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The Toughest Nut

The 44 keys on a conventional electric typewriter commonly had this arrangement on typewriters in the United States and the English-speaking part of Canada:

!   @   #   $   %   ¢   &   *   (   )   _   +
1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9   0   -   =
                                          ¼
  Q   W   E   R   T   Y   U   I   O   P   ½
                                       :   "
   A   S   D   F   G   H   J   K   L   ;   '
                                         ?
     Z   X   C   V   B   N   M   ,   .   /

An electric typewriter, therefore, can have a large, double-height, carriage return key.

On a computer keyboard, however, the ¼ ½ key is replaced by the { [ key, which has the } ] key to the right of it, and so the Enter key is only a single-height key, located to the right of the " ' key, so that you get:

~   !   @   #   $   %   ^   &   *   (   )   _   +
`   1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9   0   -   =
                                              {   }   |
      Q   W   E   R   T   Y   U   I   O   P   [   ]   \
                                           :   "
       A   S   D   F   G   H   J   K   L   ;   '
                                     <   >   ?
         Z   X   C   V   B   N   M   ,   .   /

On the previous page, various possible alternative keyboard arrangements for the IBM PC were explored; in some of them, there was a double-height Enter key, and the { [ and } ] keys were kept side-by-side, either by placing the } ] key to the left of the ! 1 key, or by placing the } ] key where the Caps Lock key is located.

Is a reasonable re-arrangement of the keys on a keyboard possible that would allow having the { [ and } ] keys side-by-side, while also allowing a double-height Enter key, which does not extend the keyboard to the left as much as those arrangements did?

One extra key would still be needed, though; and the ~ ` key, to the left of the ! 1 key, in the traditional Esc key location, would be the most suitable for that.

Recently, I saw a photograph of an old IBM Executive typewriter with the following keyboard arrangement:

[   @   #   $   %   ¢   &   *   (   )   _   +
]   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9   0   -   =
                                          !
  Q   W   E   R   T   Y   U   I   O   P   1
                                       :   "
   A   S   D   F   G   H   J   K   L   ;   '
                                         ?
     Z   X   C   V   B   N   M   ,   .   /

as opposed to the more conventional arrangement from before the typewriter-pairing keyboard was modified to handle braces and square brackets in the same way as the bit-pairing keyboard, as seen in a pure form on the Tandy Model 100 portable computer:

!   @   #   $   %   ^   &   *   (   )   _   +
1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9   0   -   =
                                          ]
  Q   W   E   R   T   Y   U   I   O   P   [
                                       :   "
   A   S   D   F   G   H   J   K   L   ;   '
                                 <   >    ?
     Z   X   C   V   B   N   M   ,   .   /

So, if the location of the ~ ` key on a typical PC keyboard, traditionally used for the Esc key on computer keyboards is available, one possibility might be this:

{   }   @   #   $   %   ^   &   *   (   )   _   +
[   ]   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9   0   -   =
                                              !
      Q   W   E   R   T   Y   U   I   O   P   1
                                           :   "
       A   S   D   F   G   H   J   K   L   ;   '
                                     <   >   ?
         Z   X   C   V   B   N   M   ,   .   /

While this arrangement might have historical precedent behind it, moving the ! 1 key from the position that provides a uniform numerical progression of the keys with the digits on them would be too radical for many, I fear.

One other somewhat reasonable possibility exists:

+   !   @   #   $   %   ^   &   *   (   )   {   }
=   1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9   0   [   ]
                                              _
      Q   W   E   R   T   Y   U   I   O   P   -
                                           :   "
       A   S   D   F   G   H   J   K   L   ;   '
                                     <   >   ?
         Z   X   C   V   B   N   M   ,   .   /

but again, I fear that this is too radical a rearrangement.

However, perhaps these keyboard arrangements might still be useful as alternatives to an arrangement that splits up this pair of keys:

}   !   @   #   $   %   ^   &   *   (   )   _   +
]   1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9   0   -   =
                                              {
      Q   W   E   R   T   Y   U   I   O   P   [
                                           :   "
       A   S   D   F   G   H   J   K   L   ;   '
                                     <   >   ?
         Z   X   C   V   B   N   M   ,   .   /

which would be the default during IBM PC-compatible operation, while an arrangement based on the typewriter-pairing keyboard:

}   !   @   #   $   %   ^   &   *   (   )   _   +
{   1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9   0   -   =
                                              ]
      Q   W   E   R   T   Y   U   I   O   P   [
                                           :   "
       A   S   D   F   G   H   J   K   L   ;   '
                                     <   >   ?
         Z   X   C   V   B   N   M   ,   .   /

would be the default during normal operation, when that constraint did not apply.


Further thought has led me to feel that the issue of the square brackets and curly braces can be dealt with by providing two extra keys, so that both the old typewriter-pairing arrangement, for compatibility with APL-ASCII, and the new arrangement, for IBM PC compatibility, are present. A reasonably-sized keyboard can include room for both arrangements, as shown below:

In some ways, the diagram above is a bit disingenuous. Typewriters with expanded keyboards will usually have either a pound sign and 3/4 key, or a superscript 2 and 3 key, but not both... but in either case, they will also have a key with both square brackets on it... but that key won't be in the convenient location reserved for the 1/4 1/2 key.

Something more conventional might be:

moving the square brackets out of the way, so that something else is replaced with 1/4 and 1/2. But that interferes with one of the primary motivations behind this type of keyboard. The intent is to reconcile preserving compatibility with typewriter-pairing APL-ASCII:

also illustrated here:

with compatibility with the Model M keyboard for the IBM PC:

which, like the original keyboard for the IBM PC,

incorporated the arrangement of the braces and square brackets that had been previously seen on the HP 9845A calculator and the DEC VT100 terminal.

But all this focuses on the English-language keyboard!

If one wishes to keep the Ä, Ö, and Ü keys in their right places on the IBM PC keyboard, then one has to keep not just the :; and "' keys in their existing positions, but also the {[ key has to stay exactly where it is!

Thus, if the ambition is to have an improved keyboard compatible with the legacy ASCII arrangement for communicating with an old APL program that can't be modified, one must reconcile oneself to having to switch the keyboard's scan code assignments when it is being used with Windows on a PC-compatible computer - real or emulated.

So the keyboard design will depend on the intended application; is this a Windows PC that will also have, as an addition, a keyboard arrangement more congenial to terminal emulation for communication with some emulated legacy system - perhaps with Hercules - or is the keyboard primarily for a new computer for which emulating, or communicating to, a Windows PC is an additional feature for use of legacy software on that system?

Is it the Windows PC that is the legacy platform, or is the other platform the software for which is being accomodated the legacy platform?

Mixing in a word-processing keyboard, and considering foreign-language keyboards as well, makes it even more difficult to reconcile all the conflicting goals.

Copyright (c) 2014, 2017 John J. G. Savard


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