Tag Archives: history

The mystery of the computer keyboard

Staring blankly at my keyboard the other day (as one does) I began pondering over the arrangement of the keys. “What’s up with that?” I heard the comedian within me say. I set forth on a cyber-galactic journey to discovery why my keyboard’s layout looks the way it does…

A brief history lessonAn old-assed typewriter
In the early days of the typewriter way-back-when (1860) the letters were initially arranged from A-Z along a metal bar. However, as the speed of typists increased, they found that particular ‘type bars’ would jam together, creating several complications, personal distress and making quite a mess of typed documents altogether.

Christopher SholesOne keen mind (American inventor Christopher Sholes) suggested that the most commonly used letters be equally spaced to reduce jams and increase typing speed and efficiency. Quite taken with Mr Sholes’ insightful idea, manufacturers gradually rearranged the letters until fewer and fewer jams occurred.

A final rearrangement of the keys introduced the word QWERTY (made up of the first 6 letters along the top row of a keyboard). This has become the most commonly used, modern-day keyboard layout that we enjoy and love and take completely for granted today.

QWERTY and its opponents
QWERTY was patented by Mr Sholes in 1874 and fast became the most popular keyboard layout on English-language computers and typewriter keyboards. It managed to dominate the market after being sold to Remington and whence it became mass-produced in the U.S.

The QWERTY layout wasn’t without it opponents however. The early Blickensderfer’s “Ideal” keyboard (1893) was non-QWERTY, instead having the sequence “DHIATENSOR” in the home row. These 10 letters are capable of composing 70% of the words in the English language yet were also met with the problem of clashing type bars when used speedily on a typewriter.

Quick facts

  • Gradual adjustments to the QWERTY layout occurred over a period of several years. One particularly interesting adjustment included placing the “R” key in the place previously allotted to the period mark. This enabled typewriter salesmen to impress customers by pecking out the brand name “TYPEWRITER” using one row of keys. This was also the longest word in the English language that could be typed using only the top row of a keyboard until the word “proterotype” came into existence.Modern-day keyboard
  • Evidence of the original alphabetical layout of typewriters remains in the second row of a modern-day keyboard, with the letters F-L in alphabetical order (i.e. FGHJKL) – with the exception of the ‘I’ key, which was moved for type-bar jamming reasons.
  • The ‘W’ and ‘E’ keys were swapped around as the naughty (middle) finger is stronger than the ring finger and ‘E’ is the most commonly used letter in the English language.
  • Far more words can be spelled/typed using the left hand (i.e. the left-hand side of a keyboard) than the right hand. In fact, thousands of English words can be spelled using only the left hand, while only a couple of hundred words can be typed using the right This is helpful for left-handed people, however, the combined use of a mouse makes up for the typing advantage of any leftys.

Now you know everything.

The history and origin of Santa Claus

THE story of St Nic, his red suit, his reindeer and little helpers

SO just who is that fat, old jolly guy in the red suit that parades around shopping malls at Christmas time – entertaining kids and scaring adults with his “ho ho hos”? It’s usually someone’s dad – the one (in any community of close friends) with the biggest beer boep.

I caught on early that Santa was my dad and that the whole thing was a scam. The biggest tip-off was the request for brandy or schnapps to left by the tree at night rather than the more traditional milk and cookies. This was suspect, as the order was giving by my mother and my father enjoys his schnapps and brandy and never drinks milk.

Poetic beginnings
Much of the present form of the Santa story is undoubtedly due to the works of Clement Clark Moore and the cartoons of 19th century American cartoonist Thomas Nast. In 1822, Dr. Moore from New York wrote a Christmas poem titled A visit from St. Nicholas (also know as The Night Before Christmas) to read out to his children on Christmas Eve. Here’s a little extract:

Santa enjoying a bit of pipeweedA depiction of Santa by Thomas Nast

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,

And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,

And laying his finger aside of his nose,

And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,

And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.

But I heard him exclaim, ‘ere he drove out of sight,

“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

The story behind the red and white suit
Images of Santa Claus were further popularised through Haddon Sundblom’s depiction of him for The Coca-Cola Company’s Christmas advertising in the 1930s. The popularity of the image spawned urban legends that Santa Claus was in fact invented by Coca-Cola, or that Santa wears red and white because they are the Coca-Cola colors.

