How I learned to type

Tomorrow is the 150th anniversary of the granting of United States patent 79,265 to Christopher Latham Sholes for a type-writing machine.

My daughter asked me how I learned to type. I told her that I learned on a typewriter. This led to a lot of follow-up questions, starting with "What's a typewriter?"

It was an Adler Junior typewriter, though I don't know exactly which model. It was the portable version that came in a carrying case, and it looked a lot like this, except that instead of arrows, the caps-lock key was labelled "LOCK", and the backspace key was labeled "BACK SPACE".

Thanks to the Internet, I found a manual for a related model, whereupon I finally learned what the two levers on the left and right hand sides of the keyboard were for. The left hand one selects the ribbon, if you were fancy enough to have a multi-color ribbon. Setting it on white means that you typed with no ribbon at all, useful if making a stencil for a mimeograph. The right hand lever let you set and clear tabs.

I learned to type by borrowing a typing book from the local library and working through the exercises.

Some years later, my dad bought an electric typewriter, but I much preferred the old manual typewriter. The electric typewriter motor was really loud (even when not typing), and the carriage was so heavy that when you hit the carriage return key, the entire typewriter shook when the carriage banged into the stop. On the other hand, it had a correction ribbon, which was nice.

Exercise: Why does the backspace key have an arrow pointing forward?

Comments (38)
  1. Damien says:

    I presume the arrow direction is because it’s trying to tell you what direction the platen (and piece of paper engaged with it) are going to move.

    There’s no “cursor” to move, the position at which new characters appear is always fixed.

    1. Chris Crowther says:

      That would be my assumption as well.

  2. pc says:

    Answer to exercise: I’m guessing because (either physically or logically), the paper is moving to the right.

    It’s somewhat like there are two mental models of scrolling: Either moving a viewport over a fixed document, or moving a document through a fixed viewport. Which means that “scrolling down” means opposite things, depending on what one is expecting, and people’s intuition for this sometimes changes over time. Here, “moving left” or “moving right” either means moving the typewriter head along a fixed paper, or moving the paper along a fixed typewriter head, and probably different people thought of it differently.

    1. Kenneth Lubar says:

      I’ve always described scrolling up/down as are you moving the window or the scenery? Which is being moved differs on different systems. With Windows you are moving the window frame and the scenery stays fixed. If you move the scenery and keep the window frame fixed you get the opposite result.

  3. Jason says:

    It’s been a while since I’ve seen a typewriter but if I remember right, I’m going to say it’s because that’s the direction the drum moved to get the desired location on the page back to where the key would hit it.

  4. Vas Crabb says:

    The arrow on the backspace key corresponds to the direction that the platen will move to take you back one character width. The platen/paper moves back and forth past the impact point on classic lever action mechanical typewriters like this.

  5. Matt says:

    The arrow points forward because that’s the way the carriage will move when you press the button.

  6. JLE says:

    Because that’s the direction the carriage will be moving.

    1. Vas Crabb says:

      It’s the platen that moves – there is no carriage on a typewriter like this.

      1. Antonio Rodríguez says:

        Every manual typewriter has a carriage. It’s the frame that holds the platen and allows it to move horizontally. In portable typewriters it’s small and is mostly under the platen. But that you can’t see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

  7. HiTechHiTouch says:

    First, the arrow on the backspace key points right, not forward.

    The direction refers to the motion of the carriage, relative to the type basket and keyboard. Remember that the carriage, containing the platen roller and paper, is what moved to position the paper position for the type to hit the ribbon and paper. After the type finger struck, the carriage moved left one space, moving the paper with it to the next empty spot on the line.

    So to do a back space, one needs to move the paper (and carriage) right, relative to the type basket. Remember that throwing the carriage return (big sliver handle on the left side) moved the carriage all the way right, positioning the left edge of the paper at the type basket.

  8. shawn says:

    I’m going to guess the backspace points forward because that’s the direction the carriage itself moves when you press it.

  9. Steven Don says:

    I’m guessing the arrow pointing forward (or rather, to the right) is that it moves the carriage to the right? In the same way that the enter key still has that “down, then left” arrow.

