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Watch out for the sticky keys

Typing class occupied an hour of every day during my junior year in high school. The instructor, Mrs. Zimmack, a peppy little redhead, clearly would have rather been doing just about anything but teach typing to a bunch of high-strung 16-year-olds. She spent endless hours drilling into our heads the “home row” of the typewriter keyboard. She evidently did a good job because I still remember that arrangement of keys to this day.

Typing was considered such an important part of education back in the 1950s that an entire classroom was set aside just for the typewriters. That was not a small sacrifice considering the demand for rooms in most small school buildings of that era. Our typing room was arranged in rows of four typewriters, side by side, from the front to the back of the room. On one side of the room was a blackboard, and covering part of that blackboard was a large depiction of a keyboard, with each letter prominently displayed.

Day after day Mrs. Zimmack would use her ruler to point out individual letters and give suggestions on how to remember each of them through the tips of your fingers. It was not easy, especially for the male members of the class.

One day Bob Ellsworth, a boy with especially beefy fingers, asked Mrs. Zimmack who had come up with the arrangement of the keys and why. She said she had no idea, but figured it was some person who had a weird imagination. I must have accepted her answer because I never did take the time to look it up on my own. Not until recently, that is. Now I know who and why.

Seems the person who introduced the typewriter to America, Christopher Latham Sholes, had problems with his original keyboard, which was arranged in alphabetical order. The keys would constantly stick to each other when striking the ink ribbon because of their order. So he rearranged them to lessen the possibility of the keys sticking. Thus was born the Qwerty keyboard layout. Although there have been several attempts to improve the layout, the standard typewriter keyboard remains basically the same today as it did back in 1868.

I find this especially interesting because back in my junior year in high school, I was also learning another keyboard. That keyboard was completely different and was what made a Linotype perform. The Linotype is a huge machine that produced hot metal lines of type for printing newspapers before computers took over.

To say that the two keyboards were different would be an understatement. The keys of a Linotype are arranged in rows and sections. The first section is lower case letters, the middle section is numbers and special characters, while the third section is capital letters.

What makes the Linotype keyboard especially interesting is the fact that the letters are arranged according to usage, with the most used letter of the alphabet at the top left vertically down in rows of six to the least used. The first row, top to bottom, is: e,t,a,o,i,n; the second row: s,h,r,d,l,u; third row: c,m,f,w,y,p; fourth row: v,b,g,k,q,j; and the fifth row with the least used letters x, and z. Good to remember if you are playing Wheel of Fortune.

I have no idea what ever happened to Mrs. Zimmack or Bob Ellsworth, but I wish I did so that we might type a few lines for old time’s sake. Heck, it’s basically the same keyboard we use on our computers today. Thankfully, the only fear of sticking keys is when you forget to wash your hands after eating.

(Ed Rood lives outside of Cambridge and is the former publisher of Tri-County Times.)

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