In reality, Coca-Cola was not the first soft drink company to utilise the modern image of Santa Claus in its advertising. White Rock Beverages used Santa to sell mineral water in 1915 and then in advertisements for its ginger ale in 1923.

Furthermore, the massive campaign by Coca-Cola simply popularised the depiction of Santa as wearing red and white, in contrast to the variety of colours he wore prior to that campaign (a popular garment being a green cloak). The colours red and white were originally given by Nast.

A brief history of St Nic
Father Christmas, who also goes under the alias of St Nicholas and Kris Kringle, has a bit of a sketchy history – predominantly attributed to legend and folklore. There is also a darker historical account that attributes some of the qualities and roles of St Nic to the pagan deities of Artemis and Poseidon.

The most plausible story of Saint Nicholas as an actual human figure dates back to 4th century Myra – a southwest port of modern day Turkey. The legend goes that Nicholas was a bishop that took pity on a poverty-stricken family with three daughters, who faced the threat of being forced into prostitution because they had no wedding dowries.

An early depiction of St Nic

To save the girls from this fate, St. Nic tosses two bags of gold through an open window of their house at night and a third one down the family’s chimney (which apparently lands in a stocking that had being hung near the fireplace to dry).

This is considered as the basis of the belief of Saint Nicholas as a loving gift-giver, and is believed to be the beginning of the tradition of hanging stocking near the fireplace at Christmas.

Santa’s little helpers
You can imagine the amount of slave-labour required to make millions of toys each year for all the good little boys and girls. Santa traditionally makes efficient use of child-labour in the form of little elves – popularised by fictional texts such as “The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien.

However, up until the Second World War, it was believed that Saint Nicholas was only helped by one servant. One relatively modern story is that Saint Nicholas liberated an Ethiopian slave boy called ‘Piter’ (from Saint Peter) from a Myra market, who was so gracious he decided to stay with Saint Nic as a helper.

At the end of the war, when the Canadians liberated the Netherlands in 1945, they reinstated the celebrations of Sinterklaas for the children. Unaware of the traditions, the Canadians thought that if one Zwarte Piet was fun, several Zwarte Pieten would be even more fun. Ever since, Saint Nicolas is helped by a group of Zwarte Pieten (i.e. little black Ethiopian slave boys).

Yet with the influx of immigrants to the Netherlands starting in the late 1950s, this story is felt by some to be racist. Today, Zwarte Piet have become modern servants, who have black faces because they climb through chimneys, causing their skin to become blackened by soot.

Santa’s reindeer
The commonly cited names of Santa’s reindeer are also based on those used in Nast’s 1823 poem, which is arguably the basis of reindeer’s popularity as Christmas symbols. However, Santa did have a favourite – his red-nosed ‘draw-horse’ Rudolph – who quickly became popularised by the mass media.

Rudolph the red-nosed reindeerAccording to legend, Rudolph was the son of Donder and was born with a glowing red nose, which made him a bit of a social outcast among the other reindeer. However, one Christmas eve it was too foggy for Santa to swing a cat, or to make his flight around the world and deliver pressies to the masses.

About to cancel Christmas, Santa suddenly noticed Rudolph’s nose, and decided it could be used as a makeshift lamp to guide his sleigh. Since then, Rudolph is said to be a permanent member of Santa’s staff, who leads them on their journey and gets extra special attention at Christmas!

  • For more information on the history and origin and Santa Claus, his reindeer, his helpers, his legend etc., here is a fantastic online resource.

Related posts:
Friday the 13th superstitions
The history and origin of Halloween
Historical truths behind old English sayings

Friday the 13th superstitions

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Friday the 13th

Most cultures have superstitions centered on the number 13 which can be traced right back to those ancient Greeks. They did, however, agree that fear of the number 13 is an irrational fear, calling it triskaidekaphobia [triss-ka-deck-ah-phobia]. Nonetheless the idea that the number 13 was somehow bad quickly spread, and the Greeks’ traditional rivals, the Turks, have virtually removed 13 from their vocabulary.

