Back in the 1870s as the Industrial Revolution started to evolve into the Information Revolution and modern technological society needed more and faster ways of getting text and documents from one place to another, the first typewriters came into use in offices in the United States and Europe. The advantages of using a typewriter were significant: people didn’t have to worry about bad handwriting causing mistakes in orders or accounts, secretaries could learn to type much faster than they could write by hand, and business letters could all have the same professional look. The disadvantages of those early machines included typebars that would get stuck together or ink ribbons that would jam or go dry, and – before the correction tape and backspace key came onto the scene – it wasn’t very easy to go back and correct your mistakes. A typo at the bottom of one otherwise perfect page might mean that you’d have to re-type the entire thing from the top.
Electric typewriters started appearing over the next few decades, but it wasn’t until the 1960s and the famous IBM Selectric that the electric typewriter really took off. This machine replaced the typebars (with one or two letters or symbols at the end of each narrow metal striking arm) with something called an element which had all of the letters and symbols on one easy-to-replace ball. Now offices could not only have professional quality letters, they could also easily change from one font to another just by switching between elements. However, most offices just used two or three different fonts, including the standard Courier (monospace) and Ariel (proportional). Built-in correction tape allowed for easy erasing of mistakes, and every office worker had a bottle of white correction fluid in their desk to brush out any errors they found later.
Even after computers became standard in the office, they were often used just like typewriters. In some cases, the computer programs themselves weren’t advanced enough to provide anything but simply another way of typing a document. In other instances, the people using the computers didn’t know all that they could do. However, as more and more people grew up in a world where computers were more common than typewriters, those older machines started only being used for things like pre-printed legal forms. These days, it’s the people who were trained on computers who can’t figure out how a typewriter works!
Many messages go out today over smartphones that don’t have standard keyboards, or the keyboards are much too small for normal typing. Often these text message systems have an “auto-complete” option that means you don’t even have to type all of the letters in the word before it displays. While this saves time, there are drawbacks that go beyond the humorous “autocorrect” errors we’re all familiar with: touch typing techniques aren’t used, spelling rules are forgotten, and speed is more valuable than content.
Will keyboards are eliminated entirely one day? There are already voice-recognition software applications that translate your spoken words directly into text. Perhaps the next step will be to wire our brains straight into a worldwide communication network and eliminate the need for text documents altogether. Until that day arrives, though, keep practicing your touch typing skills!