In the key of life

I have already talked about my typing proficiency, which has stood me in good stead now that we pretty much all type for a living. But it just occurred to me that we don’t think much about the evolution from typewriter to computer keyboard and why we need all those extra keys. And anyhow, why do we still call them keys when they are no longer mechanical levers? Here are some tidbits about the current incarnation of the keyboard you may find interesting.

1. The standard explanation of the QWERTY layout is that it prevented common combinations of letters from jamming the keys on a typewriter. That may be true, but did you ever notice that you can spell the word ‘typewriter’ using only the top row? This allowed office equipment salesmen to show how easy it was to operate the keyboard while avoiding learning the complete layout.

2. The exclamation mark and the number ‘1’ were the last keys to be added to the standard typewriter keyboard, which is why they are found together on the same key. That’s because a ‘1’ could be approximated by a lower case ‘L’, and since the exclamation point was only used very sparingly it was considered redundant. If something truly alarming needed to be committed to paper you could just type an apostrophe, backspace, and type a period underneath. Many believe the addition of the exclamation mark key led to the erosion of punctuation etiquette that now makes it a mandatory addition to any texting ‘conversation’ (usually in multiples). All I can say about that is OMG!!!!!!!!!!

3. Some typewriter keys have gained a new lease on life on the computer keyboard while others have disappeared. Take the ‘@’ symbol for example. In its previous life, @ was used when typing out lists for invoices, as in “3 apples @ 25 cents each”. Note that there is no key for the symbol for ‘cents’ anymore as it has been deposed by the ‘^’ from its position above the ‘6’ key. I don’t know whose bright idea that was because I don’ think I’ve ever used a ‘^’ while we still have fractions of a dollar to deal with. But that’s just my $.02 worth.

4. Courtesy of Twitter, the ‘#’ key has also experienced a resurgence in popularity. It has had a rather chequered past and is possibly in the witness protection program as it changes its name frequently. Now known as a ‘hash’ (a name resurrected from the 1970s), it has also been the ‘pound’ symbol (used in connection with numbers related to weights), the octothorpe (likely a name chosen to eliminate spelling bee participants), and the plain old ‘number sign’, which is supposedly the internationally agreed standard name. Unfortunately, ‘number tag’ does not have enough cache for social media purposes.

5. The ‘control’, ‘alt’, and ‘delete’ keys are of course brand new inventions for the computer keyboard. In days of the command line interface, control and alt provided command shortcuts, and to those of us who had to rely on whiteout and correction tape, the joy over the inclusion of the delete key needs little explanation. The original use of the simultaneous use of the ‘control, alt, delete’ keys was to force the shutdown of a computer that was frozen in mid-task and in the process lose everything stored in memory. Microsoft then turned this on its head by assigning ‘control, alt, delete’ as the method to start up a computer, which makes just about as much sense as dictating that we should now all answer the phone with goodbye instead of hello.