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Why is there a Caps Lock key?



A Caps Lock button.
Benj Edwards

Caps Lock: the key that MAKES YOU END ACCENTALLY when you press it. Do we really need it today? Why is it even there? Let̵

7;s find out.

It all started in the typewriter era

In the old days, most typewriters produced only capital letters. In the 1870s, typewriter maker Remington figured out an economical way to type both uppercase and lowercase letters. It did so by placing two symbols or letters (such as uppercase and lowercase letters) on each type field – the piece of metal that struck the letters on the paper.

To switch between the two symbols, use a shift key that physically moved the entire type field. This allowed another part of the type field to hit the tape and produce another letter.

Since the Shift key required a relatively large amount of mechanical force to use, it can be tedious to keep it continuously pressed to enter all the covers. To fix this, Shift Lock was invented. This was basically a ratchet wrench that held the shift mechanism in place. It was often only marked “Lock”.

Shift Lock becomes canopy lock

On typewriters, Shift Lock changed the function of each key, including letters (from lower case to upper case) and other characters (such as numbers to symbols).

In the computer age, however, keyboards were no longer physically moved type fields, so the keyboard lock was free to diversify. Some terminal and computer keyboards retained the Shift Lock key, while others included a new key called “Caps Lock.” This key changed only lowercase letters to uppercase and did not affect other keys.

Caps Lock key on an A DEC LA36 DECWriter II keyboard.
LA36 DECWriter II keyboard. December

According to this anti-Caps Lock article by Daniel Colin James, the original invention of Caps Lock appears to be linked to this 1968 patent, which applies to an electronic terminal keyboard invented by Douglas A. Kerr of Bell Labs.

James interviewed Kerr, who said he invented the “Caps” key because his boss’s secretary was frustrated by typing strings of characters like “@ # $%” instead of numbers when Shift Lock was enabled.

But patents do not always translate into real products. The earliest disk we could find of a real Caps Lock key on a commercial product was the keyboard built into the LA36 DECwriter II terminal / teleprinter. Announced in 1974 it was a telecom type and computer printers were rolled into one.

LA36 DECwriter II’s service manual describes Caps Lock (on page 1-1) as a way to reduce 96 uppercase and lowercase letters in a set of 64 uppercase letters. Originally, you could only set this internally via a switch on a circuit board. This suggests that permanent production in capital letters was a desirable feature at the time. This may be because people were accustomed to the all-cap style of many earlier teletypes.

However, there may be a previous example of Caps Lock that has not yet been discovered. It is unclear to what extent DEC was affected by Kerr’s patent (if any). It is possible that DEC’s Caps Lock only originated as a compatibility function to imitate the all-cap behavior of older teletypes.

Caps Lock in PC Era

Several early home computers in the 1970s, such as the Apple II and TRS-80 Model 1, did not support lowercase letters, so there was no need for a Caps Lock. However, IBM terminals, which borrowed heavily from IBM Selectric typewriter layouts, often included a Shift Lock, and later a Caps Lock key.

When IBM created its personal computer in 1981, it included a Caps Lock key, but IBM placed it just to the right of the space bar – relatively out of the way. To the left of the A key you will find the control button instead. This location would have been common on all-caps terminal and teletype keyboards.

IBM Model M keyboard.
Benj Edwards

In 1984, when IBM converted its keyboard layout to the 101 keyboard’s extended keyboard (aka Model M), it placed the Caps Lock key to the left of A, and some people still complain angrily about this day.

Now that we know about Kerr’s patent and DECWriter II, we can see that IBM actually just restored Caps Lock to its original position. Unfortunately, that position is a prominent position, so people often accidentally press Caps Lock and type SHOUTY WORDS. It also interferes with the writing of case-sensitive passwords.

As we will see, there are actually some good reasons why the Caps Lock key still exists.

People still use Caps Lock

While many complain about Caps Lock, others still use it in business to save time and effort. Some of the most common uses include:

  • Report headlines: This is a throw into the typewriter era when different fonts were not available.
  • Serial number or VIN number: Many of these contain only capital letters.
  • Legal agreements: Lawyers have used all-caps in legal documents since the typewriter era to make important terms more visible.
  • To mark elements in architectural plans: Architects have been doing this for days with handwritten letters. Today, they still use handwriting-like architectural fonts in CAD programs.

In addition to these more profiled uses, there is also the issue of backward compatibility. For example, a feature that was present on IBM’s 1981 5150 PC is still there if an older application still uses it.

How to enter all caps without using a cap lock

If you often enter all the caps but do not like to use Caps Lock (or the key is missing), you are in luck. Most word processing programs allow you to type text normally, select it, and then use an all-cap style. Here’s how to do it in some common applications:

  • Microsoft Word: Select the text you want in all caps, then press Control + Shift + A on Windows or Command + Shift + A on Mac.
  • Google Docs: Select the text you want to change, then choose Format> Text> Capitalization> UPPERCASE from the menu bar.
  • pages: Select the text you want to change and then choose Format> Fonts> Capitalization> All Caps in the menu bar.

You can also assign the Caps Lock key to perform another function (such as Control), use it as a modification key in Windows 10, or disable it completely.

Although many people may never need it, Caps Lock is not useless. As we noted above, many still use it at work, so it will likely be with us for decades to come.




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