Monday, January 10, 2011

A historic literary moment: the long-overdue movement to abandon Caps Lock.

THE END IS NIGH. That's the message Google sent last week when it unveiled its new laptop, the Google Cr-48 notebook. The computer has all kinds of new features—Chrome OS, a simplified design, and free broadband. But perhaps the boldest change is Google's decision to ditch the Caps Lock key. In its place is a Search button, denoted with the image of a magnifying glass. Users can still designate the search key as the Caps Lock—they just have to take the time to change a few settings. But the default is that if you want capital letters, you have to hold down Shift.

What's most shocking about Google's announcement isn't that it's scrapping Caps Lock—it's that the button has lasted this long. Caps Lock originated with typewriters. The first typewriter to include both upper- and lowercase letters was the Remington No. 2, introduced in 1878. (Before that, typewriters printed only in uppercase. Stop shouting at me, writers of the 19th century!) Uppercase letters were typed by holding down a "shift" key that would literally shift the carriage so that a different part of the type bar—the part on which a reverse uppercase letter was printed—would hit the ribbon. The problem was, it was hard to hold down the shift key for more than a few letters. So typewriter manufacturers added a "Shift Lock" button that would keep the carriage elevated until the button was released. It was a useful innovation: Typewriters didn't have options for italics or bold or underlining, so capitalization was the only way to emphasize words.