Tuesday, 17 March 2009

The fantastic disappearing keyboard

‘May I check my emails?’ my friend John asked when he came to stay.

‘Sure,’ I said. ‘Power it up and take it away.’

A few minutes later he came through to the kitchen, where his wife Brigitte and I were sampling (okay, drinking) wine, and said, ‘There’s a problem.’

I offered a few curses up to the national telecoms company, my server, etc, but John said, ‘No, that’s not the problem. It’s your keyboard.’

‘My keyboard?’ I asked, mystified.

John, a photojournalist who began in the trade when cameras required actual human intervention to take a class picture, is what we call a ‘hunt-and-peck’ typist: he hunts out the keys he needs and pecks at them when he finds them. Most hunt-and-peck typists use only two fingers, although the quicker ones use four. (John has hunt-and-pecked his way through a healthy handful of prize-winning books.)

I’m a touch-typist – touch-typing was the one and only usable skill I learnt at secretarial college, but it did make the six otherwise utterly useless months of basic accountancy, public relations (how to dress nice and smile a lot) and whatever else they give us to pass the time more than worth it.

Touch-typing is excellently useful: you can more or less type at the rate you think, provided you don’t think too fast or type too slow. But by its very nature, touch-typing doesn’t require sight of the keyboard: your fingers control the letters while your eyes focus on the screen. So, apparently, by the time John came to visit, I hadn’t actually looked at my keyboard for quite a long time.

After two years of bashing away morning, noon and night, this is what it looked like. The only letters still visible are Q, W, Y, U, P, J, Z and X - not surprisingly, those least used when writing in English. (I am still using the keyboard, incidentally.)

What's a Qwerty keyboard?
The apparently random arrangement of keys on the modern English keyboard dates from the days of the typewriter, which, when it was invented in the late 1800s, had a movable carriage, a lever for turning paper and a mechanical keyboard on which the letters were arranged in alphabetical order.

Problem was, the alphabetical arrangement meant that one or more commonly used keys were placed close together, so when they were punched in quick succession, they jammed. This frustrated fast typists, who constantly had to stop their work to disentangle the mechanical keys. Hence, after some trial and error, the Qwerty keyboard.

Interestingly, the Qwerty arrangement wasn’t designed directly to stop the keys from sticking; rather, it was intended to slow down fast typists (and in this roundabout way stop the keys from sticking), because the typist's fingers had further to travel over the keyboard to produce common letter-pairs.

* ‘Qwerty’ takes its name from the first six letters in the top row of keys on a keyboard; and you can type the word ‘typewriter’ using only the keys in the top row.

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3 comments:

Juno said...

That blank keyboard is a real badge of honour, Mur. You are indeed the fastest typist I have ever met.

Audrey said...

Yes. No wonder she's so prolific. I am horribly envious of this frankly inhuman skill, being a hunt-and-peck typist myself. It isn't fair, and I think Muriel ought to have one arm tied behind her back, to level things out a bit. Although she'd probably still beat the rest of us by several laps. Harrumph.

Johann said...

I am also jealous as hell.
I asked my sister, who was a typing teacher at the time, if she would teach me. She refused on the grounds that I have too many bad habits by now and I would never learn to type properly. Ouch.