Untangling the Letters

They tell me that the letters on the first keyboards, the ones sprung into those marvelous manual typewriters you see in photos collecting dust behind some writer, old reporter (Guilty on both counts!) and Tom Hanks, were set up in alphabetical order.

That makes sense in helping us spell out our missives and stories, since we’ve been singing their A-B-C theme song since we were three or so. But such an array of sentences in the raw were too easy to chase down. Typists cut through the herd of potential words so fast the letters’ spindly legs kept getting tangled, resulting in the expression of words best implied by a letter on each end and a series of <shift+numerals> in between.

Then a man named Sholes asked some speedy typists to help him select an arrangement of keys that might slow down their fingers, thus giving the machine’s type-fisted arms a chance to reload before slugging the paper’s face again. Eureka, swift word-spitting without the necessity of too much untangling slowing things down even more. Well, not too much.

And thus the QWERTY keyboard beneath my fingers and yours was born. The fact that the Remington Company was sold on the idea didn’t hurt its advancement, either. It became the industry standard, the one on the Smith-Corona I used to write useless themes and theses in high school and college and the Underwood upon which I first plied my professional craft of inverted-pyramid yarn-spinning about the living and dead.

The typing gods saw QWERTY worked perfectly well, so IBM even kept it to fire off that little magic ball at the center of my Selectric typewriter. And yes, even with that little gray box that kept its keyboard on a leash, my first Apple Macintosh (this was before we were on a Joe & Mac nickname basis).

And then, along came the cell phone and then the so-called smart phone with its texting to you and tweeting at the world and even word processing programs. But in order to weave all those words that assail us each day, we need a functional keyboard. Done! They just took old QWERTY and smooshed it down into something the size of your laptop’s E-R-T on top and D-F-G beneath, which is amazing, when you think about it.

What’s not so amazing is that the six or seven fingers I’ve used to talk to the page haven’t gotten kept pace with the nano-ization of QWERTY over the past 50-odd years. Thus, words I have never misspelled (even “misspell”) over that time can be scrambled like I was using boxing gloves to type into the Enigma Code machine.

And what about that supposed helper of the fumble-fingered, Autospell? That little devil will often jump the gun on words I’m trying to get down quickly, forcing me to stop and untangle the virtual spindly arms that have turned my typing “Vince O,Conner” to “Vice Gonorrhea.” And yes, that happened to me.

I’ve gone on much too long trying to untie this un-QWERTY snarl of ganglia that’s been keeping me from writing like I used to. Thus I decided to “just write” today. So I hope you’ll indulge me this stream of semi-consciousness I’m sharing. It was nice finding the keys (at least on my laptop, my phone is a lost cause) in the right places again, even if the words they built weren’t what I would wish to find attached to the oval-shaped tap trail of letters that passes for my name.

Yours affectionately,


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