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Typing Master Class: Background and Future Plans

Background

My fascination with typewriters and typing goes back a ways. I took a course in typing when I was in my early teens -- but I didn't learn to touch type. My teacher, Mrs. Woodruff, didn't feel there was any point in forcing me not to look at my hands when I could type as fast as the fastest people in the class even with looking (I was fast because my manual dexterity had been given a head start: six years of piano lessons).

My parents bought a used typewriter when the local high school sold their old machines, and I loved using it. But it wasn't until the early 1970s, a few hours after I ate the huge mushroom Reuben gave me, that I started practicing touch typing. I was at the home of a friend of Marianne's, waiting for Marianne to show up; they had an electric typewriter, and I decided to play with it while I waited for her. The frantic typing practice session which ensued (and which produced the stream of consciousness piece "Exercises in Typing" ) was the best one I've ever had.

The IBM Executive typewriter I found at a garage sale was magnificent, and (having been long since replaced by the Selectric), dirt cheap. Only somebody with a PhD in secretarial skills could operate it. It was a proportional spacing machine: an 'm' was five spaces wide, an 'i' was two. There were two separate space bars (two and three spaces respectively). To correct a mistake, you had to know the width of all the characters involved so that you could backspace the appropriate amount (backspace was the only single-space key on the machine). There was an arcane procedure for producing justified type which involved typing a page a first time (while using a special guide to measure where the lines ended), noting the extra spaces that needed to be added, marking the copy to show where two-width spaces would be replaced with three-width spaces (or, in the worst case, two 2-width spaces), and typing the page a second time. Even loading the ribbon (it was one of the first carbon ribbon machines on the market) was a major challenge: its rimless reels would spill their contents at the slightest mishandling, and the thin (less than 1/2" wide) tape had to be threaded through bewildering series of slots, grooves, carriers, and guides. It was a machine only a fanatic could love, and I did. I made regular trips to Santa Barbara's IBM parts center, and spent hours with tweezers, probes, hooks, needle-nosed pliers and other fine tools, getting it working right.

But my best preparation for thinking about learning (and teaching) typing was learning to play the piano. Though I started fairly young, I didn't get even marginally serious about it until I was in my late teens. This meant that I did things more consciously (and, being older and less flexible, spent longer working out my problems), so I have a better idea of how I learned to play than if I'd been a wunderkind. Playing the piano is the hardest skill I've learned, and I think it's one of the harder physical skills to learn: to read music expressively at sight requires dexterity, coordination, and analytical and interpretive skills. Compared to playing the piano, learning to type is a cinch; there is no problem in typing that learning to play the piano didn't over-prepare me to solve.

When I first got involved with computers (in the early 1980s), I started thinking about typing from a different perspective, and wrote the first notes for what was eventually to resurface as Typing Master Class. In the first version, my concept of it was "Typing The Classics" -- the idea being that typing practice was boring, and would be more interesting if you had something good to practice with. So you'd type Moby Dick , the Bible, etc.

A few years ago, I bought my brother a computer so I could exchange email with him. Since he was pretty much a beginning typist, I started looking around for some typing software that would help him learn the basics. That search turned up the well-known commercial packages (e.g. Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing 17), many lesser-known commercial offerings, and dozens of pieces of shareware and freeware software. Although many of these were perfectly adequate for helping my brother get started, I was dismayed that all software focused on the problems of beginners -- or dealt with the problems of advanced typists as if they were beginners. There was no typing software for experts.

So, when I went through my files a few weeks ago looking for projects that I hadn't completed (to add to the "incompleted projects" section of my web site), I found Typing Master Class, made another pass through it, added it to my site, and sent out bulk email to makers of typing software.

What do I want to do with Typing Master Class?

I am a software designer (and programmer), so I know how programs are conceived, structured, and implemented. I am a pianist (though I don't do it professionally any more), so I know what's involved in a complex, high-level manual skill. I have been a teacher (that too was another life!), so I know what's involved in teaching and learning. And I'm also a good enough typist that the bottleneck is my brain (that is, thinking up things to type), not my fingers.

Given these skills, I'm in a good position to think about how high-level typing software might work. However, other projects, especially music-related ones, are more important to me; I am not interested in building or marketing a piece of typing software. I figured that there was probably enough of a market for typing software that a high-end program along the lines I was imagining would be worth developing (especially for a company that already had a successful product for beginning typists), and I thought that if I put up the Typing Master Class page and sent out a few emails, somebody might read it, either be inspired to think about high-end typing software in a more comprehensive way (or at all!), or perhaps steal a few ideas for their existing product.   

However, if you're working on typing software and would like to talk about it, I'd enjoy corresponding with you.

A related idea is to redesign the typewriter keyboard so that it's less awkward; the DVORAK keyboard is one attempt; here's another.