Here are a few 13-related superstitions:

  • Several tall office buildings do not have a 13th floor. Next time you’re in a tall building check whether or not your life is in danger by seeing if the elevator has a button for a 13th floor.
  • Beware of Christening your children with 13 letter names. Some believe that people with such cursed names live notoriously bad or evil lives.
    Examples: Jack the Ripper, Charles Manson.
  • Sportsmen are notoriously superstitious and many teams avoid using the number 13 in their squads or teams. I’ll admit it’s never fun being the 13th man in a sports team.
  • The number 13One superstition is that if 13 people sit down to dinner together all of them will die within the year. One form of this legend dates back to the Norse god of mischief – Loki. The saga tells of Loki gate-crashing a party – bringing the number of guests to 13. To cut a long saga short, Balder the good was killed, and for this reason several Norwegians still believe that 13 at a dinner party is bad luck.
  • There are 13 loaves of bread in a baker’s dozen. The extra loaf (presumably the runt of the litter) was baked as a special bribe for the devil not to spoil the batch of loaves.
  • The number 13 plagued biblical times too. The book of Luke (chapter 22) tells us that there were 13 present at the Last Supper. There is also evidence that this Last Supper was held on a Friday, and is of course when Judas Iscariot threw a bread-loaf at Jesus.
  • Some people (possibly Christian fanatics) are so afraid of Friday the 13th that they refuse to get out of bed or go to work on the cursed day. A study in the British Medical Journal in 1993 looked into the relationship between driving and road accidents in the UK on two separate Fridays: the 6th and the 13th.

The study was carried out over a period of a few years, and eventually concluded that:

“Friday the 13th is unlucky for some. The risk of hospital admission as a result of a transport accident may be increased by as much as 52 percent. Staying at home is recommended.”

Friday the 13th Dates:
In 1998 Friday the 13th appeared three times on the calendar, in February, March and November. This is scheduled to occur again this year (2009) during the months of February, March and November. (There are usually two days of doom in a year). While occasionally we survive a year that has only one Friday the 13th, it is impossible for a year to pass without any ever occurring.

So lock yourselves away, call in sick, avoid any tall buildings and dodgy people with 13 letter names, and cancel any dinner party plans in case the number 13 gets YOU! You have been warned.

What a load of sewerage water! :D

Happy Friday!

Related posts:
Historical truths behind old English sayings
Historical truths behind old English sayings II

Historical truths behind English sayings

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Do you ever use sayings such as “saved by the bell” or hear your grandmother squawk something like, “Heavens, it raining cats and dogs outside!” A lot of people still do yet have no idea where such phrases originate from.

I got a little history lesson the other day which explained the dark truth behind some of these popular figures of speech. I thought I’d share them with those of you who are interested in the English language. Slip them into conversation next time you’re at the pub, or tell granny what she’s actually referring to.

1. Why brides carry a bouquet at weddings:It was also believed that flowers would help ward off the plague
England back in the day was a smelly place to live. Most people only bathed once a year (usually in May). Thus most people got married in June because their BO (body odour) wasn’t too bad one month down the line. However, they were starting to smell, so brides carried a bouquet of flowers to hide any stench.

Hence the custom today of carrying a bouquet when getting married.

2. “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater!”
Please don't throw me away!Baths consisted of a big tub filled with hot water. The man of the house had first dibs on the nice clean water, then all the other sons and men, then the women and finally the children. Last to be bathed were the babies. By then the water was so dirty you could actually lose someone in it.

Hence the saying, “don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.”ouch

3. “The rule of thumb”
Women had it pretty tough in the old English days. Husbands were allowed to beat their wives by law for anything that they considered to be disobedient. The only condition was the phrase “rule of thumb” (derived from an old English law), which stated that you couldn’t beat your wife with anything thicker than your thumb.

4. “It’s raining cats and dogs”
mmrff grrr hmphThe majority of medieval Brits lived in hovels that had thatched roofs with no wood underneath. It was the only place for animals to get warm, so all the cats and other small animals (mice, bugs) lived in the roof. When it rained it became slippery and sometimes the animals would slip off the roof.

