having been Invented in the 1860s. Interestingly many early versions were attempts to build a machine that could allow the blind to type. The first commercially successful machine was sold in 1868 and had the now famous QWERTY keyboard.
The typewriter used the hardware of moveable type combined with the software of a small alphabet, to produce a popular and relatively efficient mechanical, writing machine. Until then, writing was handwritten using pens and pencils. The problem with written text is the legibility (or not) of the writer. The characters are literally propelled onto the paper to leave indelible marks. The other innovation was the moving cartridge that provided accurate lines and letter spacing. Carbon paper could also provide copies.

Typewriter and writers
Typewriter technology literally put typesetting into the hands of writers. Neat books, papers, articles and letters could be written in a format close to what looked like a printed version, almost ready for publishing. Early adopters included Nietzsche and Mark Twain. Kerouac famously typed his entire novel On The Road on a single roll of paper. Even in the age of word processors, authors such as Will Self and Cormac McCarthy continue to use typewriters.

Boon to bureaucracy
Curiously, the first typewriters were marketed as machines at which female ‘typists’ would take dictation from male managers. Indeed, the term, ‘typist’ was a standard job description for decades and the ‘typing pool’ a sizeable department. Although they do not require power or batteries (unless a later electric model) they are prone to jams and failure, require ribbons and make text difficult to erase, so are not conducive to editing and redrafting, typing was also a boon to bureaucracy. I have visited the Stasi headquarters in East Germany where thousands of typewriters were used to type over 100 kilometers of files on its own citizens. I know this, as a friend of mine, a major Stasi spy, was outed when these files were seized in 1989.

Technology locks in practice
Technology is not always as liberating as we imagine. It invariably has limits and downsides that are not always apparent. The mechanical nature of the typewriter meant that the writer had to be slowed down, as the keys would clash and jam. The solution was the QWERTY keyboard, where letters are deliberately spaced far apart to slow typing down. This keyboard format, a relic from the mechanical past, still dominates the digital future. The word ‘typewriter’ it is said, is the longest word you can type from one row of letters on a QWERTY keyboard.
This has become a debate in the online world where several savvy commentators have researched the degree to which Google, Apple and others lock users into their algorithmic model, giving the illusion of openness. Jared Lanier in We Are Not All Gadgets is a strong critic of ‘lock-in’ technologies.

Typewriter technology was a temporary bridge from handwritten writing to word processing. Unfortunately it has become the most famous example of technology locking in a bad and inefficient practice, the QWERTY keyboard. Made rapidly redundant by word processing, with its superior ability on editing and producing digital files, it is now no more than a curious historical relic, a lesson in how quickly human habits can change.


Unknown said...

An yet we still don't teach typing skills. 10 Hrs on a keyboard with no letters on and some screen training will get you to thirty words a minute, and yet I still see such a lot of hunt and peck, two finger typists, who are unable to type without looking at the screen, or even words the keyboard.

It may be anachronistic but I don't see it going anywhere for the next 10 years, and while I hope I am wrong and speech input improves to the point where it's usable, the efficiency gains would be enormous.

just saying.

John Lambie said...

Great article, Donald.

I still marvel how QWERTY apologists claim that it's anything but an epic usability FAIL. Why, you could learn Hungarian faster than it takes to master the QWERTY keyboard.

And the fact that's it now being used as the default on touchscreens is baffling. Considering that it was originally designed to be operated with two hands, on a stationary piece of desktop furniture while seated in a chair...

And we're now being asked to operate it with one finger, embedded behind a smooth sheet of glass, on a screen no larger than half a business card, while navigating through a shopping mall.

So dismayed was I at this singular lack of imagination, I designed my own keypad for touchscreens called "dextr". I've optimised the buttons so they're sized and spaced for the human fingertip and also proposed a logical and intuitive alphabetic layout.

This last touch, is in recognition of the fact that the vast majority of the planet have never owned or even used a QWERTY keyboard, and are much more likely to be familiar with that other keyboard - the way more ubiquitous alphanumeric keypad on a push-button mobile phone.

I'd be curious to hear your thoughts. :-)

Donald Clark said...

Couldn't agree more. This one fact says everything about unresponsive and disconnected education is from the real world.

Donald Clark said...

John. Again I totally agree. It's a relic.

Lorin Mask said...

I love the QWERTY since I was taught to use it properly. When I got my first Garmin it was in alpha order. I can't find the letters fast enough. I have a label maker in alpha order too and it makes me crazy. I want the choice to have QWERTY because I know exactly where the letters are to go fast. In alpha order it alwasys in the same place. Stanard. Each alpha key pads puts the letter in a different pattern so each object has the letters in different places. For example, if you four letter in the first row,"h" will be in a different location than a key pad that had six letter in the first row. I hope QWERTY doesn't go away, as it will slow down typing...we still do that at work on our desk tops!

Mebel Jepara said...

This one fact says everything about unresponsive and disconnected education is from the real world.