Obviously, I’m writing this on a computer. But the keyboard I use is basically the same as the Sholes & Glidden typewriter of 1873, the first model to be commercially successful. That success has run out as Godrej & Boyce, possibly the last typewriter manufacturer, closes its doors. While there were many innovations in the mechanics of these machines in those 140 years, some design decisions remain with us today despite the fact the original motivations have long since expired.
Keys were arranged on a diagonal so that the levers connecting keys to the typebar didn’t run into each other. Typing capital letters required lifting the entire typebar manually necessitating a shift lock (now caps lock) key. The QWERTY keyboard layout placed common letter-pairs at opposite ends of the keyboard to avoid jamming and modern developers rarely bat an eye at the terms “carriage return” and “line feed” even though there is no carriage to return nor paper being fed in my laptop.
Despite the inefficiency of some of these standards, they remain because of the momentum built over a 100 years of standardization. There have been some tweaks – my keyboard has function keys, page up/down, and dedicated media keys. But major renovations such as the Dvorak key layout remain nothing more than niche products. Unless we’re posting comments on YouTube, the caps lock key is most often used in pairs – once by accident and again to correct the mistake. Yet it remains, taking up valuable real-estate on cramped laptops, though Google is looking to replace it with (of course) a Search button. Time will tell if the Big-G can alter the keyboard landscape or a century of standardization trumps change.
I started using my mother’s electric typewriter in the 7th grade when poor penmanship was earning me lower grades on my writing assignments. Mom’s deal: if I borrowed her typewriter, I had to learn proper touch typing. I grumbled at first, but soon was typing much faster than I could write by hand. Combined with erasable typewriter paper, I was finishing longer assignments quickly which meant more time to play outside, a good deal in any boy’s mind. (Thanks, Mom)
For the past two decades, I’ve relied on typing for my work. Communication happens by email and text messages and I write code for a living, all on computers. Yet typewriters appeal with a Beat-poet flair: late night writing binges fueled by whisky and cigarettes, the ding-slap at the end of a line and the raspy zzzzip as the page is pulled off the cartridge. Jack Kerouac, typing at 100 words a minute, wrote One the Road on roll paper to skip the interruption of loading new pages. William Gibson wrote Neuromancer, which coined the term cyberspace, on a Hermes 2000 manual typewriter.
As with most things nostalgic, they end. Even the exclusive Writers Room in New York, has banned typewriters. “There's a different commitment when you know you're making a mark on the page, when you strike a key and bleed ink on the page,” said Skye Ferrante, who quit the club rather than work on a laptop.
New technologies always push aside old. This creative destruction gives us options – I just rewrote the above paragraph – while it creates a nostalgic niche for those who are passionate about the bygone. Some like the warm sound of vinyl, others use pinhole cameras. There will always be a someone drinking whisky and banging away at a typewriter, cigarette dangling, late into the night.