The infamous Caps Lock key

Caps lock key on a modern PC keyboardEveryone knows that the QWERTY keyboard layout sucks, because it carries a legacy from the early typewriter days; still, we’re all locked into its use and live in oblivion of what we’re missing. But we have another legacy from mechanical typewriters that is hard to forget because it bites us daily. i REFER TO THE cAPS lOCK KEY.

It is interesting to trace the history of this design infamy. Originally, it made a lot of sense: in a mechanical typewriter the Shift keys did just that: they shifted the type mechanism vertically so the type bars would hit the paper with the uppercase letters; and the Shift Lock key would keep the keys locked in this position. This key had to sit right above the Shift key, because it physically latched it in a depressed position; hitting Shift again would release the lock. It was very easy to see (and feel) whether Shift was locked or not, because both keys would be depressed when the lock was engaged. The photos below are from an antiquated Royal typewriter; you can see how the Lock key holds down the Shift key on the right (and note the quaint caption on the latter key – Shift / Freedom, in allusion to releasing the Lock).

Shift Lock in an old typewriter

Early computer keyboards carried this idea forward, with a Shift Lock or Caps Lock key that had two physical positions: depressed for Lock, and flush with the other keys when released. You could therefore tell when you were in Caps mode, and would notice immediately if you hit the lock accidentally while touch typing. The delightful Commodore 64 had this feature, among others; the photos show a keyboard that came with the collection of homebrew boards described here, from the late 70s.

Two-position Caps Lock in a 1970s keyboard

Later, as keyboard makers sacrificed quality for cheap manufacturing, the more complex and different two-state key was replaced with a momentary key like all the others, with electronics to implement toggle action. Gone was the tactile feedback. Now a simple brush of the finger could accidentally lock you in Caps mode. Worse still, the position of the Lock key next to the left Shift key, which made sense a century ago, was retained – placing this relatively little used key right in harm’s way.

I don’t see manufacturers giving us back the 2-position key (it would cost them a few cents, after all), but the least they could do is move this stupid key to the top row, next to the Scroll Lock, where it will remain unused, unnoticed, and harmless.

So, what can we do about this? Well, one thing we can do is disable the offending key. No need to tear it out – I used KeyTweak, a free key remapping utility, to disable it on my Windows XP system. Good riddance!

Also, if you use MS Word, you may be unaware that depressing Shift+F3 repeatedly will change any selected text to lowercase, uppercase, and sentence case; a very useful feature after YOU’VE ACCIDENTALLY HIT sHIFT lOCK AND CONTINUED TYPING.

    3 Responses to “The infamous Caps Lock key”

    1. 1 Esther

      Hi Nathan – As you know I actually use the CAPS lock key and wouldn’t want to get rid of it. But it seems you are not the only one who doesn’t like it and has turned it off:

    2. 2 Nathan Zeldes

      Indeed, Esther. The funny part is that I wrote this post a few days after International Caps Lock Day without being aware of the fact at the time…

    3. 3 Achim

      Hi Nathan,

      I have been searching (apparently in vain) for a way to ENABLE Caps Lock on a german keyboard. German keyboards have a shift lock key, which, from my viewpoint, is about the most useless feature imaginable. You see, in some programming languages capitals are something of a defacto standard. This is most notably true of SQL and (for those old enough to have learned it) Cobol. When I write a DB Adapter in Perl, Java or C#, I want the SQL to stand out. A Caps lock featture would be enormously handy for this. I don’t want to “shift” the entire keyboard… just the letters. If anybody out there has an idea how to achieve this, you might try posting it on a support site somewhere. I’ll keep looking periodically. I’m sure there are others who could use such a feature.



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