As technology improves, it’s faster and easier than ever to get words from brain to screen. We’ve progressed from dipping utensils in ink to using speech recognition software to dictate an entire Slate article. Here’s the evolution of writing tools at a glance.
Writers initially used reed or bamboo pens, feather quills, ink brushes, or dip pens, all of which were dipped into ink and then placed on papyrus or paper. These were notoriously messy, which prompted the creation of a reservoir pen in 1636, which was made from two quills. One quill was sealed with a cork and held the ink, which was squeezed through a tiny hole. In 1827, a patent was issued in France for a fountain pen with an ink chamber in the handle.
The first patent for a ballpoint pen, or a pen that has a tiny moving ball in a socket in the pen tip, was issued in 1888. Then came the invention of felt-tip pens in the 1960s, rollerball pens in the 1970s, and erasable pens in 1979.
In 1868, the first commercially successful typewriter was invented. Mark Twain typed the following letter to his brother in 1875:
The machine has several virtues. I believe it will print faster than I can write. One may lean back in his chair & work it. It piles an awful stack of words on one page. It don’t muss things or scatter ink blots around. Of course it saves paper.
Initially, some people insisted that only two fingers be used to type while others said eight would be better and that typists should stare at the buttons, while still others argued it would be better to stare at the page. The QWERTY keyboard arrangement, on the other hand, was agreed upon by most and has barely changed since the invention of the typewriter.
Ever wonder why we have the QWERTY keyboard? It was arranged by Christopher Latham Sholes, inventor of the typewriter, who originally placed letters in two rows ordered alphabetically. The flaw in this system was that letters that were combined most often, such as “st” and “th,” were hit close together and caused the keyboard to jam. Thus, Sholes collaborated with Amos Densmore, an educator, and rearranged the keys according to their popularity to prevent jamming. This caused initial confusion for typists because they couldn’t find the keys, but it proved to make typing faster, because the keys wouldn’t jam.
Typewriters were widely used until computers advanced to the point that the average consumer could use them. In the late 1970s, Apple, Radio Shack, and Commodore began manufacturing keyboards for their computers. For a throwback, watch this Radio Shack commercial for the TRS-80.
Typing on mobile phones started with multi-tap approach on alphanumeric keys (1=abc, 2=def, and so on), as used by the 1989 Motorola MicroTAC 9800X. By 1993, however, we had the IBM Simon, the world’s first full QWERTY keyboard and touchscreen. The Nokia 9000 Communicator was launched in 1997 with the first QWERTY push-button keyboard and a touchscreen QWERTY keyboard. Now, many smartphone users only use QWERTY keyboards on-screen, although physical keyboards may be making a comeback.
Speech Recognition Software
Speech recognition first appeared in the 1950s to 1960s with Bell Laboratories’ “Audrey” system, which could recognize spoken digits. In the 1990s, Dragon released the first consumer-targeted speech recognition product, called Dragon Dictate, for a whopping $9,000. By the 2000s, speech recognition plateaued at about 80% accuracy, until very recently. In the last two to three years, speech recognition has improved thanks to Apple’s and Google’s speech-recognition capabilities. Typing by voice is now easier and faster than typing on screen; it’s also necessary as wearable devices like Google Glass and Apple Watch and products like Amazon fire TV come into the fray. The software parses your words from ambient noises, then analyzes the linguistic context to decipher what you’re probably saying.
The Future of Writing
Is handwriting becoming obsolete? In a study by Docmail, one-third of the 2,000 respondents said they hadn’t written anything by hand in the last forty-one days. Also, handwriting is receiving less emphasis in schools. Students in the U.S. are taking notes on laptops and cursive writing has been eliminated from the Common Core curriculum standards. American children have been required to know how to use a keyboard since 2013. Typing “allows us to go faster, not because we want everything faster in our hyped-up age, but for the opposite reason: we want more time to think,” said Anne Trubek, associate professor of rhetoric and composition at Oberlin College in Ohio. Do you think pen and paper will be replaced by speech recognition? Will handwriting ever be obsolete?
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