This article appeared in The Atlantic, October, 2016. The title is: “The Gendered Past of Typing Education: A Quirky QWERTY History.” Hayley Glatter is a former editorial fellow at The Atlantic.
The man who taught me to type was at least 100 years old at the time of my instruction. He wore thick, purple sunglasses that completely hid his eyes at all times. His long, white beard rippled as he traveled in a pink convertible through both time and space. This man was also, of course, animated.
Like the characters in Oregon Trail, Freddy the Fish, and other popular games of the early aughts, the time-traveling typing guru of Type to Learn was an inescapable fixture of my elementary-school computer classes. I attribute my ability to touch type—to use a keyboard without actually watching my fingers move—almost entirely to this computer game, which is a far cry from the typing courses high-school students took in previous decades and the typewriters they used.
Over time, typing education has evolved in tandem with both the progression of computer technology and the decreasing age at which students are exposed to that technology. Today, that age may be reaching its lowest limit, as standardized tests and metrics emphasize the need for exceedingly young learners to successfully navigate a computer.
These histories, Darren Wershler, the author of The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting, said, are inseparable from the history of writing itself. Thanks to the increasing ubiquity of the laptop, it is today more common for people to write by themselves, with just the companionship of their computer’s glare. But in the early-to-mid 19th century, writers—who were usually men—would dictate their thoughts to a secretary—who was also typically male, Wershler said. When the typewriter was introduced in the second half of the century, that relationship began to change.
Suddenly, women were operating typewriters and recording men’s dictation, irreversibly altering workplace gender dynamics. Empowered by a nation in the throes of rapid industrialization and armed with typing lessons from local YMCAs and YWCAs, these women, Wershler said, were key to filling the business world’s increasing demand for speed. “The reason that you need typewriters in the workplace is for more accurate record keeping, faster record keeping,” he said. “You can’t have rows of guys with green cellophane visors sitting on stools, filling in ledgers by hand—that just doesn’t work any more. You need typewriters, you need carbon paper, you need filing systems, and you need efficient ways of moving information around once it’s been typed and standardized.”
And women were there to fill that role. Early Remington typewriters were marketed specifically to women; Wershler said the devices were modeled to look similar to the sewing machines of the era and were occasionally decorated with flowers. And so, the Peggy Olsons of the mid-20th century remained the keepers of the keyboard.
A number of people who came of age in the 1970s and 1980s learned to type in a high-school classroom. Many of these classes were “drawn along sexist lines,” said Norman Worthington, one of the creators of Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, a commercially successful computer program that combines games and lessons to teach touch typing. “If you were a woman possibly waiting for a role in the business world, you would often find yourself in the secretarial electives, learning how to type, and the boys would be out playing football.”
“Up to that point, computers were in glass houses with the computer priests that ran them.”
Some schools offered separate courses for business and personal typing, and there was a market for how-to books that provided aspiring typists with direction. After conversations with a number of people who learned to type around this time, though, it would seem that these relatively piecemeal approaches left aspiring typists with a lackluster education and a propensity to avoid touch typing. Instead, some Baby Boomers and Gen X-ers favor the hunt-and-peck method, which utilizes just two fingers and is vastly less efficient.
But then, in 1981, IBM launched its personal computer and completely shifted typing education. As the use of PCs accelerated through the last quarter of the century, so too did the inherent need to know how to use a keyboard. “What was happening was everybody—women, men, kids—was starting to get excited and interested in microcomputers,” Worthington said. “Up to that point, computers were in glass houses with the computer priests that ran them … But now, all of a sudden, you wanted to interact with this machine, and the primary method for interacting was a keyboard.”
The growth of the personal computer increased the utility of knowing how to type, and this growth coincided with the burgeoning era of computer and video games. As giants like Atari cashed in on programs like Pong, and aspiring business professionals acknowledged the need to know how to operate a keyboard, the gamification of learning to type flowed naturally.
Enter: Mavis Beacon.
Launched in 1987, Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing is a computer program that skyrocketed to popularity at the tail end of the 20th century. What set the program apart was its titular character, Mavis, an anthropomorphized feature that Worthington said provided users with the experience of “interacting with the distillation of an expert living in your computer.” Worthington, who designed the educational engine of the program, said the game’s core teaching function was initially based on the concept of bursts—if someone can learn to quickly type common words (such as a-r-e and t-h-e), then they will be able to accelerate their overall average typing pace.
However, another key insight Worthington said helped ingratiate the Mavis Beacon software into the typing curriculum was that the product was more engaging than its competitors. Through product tests, Worthington and his team discovered that a key metric for predicting success in learning to type is simply time spent practicing. So if users were happier while spending time with the program, they were also more likely to succeed in learning the skill.
People who used Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing spanned all ages and genders; Worthington said the product was designed so older users would find the content amusing and younger users would remain engaged through the games built into the program. No longer was typing simply marketed as “women’s work.” Today, who learns to type is less a question of gender as it is one of age. The average age at which typing is taught seems to be decreasing, as many elementary and middle schools have computer courses for young learners.
At Birch Grove Primary School in Tolland, Connecticut, Lori D’Andrea is a computer-technology teacher who sees each kindergartener, first-grader, and second-grader once a week for 40 minutes. Though much of her curriculum revolves around increasing the students’ familiarity with computers, she does provide them with information on free typing programs they can practice with while they are at home. D’Andrea said she approaches typing education with such young learners in a relaxed way; she’s not particularly focused on the speed at which a 6-year-old can type.
“Let’s face it, computers aren’t going away.”
“They’re so young here—they’re 5, 6, 7, and 8,” D’Andrea said. “Typing when you’re that young? I think back to what I was doing when I was that young, and I have an old typewriter in the room, and they’re like, ‘What’s that?’ They have no idea.”
Part of the reason D’Andrea takes a more relaxed approach to teaching students to type is because her young students face physical barriers to typing that older kids simply do not. The pinky strength and dexterity required to reach certain keys is not something many 7-year-olds can muster. The distance from the semicolon key to the backslash is longer than a regular-sized paper clip on many keyboards—a space that is insurmountable for a child’s small hands. On top of that, D’Andrea pointed out that there are high-level processing skills required to operate a keyboard, and many first graders are not ready for them. For example, some of her students expressed confusion following the realization that although the letters on a keyboard are all uppercase, pushing the button results in a lowercase digit on-screen.
And yet, despite the physical and developmental impediments to teaching such young students to type, D’Andrea said certain testing metrics implore her to build up her students’ familiarity with the keyboard. The Common Core Standards state that, in third grade, students should be able to “use technology to produce and publish writing (using keyboarding skills).” On top of that, D’Andrea said her students take various tests on the computer that require some mouse and keyboard skills to complete. As standardized testing continues to go digital, D’Andrea said she wants to make sure the young students in her classes are equipped to succeed: “I tell the kids, ‘This is your practice to get used to taking tests on the computer.’ Because, let’s face it, computers aren’t going away. They’re going to have to take computerized tests … from now until they’re in high school.”
And so it would seem that the gendered past of typing education has broadly fallen away as the skill has become a prerequisite—even for the very young—to succeed. But D’Andrea’s point about the physical barriers for children learning to type is a good one, and as article after article decries the screen addiction plaguing society, one is left to wonder whether there is a limit to how low the age at which young people learn to type will fall. Add that to the notion that though there are free teaching programs available online, not every student has access to a computer at home. And as schools slug through funding issues and huge disparities in technological quality, it is clear that successfully learning to type is far from equitable. Though Gen-Z is supposedly populated with technology natives, learning to operate a keyboard requires more than just the push of a button.