Hence the saying “it’s raining cats and dogs.”

5. Why the poor were “dirt poor”Please sir, can I have some more?
There was nothing to stop things from falling into the house. Besides having bugs, animal droppings and other crap fall from the roof the floors were dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt such as thresh (straw) which was kept in place using wooden planks (hence the saying “threshold”). But for the poor it was plain dirt.

Hence the saying “dirt poor.”

6. “Bringing home the bacon”
The dirt poor mostly ate vegetables that they would stew and re-stew in a large cauldron over the fire. Often leftovers would remain in Bringing home the baconthe pot for days on end. However, on special days they would sometimes obtain pork, and when visitors came over they would hang up their bacon to show off. It was a sign of wealth that a man could “bring home the bacon.” They would cut off a little to share with guests and would all sit around on their dirt floors and “chew the fat.”

7. Food for thought… or possible death

  • Those with a little money had plates made of pewter. Food with a high acid content caused some of the lead to leach into the food, causing lead poisoning and often death. This happened most often with tomatoes, so for the next 400 years or so, tomatoes were considered poisonous.Bread
  • Bread was divided according to status. Workers got the burnt bottom of the loaf, the family got the middle, and guests got the top, or “upper crust.”
  • Lead cups were used to drink ale or whisky. The combination would sometimes knock the imbibers right out for a couple of days. Someone walking along the road would take them for dead and prepare them for burial. They were laid out on the kitchen table for a couple of days and the family would gather around and eat and drink, or chew the fat, and wait and see if the poor sod would wake up.

Hence the custom of holding a “wake.”

8. “Saved by the bell”
This is a reference to boxing and quite literally means to be saved from a beating by the bell that signals the end of a boxing round. The saying does not originate from people being buried alive. However, this was not an uncommon occurance, and several people were so afraid of this happening to them, that they took measures against it – such as by tying a bell connected to a rope around their hands. Here’s how the urban myth goes:

England is small – very small relative to the huge population at the time. But the death toll was high and gravediggers started running out of places to bury people. So they would dig up old coffins, take the bones to a “bone-house”, and reuse the graves.

I'm not dead!!When reopening these coffins, 1 out of 25 were found to have scratch marks on the inside, meaning 1 in 25 people had been buried alive. To prevent this from happening they would tie a string on the wrist of the corpse, lead it through the coffin and up through the ground, and tie it to a bell. Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night (the “graveyard shift”) to listen for the bell.

Thus, any unfortunate drunks could be “saved by the bell!”

  • If you know the origin of any other sayings please share them below and help spread a little knowledge!

Related posts:
Friday the 13th superstitions
Historical truths behind English sayings II

The console that rocked the gaming world

GAMING: A tribute to the Atari 2600 gaming console

KNOWN as the godfather of modern videogame systems, the Atari 2600 (originally called the Atari VCS) helped spawn a multi-billion dollar gaming industry. Released in 1977, the Atari 2600 was the first successful console to use game cartridges and its influence can still be felt today in the Xbox, PlayStation, and GameCube.

With an initial offering of nine games, including addictive titles such as Space Invaders and Pac Man, Atari sold over thirty million consoles and hundreds of millions of games.

The wood-finished Atari 2600 gaming console
Atari 2600 gaming console

Atari also spawned the first-ever third party software producer, Activision in 1980. The company was actually formed by four peeved employees who were unsatisfied with the working conditions at Atari. They grossed over $70 million that year after their defection.

Atari’s activity gave birth to several other companies which began competing fiercely in the gaming industry. There was even a company that released a line of X-Rated (softcore 1980s porn) games for the 2600 called Mystique.

There’s no possible way that the Atari can be matched with today’s gaming consoles, yet no other has had such a long history or sold as many systems in the U.S. as the Atari 2600.

According to atariage.com the console still has a large fan-base today,

“… who remember the countless games played over the years, and the years to come. There are even games being produced today by hobbyists, often in cartridge format with a full color label and an accompanying manual. Finally, the recent trend in retrogaming has introduced many more video game fans to the 2600, and it continues to live on 24 years after its release!”

Links: • www.atariage.com • A little history on Mystique