Tip 1009: Know your keyboard’s origins and history

A “key” part of the AutoCAD user’s hardware, and a vital part of the CAD interface, is the keyboard. The computer keyboard is, in many ways, an archaic piece of equipment. Look at it and you can almost imagine little steel levers coming down from the underside of each key, like in the antique Remington typewriters.

Keys of an early typewriter


The “QWERTY” keyboard, named for the first six keys at the top left, dates back to the 1870’s, when it was developed by Christopher Sholes, a newspaper editor and printer who lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Sholes and his friends Carlos Glidden and Samuel Soule built the first known “type writing machine” in the 1860’s. They filed for a patent for their invention in 1867, showing a two-row keyboard that was pre-QWERTY and had an alphabetical layout:

– 3 5 7 9 N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
2 4 6 8 . A B C D E F G H I J K L M

In testing their prototype, they found that the alphabetical arrangement didn’t work well because the keys with their steel levers kept jamming when the typist worked at high speed. The refinement they came up with, after several trial arrangements, was the earliest QWERTY keyboard. Strangely to us, it had no 1 or 0 key. I suppose they figured you could just use a lower case l and upper case O for those numbers. Here is a drawing from the patent application:

QWERTY keyboard patent drawing

In a way, the QWERTY keyboard was designed to slow the typist down, so that the key sequences used most often would be scattered around the keyboard, decreasing the likelihood of jamming adjacent key levers when two keys were accidentally pressed simultaneously.

Interestingly, the diagonal arrangement of keys (as opposed to a grid-like design) was not designed to make it easy for your fingers. It was developed to allow the steel levers under the keys to have enough space to avoid hitting one another and jamming the “type writer.”

What does this have to do with CAD tips and AutoCAD drafting? Simply this: the QWERTY keyboard is not a tool that was designed with the CAD user in mind. At this point we seem to be stuck with it.

A modern computer keyboard


I’ve found that typing the CAD commands on the keyboard is much faster than clicking on the command buttons with my mouse.  This allows me to keep the pointer in the work area, another time saver as you move from command to command.  Over the long term, typing commands will save you lots of time as compared to “mousing” the commands.  However, as we’ve seen, the typical keyboard is not optimized for CAD users, and there are steps we can take to make the keyboard more user-friendly for us CAD users. We will look at some of these in the next post.

Please post your comments, I love hearing from you.

Keep on CADDing! 🙂