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April 3, 2012

The A-Z of typing

Most of us do it every day, but how often do we sit down and think about the history of those buttons and keys we spend so much time using? So in the spirit of learning something new, Nokia Connects brings you a brief history of typing – from typewriter to smartphone.

One of the first commercially produced typewriters, the Hansen Writing Ball, via darkoutpost

‘Live by the typewriter, die by the typewriter!’ might have been the mantra of the 1920s workplace, but typewriters – as in, machines that aid documentation by eliminating the need for handwriting – have been around for much longer. A man named Henry Mill was the first to receive a patent for a machine that seems similar to what we know as a typewriter back in 1714. Although it wasn’t until the late 1800s that typewriters (or similar machines) became successful commercially, and it wasn’t until 1910 that the manual (as opposed to the electric) typewriter had become standardised in the form that we now recognise.

The QWERTY layout of the keys wasn’t invented until the turn of the 20th century, and there are many different explanations as to how it came about. The most plausible is that a more intuitive layout led to the typewriters of the day becoming easily jammed, because keys would be pressed too quickly and would lead to several levers becoming entangled. The answer was to mix up the order of the letters so that typists would have to work harder to find the appropriate letters – and so reduce the chances of keys getting jammed. By the time typewriter mechanics had moved on and this was no longer a problem, typists were so used to the QWERTY layout that they resisted any changes in the position of letters – even though it would have made their lives easier!

QWERTY keyboard on a Nokia E61, via Wikipedia

It might be difficult for us now to appreciate how truly revolutionary these typewriters were when they first appeared on the market. Not only did they make it possible to write documents quickly and legibly, they also propelled women into the workplace for the first time. As with any technological advancement, however, there were those who thought the typewriter stunted the powers of literary creation and changed the way we thought and wrote forever:

‘My grandfather used to complain that the typewriter had ruined English literature, leading from the sort of florid prose that flowed from the pens of Dickens or Henry James to the telegraphic style of Hemingway.’ Structured Procrastination

The invention of the smartphone ushered in a whole new era in typing –  with the Nokia 9000 Communicator, released in 1996, being the first phone to boast a full QWERTY keyboard. It could also send and receive (text) faxes and email, and even had a (limited) internet connection.

And then, ten years later, came the touchscreen phone. This transformed the ordinary phone keypad into an interactive touchscreen experience. More importantly, the keyboard was now optional, and disappeared from the screen when not in use. This meant that a simple phone was no longer just that – it was so much more. According to Tom Hulme of design consultancy agency Ideo, touchscreen phones created a ‘blank canvas’ for us to use as we want. So a phone doesn’t just have to be a phone – it can be a piano, a DJ set, a thermometer, a heart-rate monitor… your imagination’s the limit!

A Nokia Lumia used to play Ping Pong, via MyNokiaBlog

So what now for the humble act of typing? It seems that the era of the touchscreen phone may have spelled the end for typing on your phone – but who knows what the future may hold. Perhaps there’ll be an app to turn your phone into an old-fashioned typewriter. Perhaps keyboards will disappear altogether as voice recognition services get more advanced and all you’ll have to do is talk to your phone or computer in order to send a message. Maybe, just maybe, sometime in the future we’ll be able to transfer messages and documents telepathically, and so eliminate the need for typing letters at all!

What do you think will be the future of typing?  Is QWERTY really dead, or will it live on forever? You can type your response in 140 characters on Twitter, or simply drop it in the comment box below…