Meet the hot new Web interface: fingers

From the iPad to Firefox, the Droid to Google Chrome -- no matter what cool digital tool you use, the crucial interface is the one we've used more than 130 years: fingers on a keyboard.

Did you feel it at 25 words a minute? Maybe you had to hit 40 or 60. If you can touch-type, you’ll recall the moment when muscle memory kicked in and you realized you could think through your fingers.

Musicians had known the feeling long before Frank Edward McGurrin in 1878 trained himself to be the fastest man alive on the keyboard by learning to type without looking at the keys. But while musicians communicate in an exquisitely soulful language, their message can’t be relied on for clarity.

Nobleman: “Quick, knave, knowst thou how to free us from the bottom of this well?”
Knave (strumming mandolin): “Does it go something like this, my liege?”

If your fingers on “ASDFJKL;” feel as natural as talking, then you owe a debt to young McGurrin. A go-getter law clerk in Grand Rapids, Mich., he was already a capable typist when his boss lied to him one day about watching a young woman in another office blazing away on the keyboard while gazing serenely out a window. McGurrin made up his mind that “whatever a girl could do I could do .... I discarded my former method of two or three fingers and determined to use all of my fingers.” He eventually clocked in at 90 words per minute.

Thousands of girls and boys have done 90 or better since then. Claims to the world’s fastest fingers range as high as 600 w.p.m. The “Guinness Book of World Records” notes, among other feats, most books typed backward (hats off to Michele Santelia of Campobasso, Italy) and fastest typing on a smart phone (kudos, Pedro Matias of Portugal).

In less heroic realms, typing fluency allows one to try a phrase, revise it, build an argument, think about the right word, eradicate clichés, and feel a passage cohere – i.e., write – in comfortable continuous motion. Fluid penmanship is a great thing. And I’ve seen amazing exertions by two-fingered reporters pounding away against injustice. But touch-typing is almost effortless.

One of the more memorable photos of Ernest Hemingway has him with sleeves rolled above his elbow, leaning into his Royal portable – probably on some Spanish afternoon when light fell on the page and in the villa with the brown door around the corner from the old man’s house the matador slowly donned his suit of light.

My favorite office knickknack is a G.I. Joe doll in its original box that an old comrade discovered on eBay and gave me. It is of the World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle. Why him? Pyle wrote the original “Story of G.I. Joe” long before the Everyman soldier morphed into a buffed-out action figure and movie franchise. The box contains a small typewriter – no gun, space communicator, or power vest. I’m sure my G.I. Joe didn’t fly off the shelves at Toys ‘R’ Us.

I’ve owned many a keyboard over the years. They’ve been attached to Remington manuals with excellent mechanics and clunky electrics that moved with gratifying speed. In the precomputer era, my prize was an IBM Selectric with lovely curves and an amazing rotating type ball. It powered a brief, between-jobs, freelance career. A lightweight Olivetti portable with a blue cover was standard gear for foreign assignments in the early 1980s, though there was too much finger exertion needed to make writing fun with that one.

Then came portable computers, then laptops – lighter, faster, and more wonderfully capable every year. I love my iPhone, but smart phones with or without physical keyboards are not for real writing. Same with the new wonder, the iPad. As machine-human interfaces go, typing is fundamental. Voice-to-text may one day rival it, but while applications like Google Voice get much of the information right, they inevitably mangle words and meaning.

Fingers are called upon to fix the nonsense.

John Yemma is the editor of The Christian Science Monitor.

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