Jon DeVos: The Q is out there somewhere |

Jon DeVos: The Q is out there somewhere

Jon DeVos
The Friday Report

Jon DeVos

It was in high school that true love dragged me into typing class. I would have followed Mary Ellen Shea anywhere those days, but fortunately we only had to go as far as Sister Mary Bernice in Room 213.

Unfortunately, that's also as far as it went with Mary Ellen Shea. She started hanging on the football quarterback and my interest in stupid typing waned as quickly as my interest in stupid Mary Ellen.

So that's how I learned how to type, sort-of. I'm pretty firm on the stuff around the center of the keyboard but the keys get squishier as we move outboard. Numbers lie out there in a different universe and must be individually scrutinized with care.

Typing without looking is easier if your editor will settle for gibberish, which doesn't happen until you hit the national publications. I can type without looking at the keyboard, only sneaking occasional peeks to find the Z. The problem with not looking is that certain keys slip away if you don't use them for a while. For instance, a couple of weeks ago, I lost the letter Q. I mean, it's still on the keyboard right where it should be, I just can't remember where that is. I have to stop in the middle of sentence and search till I find it. So what? It's a ridiculous letter anyway.

Typewriters are queued up (long pause while I find the q) in museums right behind the Dodo Bird under a sign saying "Extinct." About the only holdover from the typewriter is the still familiar keyboard. Computer keyboards became more complicated when Bill Gates added a bunch of keys that transfer money into his account. Other keys conjure up ancient demons, who knows?

The first typewriters, invented circa 1830, were as big as pianos and painstakingly struck one letter at a time as you moved the carriage over the paper. For fifty years they only typed in capital letters and even then you couldn't see what you were typing as you wrote.

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Around 1880 a couple of breakthroughs breathed new life into mechanical writing. The first was the lever that shifted the carriage up a short distance for the capital letters, and the second was the double-character key that allowed a lot more characters without increasing the size of the keyboard. About that same time, the "visible typewriter" was invented, finally allowing the operators to see what they were typing.

The first typewriters we would recognize today were produced by gunsmiths in the New York Remington factory. The first ones didn't sell well because businessmen weren't impressed with a machine that was only slightly faster than handwriting and cost a thousand times more than a good pen.

Thomas Edison invented the first electric typewriter in 1920. His device printed letters on a moving roll of paper and eventually became the first ticker-tape machine.

Then, nothing happened for 40 years until IBM invented the differential spacing machine. Prior to that, all typewriters allotted the same amount of mono-spacing to every letter. An "i" took up the same space as an "m." With differential spacing, the printed page could be justified not only to the left but also to the right, providing a neater, print-like, page.

Incidentally, typists, do you double-space after a period? That's a holdover from the pre-1960s when mono-spacing left large gaps between some letters and double-spacing helped clarify the sentence's end. Nowadays, single-spacing after periods is almost universally preferred in style manuals.

In 1936 there was philosophical argument between two camps. The one camp wanted the keyboard as we know it today. The second patented the Dvorak keyboard, which differed from the standard by laying out the most common characters under the same line of keys that the fingers rest on. The lesser used keys were placed farther from the action in order of frequency. It was a good idea but it never caught on and the last Dvorak machine was sold by Olympia in 1976. Typing is one of the few technologies that has lasted through centuries; nonetheless itself on the way out as we chatter back and forth with our hand-helds.

The most stultifying typing record on record simply has to be that of Marva Drew, of Waterloo, Iowa, who typed out every number between one and one million. It took six years and 2,473 pages.

And that was using all those elusive keys across the top!

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