I’ve always been interested in the names given to certain things in technology, or the technology itself, which has a long history. What we use today draws meaning from that history, but sometimes it’s so far in that past that we’ve forgotten where it came from, or why it takes the form that it does today. Sometimes we’ve moved so far from the beginning, that the originally intended meaning or process has been lost. It just becomes “We’ve always done it that way” and it has too much momentum to change at this point. Many of these things, if they hadn’t existed before, and were named or invented new today, would be totally different. Let’s look at a few examples:
The Save Icon
Probably the most common example is the Save button in most software, which is usually represented by an image of a floppy disk, yet floppy disks themselves haven’t been used for years. The icon is still widely recognized as meaning “save my data” though. Why is this?
Physical floppy disks started to be commonly used in the mid-1970s. Computers had little or no internal storage so data had to be saved directly to floppy disks. Early computers had 2 floppy disk drives, one for the operating system and one for your data. This is also why modern Windows computers label the internal hard drive as “C” since A and B were originally for your two floppy drives. It remains unchanged to this day for backwards compatibility!
When computers first got graphical user interfaces in the 1980s, it just made sense to use a digital representation of the physical object your data would be saved onto. This helped people learn how to use computers since it was easily recognizable in this new and unfamiliar digital world.
We call it a floppy disk, yet the icon that typically represents this is actually a 3.5-inch disk that was rigid, and not an 8-inch or 5.25-disk that was floppy and bendable. Now, it’s mostly known just as a Save Icon in general, and the original meaning is lost on most people. Some have suggested updating this icon to something more modern like a hard disk for local storage or a cloud icon for off-site storage, but that’s either creating new problems or kicking the can farther down the road. The average user doesn’t know what their physical hard drive looks like, so that icon metaphor would be lost on them. Saving “to the cloud” right now might make sense, but who knows what the future holds and that metaphor might not hold up 50 years from now. Someone might be asked how and why people used to save their data into water vapor in the sky!
Upper & Lower Case
Our keyboards all have a Shift button to convert the small “a” into the larger “A”, which we call “casing”, but what’s a “case”? Why is one upper and the other one below that one? Let’s go back to the year 1440 when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press.
Back then, small cast metal or carved wooden “sorts” had single characters on them. These sorts were arranged into words, spacers were added between the words to form sentences, etc. This process is called typesetting. Eventually, ink was rolled over them and they were pressed onto paper, thus giving humanity the printed word. This was a vast improvement over the previous method of duplicating everything by hand.
Between printing jobs, these metal or wooden sorts were stored in a tray or a “type case” that had compartments for each of the individual characters. To keep them organized, all capitalized letters were kept together in their own case, separate from the non-capitalized letters. When these cases were taken out of storage, the case containing the capitalized letters were placed at the back of an angled desk, and the case with the small letters and other commonly used characters were placed at a shallower angle below it at the front of the desk since these were used more frequently.
Since then, computers have taken over nearly every aspect of typesetting. It’s much faster, more convenient, and more cost-effective. The names have just stuck in our language even though we are now so far removed from having physical cases of organized letters to maintain.
QWERTY Keyboard Layout
Have you ever looked at a keyboard and wondered why the letters are arranged the way they are? We’re so used to it now, but if you take a step back and really think about it, they don’t seem to have any logical arrangement. For English-language keyboards, the keys are arranged in the QWERTY layout, but they haven’t always been like this! First, why do we call this a keyboard anyway? Outside of computers, this term usually refers to the totally unrelated musical instrument.
Back in 1836, Morse code was invented for the use of telegraphs, but transcribing Morse code to and from the alphabet was time-consuming and required special training. In 1846, Royal Earl House invented the letter-printing telegraph system in which he assigned characters to a standard 28-key piano keyboard, which sent electrical signals when pressed. A Shift key was added to give each key a secondary function, thus allowing for 56 total characters. Now telegraphs could be sent around 40 words per minute and be instantly readable to the receiver on a strip of paper, which was a huge improvement over Morse code.
The idea of a typewriter was patented as early as 1829, but none were available commercially until 1870. In 1865, Rasmus Malling-Hansen of Denmark invented the Hansen Writing Ball, which placed 52 keys on a hemisphere. He experimented with several layouts and eventually arranged the keys with his fastest fingers closest to the most commonly-used letters. Vowels on the left, and consonants on the right. Writing speeds were very fast; however, the typist was not able to see what they were typing since the device covered the paper.
The Sholes and Glidden typewriter was patented in 1867, which looked more like a typewriter as we think of them today, except that the paper was typed on the top of the machine in a way that was out of view of the typist.
The Sholes and Glidden typewriter had each character on a metal arm type bar that you think of on most typewriters, but arranged in a circle and made contact with the underside paper. The keys were now arranged on a grid in a diagonal pattern to give space for these mechanical levers. The problem was that the type bars would jam when neighboring characters were pressed in rapid succession, like with the common “TH” or “ST” letter pairs. Several different keyboard layouts were attempted from studying common letter-pair frequency. Today, the diagonal key pattern still exists on modern keyboards, even though this mechanical restraint is long gone.
In 1873, the manufacturing rights to the Sholes & Glidden typewriter were sold to Remington & Sons, where they soon re-arranged the keys to be in the now-standard, QWERTY layout. This layout was an improvement on typing speed from the previous layouts, and it prevented mechanical jams. There are claims that this layout was chosen so that salesmen could impress customers by typing “TYPE WRITER QUOTE” on a single row, but this is not verified. Parts of the original alphabetical layout can still be seen today with the sequence “DFGHJKL” on the home row.
In 1878, the Remington No. 2 became a success with the new QWERTY layout, and it was also the first typewriter to include upper- and lower-case letters with a Shift key. You might also notice that none of the keyboard layouts pictured here have the number “1” or “0” because it was said they were unnecessary since one could type an uppercase “I” or an “O” to appear the same.
