In our modern age using a keyboard is necessary for almost all complex interactions with computers and other electronic devices. Yet as boomers, we did not have the advantage of knowing this electronic revolution would require each of us to learn to type in one form or another. Consequently, some of us took typing classes in school, but most did not.
Typing classes were not required in any school district in the country. In the Boomer Era, a high school diploma was the equivalent of today’s college degree. As a result, most boomers were headed to work after high school, not on to college, as only about one third of Baby Boomers received a college degree. As a course elective, girls were drawn to learn the skill of typing more than the boys since a good portion of employment was divided by gender-specific roles — some jobs designated for women, some for men. Girls who took typing classes were more employable for the secretarial pools which they could look forward to joining after graduation. The boys were more apt to go to factory or office work, where typing, if required, would be done by secretaries.
Typewriters became a part of the business world in the late 1800s, during the Industrial Revolution. Up to that point rows of men hunched over desks copied correspondence, inventory and financial figures by hand, as they had for centuries. The typewriter introduced a new efficiency to business. In that era, both men and women became typewriter operators, but it quickly became a profession for women as the YWCA started teaching them how to operate the machines. The first electric typewriter was invented in 1902 to further that efficiency, but did not catch on very quickly.
However, it took two circumstances to affect the adoption of typing classes in schools. First, the development of the QWERTY keyboard in 1878 made the idea of touch typing — that is, typing without looking at the keyboard — a possibility. The earliest keyboards had the letters arranged in alphabetical order. The common belief is that this arrangement caused a lot of jamming in early typewriters as the mechanical arms swung up to strike the paper, so a more efficient means was explored. Secondly, as business boomed, educators began to look at typing as a useful skill to teach their students.
The first typing classes appeared in 1915. The smattering of courses taught in the public school system around the country continued through the 1920s. The idea never caught on with educators enough to raise the course to required status.
IBM introduced the IBM Selectric in 1961, and quickly captured about 75 percent of the business market. It was the first electric typewriter to offer a type ball that could be swapped to change fonts. When boomers began taking typing classes in the 1960s, most school districts either could not afford — or did not want to commit — the funds to the electric models. Consequently, a good portion of boomers who took typing classes learned on manual models. By the 1970s, electric machines replaced the manual models in most high schools. This was a big deal, because boomers will tell you — like driving a car before power steering, typing was a physical task. It took finger strength to strike the keys, and they had to learn to strike them with equal pressure across the keyboard.
Speaking of boomers and typing, here is a fun fact: it is commonly repeated that the mother of The Monkees’ Michael Nesmith invented Wite-Out. Earliest versions of typing correction fluids made their debut in the 1920s, but Bette Nesmith Graham developed her version in the 1950s when she worked as a secretary for an insurance company. In 1956 she patented her formula and named it Liquid Paper. A decade later she was making millions. In 1979, she sold her company to the Gillette Company for $47.5 million dollars. Her son Michael inherited half of her fortune when she died in 1980. So now you know — it wasn’t Wite-Out, it was Liquid Paper!
Mister Boomer did not take any typing classes, ever. In college he developed his own hunt-and-peck style to type his term papers. Incidentally, studies show that people who use the touch type method are not necessarily any faster or more accurate than people who are self-taught with various other methods, including hunt-and-peck.
Mister B preferred to write his papers longhand first, then the final edited version was typed for handing to the professors. His father had purchased a used manual typewriter when Brother Boomer went to college, so that became Mister B’s hand-me-down. It was a 1929 Underwood, and served Mister Boomer well into the 1970s until he began his work career.
Today using a keyboard is an everyday occurrence, but typing classes are still not a required subject. Classes are offered, but no longer referred to as “typing.” Classes are taught now under the title, “keyboarding.” As time marches on, even the QWERTY keyboard is in question, too. Alternate arrangements of the keys are being touted by some companies to reflect today’s double-thumb typing on mobile devices. Still others say the future belongs to voice recognition. When that day comes, boomers who did not learn how to type will be on the same level as today’s kids, who start using keyboards as early as age two or three. Keyboards will begin to disappear and become yet another invention that boomers will have a living history with, only to see them go extinct in their lifetimes.
Did you take a typing class, boomers?