By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
A 2,000-piece LEGO typewriter will be released for sale in July. It features a functioning typebar, carriage, keys, and a platen roller. Does history suggest keyboards in general will replace handwriting?
A British LEGO fan submitted an idea to the popular company to make a LEGO set which, when assembled, resembled a classic typewriter. He received over 10,000 votes for his idea from other fans and the company picked up on it. Although it doesn’t seem to be 100% functional, it does feature most of the moving parts of a standard typewriter.
The history of writing has involved a number of media, including clay tablets, papyrus, quill and ink pens, printing presses, typewriters, computer keyboards, and all the innovations of the digital age. Since humanity has moved on from clay tablets to handwriting, for example, will handwriting itself be outmoded?
In his video series Writing and Civilization: From Ancient Worlds to Modernity, Dr. Marc Zender, Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Tulane University, said it’s likely—and explained the QWERTY keyboard.
A Brief History of Typewriters
“The first practical, commercial typewriter was designed by the newspaper editor Christopher Sholes in the early 1870s,” Dr. Zender said. “The Sholes & Glidden typewriter appeared in 1873, and it was such a runaway success commercially that its design was widely copied, particularly the curious arrangement of keys, with ‘Q-W-E-R-T-Y-U-I-O-P’ as the keys of the top letter row.”
So why the odd layout? According to Dr. Zender, Sholes initially designed the typewriter with its keys in alphabetical order, but he found that letter pairs that were often used in English, like “S” and “T,” would jam if they were located side-by-side on the keyboard. Sholes rearranged the keys several times, as did his manufacturer.
“Contrary to popular theories, the strange arrangement of typewriter keys wasn’t done in order to slow typists down,” Dr. Zender said.
For reasons that remain unknown, the layout stuck, even when word processors and personal computers hit the market in the 1980s. Even on “virtual keyboards” on smartphones, where key jamming is obviously not an issue, age and familiarity help the QWERTY keyboard persevere.
Not My Type
So, given the history of writing, will typing in general, regardless of which tool one uses to do it, eventually replace handwriting?
“Yes, I think so, eventually, if keyboards themselves aren’t overtaken by other technologies first,” Dr. Zender said. “Remember that new writing technologies never replace older ones overnight, but only gradually edge them out over hundreds of years.”
These slow-developing changes in the written word are evident in the long descent of cursive writing. Dr. Zender said that, as a university professor, he sees fewer students writing in cursive each year—and in 2012, only three students in his largest class, of 50 students, wrote their final exams longhand.
“My wife, an elementary school teacher, tells me that cursive instruction has all but ceased in the public schools as well,” he said. “‘The Common Core State Standards Initiative for English Arts & Literacy,’ proposed in 2009 and now adopted by 45 states, doesn’t mandate the teaching of cursive handwriting at all, only requiring that schools teach keyboarding.”
Dr. Zender himself admitted to writing less by hand in exchange for a keyboard, and that the younger generations he teaches seem to prove that this is a rule rather than an exception.
Typing may replace handwriting in the years to come, but it’s doubtful most typing will be done on LEGO typewriters.