When a patch is applied to any piece of software, it’s implied that it’s a very small fix or tweak, usually to correct an error. Outside of the software world, a patch might be a simple way to fix some ripped clothing. Just sew it onto the elbow of your jacket and the flaw is hidden! So how did we come to use this sewing term in modern software?
In the early years of computing, the only method of data input was to punch holes in paper cards or tape, and the computer would read that as a series of 1’s and 0’s. As far back as 1725, paper tape was used to control looms.
When an error was detected in the programming of the paper card or tape, the exact same method of fixing a jacket was applied to these programs. A “1” could be patched over with a piece of tape to turn it into a “0”, and a new “1” could be made with a hole punch. It was a simple, yet very effective way of correcting small flaws in the programming. Today the software patches are all done digitally, and are usually more complicated than just applying a piece of tape!
Everyone has heard of a bug in software, but where did that term come from? Most point to 1947 at Harvard University with the Mark II computer funded by the Navy. There was an error in the system, which was tracked down and discovered to be a moth that was trapped inside of a relay. The moth was removed and was later taped into the log book by the programmer Grace Hopper, with the note “first actual case of bug being found” written below it. This log book with the attached moth is now in the Smithsonian museum.
This term bug being used to refer to some sort of error or defect can be traced back much further in history. Several years earlier, Isaac Asimov used the term in his short story “Catch That Rabbit”, from his book of Science Fiction short stories, called “I, Robot”, about how humans and robots might one day interact. This story includes the following line in the opening paragraph:
“U. S. Robots had to get the bugs out of the multiple robots, and there were plenty of bugs, and there are always at least half a dozen bugs left for the field-testing.”
Even earlier, a mechanical pinball machine, called “Baffle Ball” from 1931, included the phrase “no bugs in this game!” in a print advertisement (seen in the top left, above the price).
Around the 1870s, the term bug was used to describe defects in mechanical engineering to describe malfunctions. In 1878, Thomas Edison wrote the following in a letter describing the difficulties and problems that come with invention:
“It has been just so in all of my inventions. The first step is an intuition, and comes with a burst, then difficulties arise—this thing gives out and [it is] then that “Bugs“—as such little faults and difficulties are called—show themselves and months of intense watching, study and labor are requisite before commercial success or failure is certainly reached.”
Even earlier than all of this, the term seems to originate from the Middle English word “bugge.” This is the base word for “bugaboo” and “bugbear”, which both can mean an imaginary monster or some sort of threat or problem.
Whenever using a computer for almost any task, you can be asked to provide information by using a form of some kind. You type text into a field, you check boxes, and you select options to convey this information. The idea of filling out a form like this comes from the obvious paper counterpart where you write text in provided spaces, or mark boxes with check marks to affirm something. Think of the form you might fill out on a clipboard at the doctor’s office; the form fields on your screen are just the digital representation of this and the names for these fields mostly make sense for how they look and work.
However, a common way to select one of many options with digital forms are called radio buttons, which has a name that may not be so obvious. The point is that you must choose only one of several listed options, not just a Yes or No option like a checkbox. The name radio button is quite literal! It comes from older radios where there were physical buttons to tune the radio to pre-selected AM or FM frequencies. When one button was depressed, it would deselect the previously selected button. One was always selected, and only one could ever be selected at a time since you can’t listen to more than one radio station at a time.
The first computer to introduce this concept was the Xerox Star 8010 in 1981. The programmers and designers for Xerox must have immediately seen the need to be able to choose one from many options in software, just like on a car radio. The first radio buttons looked somewhat similar to the physical buttons people used in the past. They were rectangular, and contained the text inside the button itself. At the time, rectangles were also easier to draw on a screen than a circle which required more computation.
Designers for other operating systems changed how radio buttons looked over time, eventually the text was moved to be outside of the button itself, and the buttons became rounded which look more like the radio buttons we are used to seeing on computers today.
The history of where many names or technologies originated can be very strange, but if you look hard enough there is typically a path back to where it all started. You can easily see how and why the choice to name or design something was made at the time of creation, but now looking back with the current context we just take these things for granted and accept them. For me, it makes me stop and question projects I’m working on. I think, “If this is around for a decade or more, will it even make sense then?” There’s no real way to know what the future holds, so the best we can do is to make things as future-friendly as we possibly can. When outside factors change things, it’s important to adapt what we make instead of keeping it the same as it always has been.
One of my favorite quotes, attributed to Grace Hopper, is:
“The most damaging phrase in the language is ‘we’ve always done it this way!’”
- Save Icon: Wikipedia – History of the floppy disk, Wikipedia – floppy disk, UX Stack Exchange – Save icon, is the floppy disk icon dead?, SuperUser – A and B drives
- Upper & Lower Case: Wikipedia – Letterpress printing, Wikipedia – Typesetting, Wikipedia – Letter case, APA Letterpress – History
- QWERTY Keyboard Layout: Wikipedia – Printing telegraph, Wikipedia – Electrical Telegraph, Wikipedia – Typewriter, Google Patents – Typewriter, Wikipedia – Hansen Writing Ball, Wikipedia – QWERTY, Wikipedia Sholes and Glidden typewriter, Smithsonian Magazine – Fact of Fiction? The Legend of the QWERTY Keyboard, Youtube – Vox – How QWERTY Conquered Keyboards
- Software Patch: Wikipedia – Patch, Wikipedia – Punched card, Wikipedia – Punched tape
- Software Bugs: Wikipedia – Software bug, IPDB – Baffle Ball
- Form Inputs: Wikipedia – Radio button, UX Stack Exchange – why are radio buttons circles?