  10. Daniel W says:

    Because that’s the way the roller moved, and if you hit space, it moved the other way.

  11. Antonio Rodríguez says:

    I learned typing on my father’s Olivetti Lettera 32. Also from the mid-60s, but with that marvelous Italian design that is still elegant today. Back in the day, before getting a printer for my Apple IIc, I drafted my school papers in AppleWorks (even back then I found it a lot easier to edit on the screen instead of making notes and annotations on a manuscript) and when I had the definitive text, I “printed” them typing into the Lettera. On some cases, I went as far as using margins to leave spaces in the page for a picture – which I often photocopied, cut and pasted. Now tell me where the Edit menu items come from!

    The only thing I missed in the Lettera 32 were tab stops. You had to simulate them by carefully placing the carriage at the desired position, with the help of space and backspace. On the other hand, when using a computer, I miss being able to compose characters (glyphs?) using backspace (for example, printing ± by typing plus, backspace and underscore). Thankfully, with Unicode this is rarely necessary.

  12. R P (MSFT) says:

    I, too, learned to type on a manual typewriter. In my case, it was an old (even at the time, in the mid-eighties, it was probably 30 years old) Smith-Corona portable my mother owned. It also came in a carrying case. I can’t find an image of it online; all of the ones I’m finding online have a ‘1’ key and a ‘0’ key, and I’m pretty sure that typewriter had neither. She was fancy enough to have a multi-color ribbon, though.
    (Supplemental exercise: how do you type a 1 or a 0? How about an exclamation point, which that typewriter also didn’t have?)

    1. R P (MSFT) says:

      Another thing that old SCM typewriter had: express space. If you pushed the space bar a little harder, it would completely disengage the escapement mechanism on the carriage so it would advance several spaces at once.

      1. I can imagine that when you release the space bar, the KACHUNK was really loud. The Adler had a separate CARRIAGE RELEASE lever on the carriage. This prevented the “runaway carriage” problem because your hand would fall off the carriage and implicitly release the lever, causing it to stop moving.

        1. R P (MSFT) says:

          Oh yes. If you held the space bar too long, the whole machine would try to leap off the left side of the desk.

    2. Erik F says:

      That’s easy: with an “I” and “O” (the letters); IIRC the exclamation sign was an “.”, then you backspaced, moved the paper up a half line, then typed “I”. (This is a hazy recollection of when I used an ancient Underwood typewriter to learn how to type.)

      1. R P (MSFT) says:

        Close. ‘1’ is lowercase L, because the uppercase I in that font has serifs (as does the lowercase L, but it’s a single straight serif at the top left, as seen in Courier New today, so it looks enough like a one.) ‘!’ is a period, backspace, apostrophe (because the apostrophe is vertical, again as in Courier New today.)

        1. Related: (particularly the last section, “Typographical Machines”, but the whole article is interesting)

      2. The way I learned it, exclamation point was a period overstruck with an apostrophe. On the other hand: Vulgar fractions!

  13. Ha Ha

    Love it.

    I recently took my daughter to an antiques auction. She loved the gramophone and got her head around vinyl. However when I showed her a huge wireless set from the 1940s and told her Grandpa as a child used to gather round and just listen, she shook her head and said ” rubbish” there’s no screen!

    1. M says:

      There are modern audio-playing devices with no screen. You can show her those for comparison

  14. I had a typing class in junior high, which was half a semester IIRC. We had manual typewriters, too. My family had an electric typewriter, which I used a few times, and that thing was loud.

    1. Erik F says:

      In Grade 8 our school got Brother electronic typewriters (the ones where you could edit one line before it got typed.) They were pretty quiet as far as typewriters go, but once an entire room of 30 typewriters started up, I remember getting a few headaches from the noise. We never even got to play with the line editor as it was always disabled, as the point of typing class was to learn WPM, not actual letter-writing.

      As an aside, all of the typewriters went away in Grade 10 and were replaced with Olivetti PCs, which had some of the worst keyboards I have ever used. They also were “MS-DOS compatible”, not “PC compatible”, which meant that several typing programs simply refused to work with them!

