QWERTY and etaoin shrdlu

Published 12:32 pm Thursday, February 10, 2011

My mention in my last column that the old is often embodied in the new because people are accustomed to it or demand it led to further discussions with several people.

I said the old QWERTY key arrangement that was finally standardized for manual typewriters is still seen on our modern computer keyboards. Several proposals were made for putting the most-used keys under the stronger fingers and also arranging them for minimal excursions away from the home keys to type in English.

With the advent of electric typewriters, finger strength was no longer a factor, but we had a few generations of touch typists proficient on QWERTY so nothing came of the proposals for change.

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With computer keyboards anything is possible; you can rearrange your keyboard for different languages etc.

When computers appeared in our engineering offices, one of our geeks used to delight in switching his colleagues’ computer keyboards to one of the other arrangements when the victim was away from his desk. The look of consternation when the gibberish appeared on screen was worth it, but soon we all learned how to toggle the thing back to QWERTY.

Since the linotype machine was invented in America its keyboard was arranged for rapid typing in English. The left hand takes the first two vertical rows of keys and the space band lever, while the right handles everything else: punctuation, capital letters, numerals, etc. The linotype keyboard is easy to learn and efficient. But perhaps a little more explanation is required of the old “hot type” or letterpress method of printing that has been superseded now by “offset” printing.

The earliest method of making multiple copies was the scribes who made new original copies of valuable texts, with the attendant variations. Then someone realized that an image could be carved into wood such that when a dye was applied the image could then be transferred to paper, albeit reversed from the original. So the scribe swapped his quill for a chisel and went to work making letters in reverse.

The big breakthrough was the invention by Gutenberg of “movable” type. Instead of a whole page being in one piece, he put only one letter or character on each piece.

The pieces could then be arranged into words and pages as desired, then taken apart and reused. If the pieces were inadvertently scrambled, the result was called “pi.” Type was much easier to redistribute into the trays (cases) while still in neat rows. The “printer’s devil” (the lowest guy on the totem) would pick up a few pieces at a time between thumb and forefinger and flick them into their proper cubicle as the hand passed over the tray.

The typesetter arranged the type pieces into lines in a “composing stick,” then transferred them into a metal tray. Each paragraph was tied securely with a string to avoid “pi-ing” the type in handling. After proofs were taken and corrections made, the type was arranged in a “chase” and clamped so that the resulting “form” could be put on the printing press.

Mergenthaler eliminated much of this tedium when he perfected the linotype machine. This machine cast a complete line of type on one slug of a special lead alloy (chosen for low melting point yet hard enough to make enough good impressions for a newspaper edition.) I will try to explain the thing in one paragraph, so read carefully!

The mold for each letter was a small brass matrix, shortened to “mat.” These mats were stored in channels in a magazine. Several magazines (for different fonts) were positioned above the keyboard. Depressing a key released one mat from its channel whence it fell onto a cloth belt that conveyed it to the mat holder. When the holder was nearly full a bell signaled the operator to either insert a hyphen or flip the holder upward to begin the casting process.

The mats were then transferred to a precise holder, a bar came up to push the wedge-shaped space bands up to fill the line tightly, a plunger forced lead into the cavity now closed by the mats, the slug was ejected into a tray beside the operator, and the mats were gathered to be dropped back into the magazine.

An arm lifted the mats to a sorting bar that was notched to match a pattern of teeth on the top of the mats to drop them into the proper channel for reuse. The space bands had no teeth so they all dropped immediately into their bin right above the space lever.OK, so three paragraphs.

But the mechanical genius involved in making a single machine do all of that, quickly and reliably, day after day, is astounding. Monte “Doc” Dedman ran the linotype and assembled the Bulletin forms back when I was the printer’s devil there. He was a small man with piercing eyes and keen ears who could discern in a microsecond that his machine was misbehaving. He would swing into action and climb up on that linotype like a monkey going after coconuts and have it working again before anyone else knew there was a problem.

When the operator realized he had hit a wrong key, he would immediately generate a “pi-line” and retype the line, throwing the bad line into the “hell box” when it was ejected.

Mats were added to fill out the bad line by raking a finger down the first row or two of keys: “etaoin shrdlu.” That is how many pieces of anonymous doggerel came to be attributed to Etaoin Shrdlu in those days.