Keyboards, old and new

Reading a typewriter-themed Garfield strip recently, I got to wondering whether or not my typewriter (a Brother Charger 11) even had 44 keys. It does, barely. Despite modern computer keyboards still using the same core QWERTY layout from the 1800s, things are different enough that this was a perfectly reasonable thing to be unsure of. Then I got to thinking about all of these differences, as well as the weird holdovers (QWERTY itself notwithstanding) and… here, I suppose, are just a bunch of those things that I find interesting. I guess some of it might even be informative if you haven’t used a bunch of different typewriters (or, somehow, a computer1).

Shift, and its locks

On old mechanical typewriters, Shift… shifted something. Specifically, either the entire assembly that holds the paper in place (the carriage) or the assembly that holds the typebars (the basket). In doing so, two characters could be placed on one slug, with the top half of the slug regularly hitting, and the bottom half when the page was shifted upward. Generally speaking, this meant switching from one case2 to another, though figures and punctuation don’t have a case. Shifting such keys generally led to different punctuation or other symbols, as it does today.

Shift keys traditionally were unlabeled, as was the Shift Lock. This is the forerunner of our Caps Lock, which has a different name for a very good reason. Shift Lock also physically did what it’s name described – it locked the mechanism in that shifted position. The typewriter had no means to unlock it for specific keys, so every key would strike the shifted part of its slug. On a modern computer, this isn’t true – Caps Lock does what its name implies as well, shifting only letters into their capitalized forms.

It’s worth noting that Caps Lock is far less important on a modern computer than Shift Lock was on a manual typewriter3. Holding Shift down on a computer keyboard is trivial, holding it down on a manual typewriter meant holding that mechanism up (with your pinky!). It was a heavy key.

Commas and periods

I mentioned that, on a manual typewriter, punctuation keys generally shifted to different symbols. Keeping in mind that every key is shifted when Shift Lock is engaged, it was generally a good idea to avoid this on the most common bits of punctuation – the comma and the period. Both halves of the period and comma slugs on manual typewriters typically have the same piece of punctuation. Unlike letter keys, the print on the key itself reflects this, showing two periods or commas. Specialised models and models for non-English locales tend to be exceptions, where the need for additional characters outweighed this convenience.

Greater-than and less-than were typically not included on manual nor electric typewriters. Some specialized exceptions exist, like terminal versions of the IBM Selectric meant for entering APL and ALGOL. The Diablo/Xerox Hyterm, an early daisy-wheel terminal, included these characters at their current positions. Despite that, this positioning wasn’t any sort of a standard, nor were the characters even guaranteed to be included throughout the electronic typewriter era. In fact, simply due to convention, even some dot-matrix typewriters like my Brother EP43 kept shifted commas and periods as commas and periods.


Much like Shift, Backspace used to describe the thing that it physically did. It moved the carriage back one space. It didn’t delete anything, because that was not possible. If the user erred, they would simply backspace over it and overstrike the error with a bunch of Xs or whatnot. If neatness was important, they would backspace over the mistake, strike the same character through a sheet of correction paper or film, backspace one more time, and finally strike the replacement character. This process was the same when correction material became integrated into the ribbon.

The (electric) IBM Correcting Selectric II was, as far as I know, the first to introduce a correction key. Being an electric and not electronic typewriter, the typewriter had no memory of what was to be struck over the correction ribbon. The key () cut out parts of the process, but it still wasn’t analogous to what we, as computer users, think of as backspace. Later electronic typewriters with memory would introduce a correction key akin to our Backspace, but it did not replace Backspace, generally placed to the right of the space bar. We’re left with not one, but two keys whose names make little sense – Backspace, being a key that deletes things and does not simply move a space to the back, would be better named Delete; by extension, what we call Delete is highly unintuitive4.

Ones and exclamation points

So, on many manual typewriters, these keys simply don’t exist. I once had to explain to a confused thrift shopper that the one key was not, in fact, missing but that its omission was by design. Adding more type bars to the basket increased… a lot of things. Cost, likelihood to jam, overall complexity. And when your lowercase el looks like a one anyway… why include it? When you can type a period, backspace over it and strike a single quotation mark… why do you need an exclamation point?

A key providing an unshifted one and a shifted exclamation point became common in later and higher-end models, but even my Charger 11 from the ‘80s omits it. And these two characters sharing a key is a convention that remains today, simply because they were two universally-omitted characters at one point in time.

Enter, or CR/LF

Folks who have to deal with data interchange are likely well aware that carriage return and line feed are two very different things, a holdover from typewriters (and later, terminals). When one approached the end of a line, two things had to happen – the carriage had to return to the leftmost position, and it had to rotate the platen one (or more) lines ahead. While integrated into one mechanical linkage, they were two separate things happening and could be performed independently. Being that they were actions mechanically manipulating the carriage and not involved with the type bars, this function was performed by a lever on the carriage and not a key.

Electric typewriters changed this, and Return became common. Since motors were now doing the work, marketing tactics meant this key was often called Power Return. Some kept the entire Carriage Return name. Though quite distant from where the carriage return lever would be on a manual typewriter, this key started its life in 1925 in the position it still sits today.

Characters found, and characters lost

Aside from the absence of one and the exclamation point, non-alphanumerical symbols tend to differ greatly from the manual typewriter era until now. These weren’t quite so standardized as the basic QWERTY layout, but there were some definite trends. Use in creating sales slips and the like meant that ½, ¼, and ¢ were ubiquitous, with other fractions common on more specialized typewriters. Oddly, plus and equals signs were often omitted. Parentheses were typically the only form of bracketing present. Models for non-English locales would introduce isolated diacritic marks, meant to overstrike the letters they combined with.

To wrap this up…

We’ve kept the name Shift, despite nothing shifting. We’ve kept the concept of Shift Lock, but updated it for the conveniences allowed by the digital realm. Both keys kept their respective positions, but are now larger and labeled. Backspace got to keep its name as well, also despite being fully detached from its original (and literal) meaning. We can type ones and exclamation points now, but have to work a bit harder to make fractions. When we want to insert a new line in a document, we don’t smack the left side of our screen. A shifted comma is no longer comma, and other shifted punctuation has moved around and settled into standard placement.

I use my Charger 11 fairly regularly, but I’ve used a computer for hours daily for the past… two decades? There’s a certain uncanniness that comes of the occasional quirky missteps despite being largely able to touch-type.

  1. I meant this as a joke at first, but I do feel like it’s unlikely, yet entirely possible that we’ve reached a point where the person reading this may never have used a computer or a physical keyboard. ↩︎
  2. ‘Case’ also being a term taken from the physical world, that of literal cases full of movable type in letterpress printing. ↩︎
  3. I always remap Caps Lock to Ctrl. Germany’s keyboard standard makes Caps Lock optional, preferring the key be replaced with Alt Gr. ↩︎
  4. Apple has historically gotten this ‘more right’, but I certainly wouldn’t call it standard. ↩︎