  15. Nik says:

    The backspace arrow is in that direction because that’s how CP/M did it

  16. kc0rtez says:

    Oh lord, seems im one of the youngest here. I use computers since DOS but i recall i actually learned how to type when i started playing some game on windows 95 that had some obnoxiously big cheat codes that you had to input quite a lot to effectively cheat (Oh well, i was a kid, but c’mon, cheats are fun). Figures i cheated so much in that game i now type an average 450 cpm.

    Fun fact is i also became specialized in reverse code engineering because of the cheating part.

    1. I remember typewriters and their era. But never learned typing on them. I first fell in love with computers. Learning to type came naturally with it.

      People often complement me on how fast I type, but recently, I visited a typing speed measurement website; I’m actually in the slow lane.

  17. Roger says:

    The backspace key has an arrow pointing ‘forward’ for the same reason the caps-lock key has an arrow pointing down.

    1. I am not sure what either of you two are talking about. The Backspace key has an arrow point backward, not forward. The Caps Lock key has no arrows at all, although, on Mac, it once had an arrow pointing upward, not downward. See Wikipedia:

  18. alex says:

    “no ribbons” is also for correction paper, although many don’t bother to change.

    most models have a release key (don’t know its real name) to allow you type past the right margin.
    and some models have tab keys too. The platen flies to the tab position and ends with a big shock.

  19. Erkin Alp Güney says:

    The carriage moves forward when you hit backspace.

  20. Drak says:

    I learned to type on an old Remington (somewhat like this: Mind you, that was old when I got my hands on it, but it was a lot of fun. You had to press the keys relatively hard to bet a good imprint through the ribbon, and pressing multiple keys at a time would often lead to key jams :)

  21. GPF says:

    In the early 80’s, I was certain I was going to become a programmer, so I took two years of typing in high school so I’d be ahead of the curve. First year, my typewriter was a manual metric model that was bolted to the table. The book and instructions we used were not metric, so everything I typed was offset on the page. Centering didn’t happen. Year 2, I got into class early and claimed an IBM Selectric. That was a smoooooooth year of typing after that manual metric piece of poop.

  22. DWalker07 says:

    I enjoyed typing the most on an IBM Selectric, or its cousin the IBM 2741 terminal (connected by a modem, of course, to a mainframe). I learned the APL programming language (yes, that’s redundant) using a device like this. It had the fancy new “golf ball” typing element.

    If you could type relatively quickly on this device, it sounded like you were really going fast!

  23. Brian says:

    I’m old.

    I learned to type in a typing class in high school. It was the one class that you always rushed to; every desk had a different typewriter and it was first come first served. Some were smooth as silk, others were garbage.

    When I started programming in undergraduate school, it still involved using one of IBM 029 punch card machines ( in the engineering building. You’d build your “deck” of cards, preface it with a fixed set of JCL-bearing card, run it through the reader, and come back an hour later to see what bugs you had. These machines were *really* old and quirky. There was a way to over-punch a single column, and above each machine was a list of characters you needed to mess with to get it to work correctly (for example, if the G character didn’t work, you could compose a G by holding down some key and punching two other characters).

    I also headed off to undergraduate school with a portable typewriter (similar to Raymond’s) that I “borrowed” from my sister (“borrowed” in the sense that I think I may still have it). So few people typed papers in those days (most people did them longhand), I’d just do corrections by backing up and XXX-ing over the problem. The profs were happy to see something typed, even if it was full of XXX stuff.

    It didn’t take long after my first year to have access to interactive editing. At first, it was on Decwriters and an editor similar to EDLIN in DOS (or one of the simple line editors in Unix), and then on McGill’s MUSIC system ( on IBM clone terminals. Until my last year, only people in computer science could use the MUSIC terminals, so we engineers would register for a comp sci course, go to the first lecture, get access, and then drop the class). Typing on those MUSIC terminals was like magic.

    By the time I graduated, I was using NROFF on some system to prepare my more formal papers.

    Then, in my first job, I actually worked in CP/M (with Mince – a stripped down, subset Emacs clone as the editor).

    The world has come a long way

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