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A Brief History of the Mac Keyboard
Iain Anderson on Thu, August 28th 0 comments
Have you ever wondered what that weird squiggle is on your Mac keyboard, or where the Option key is? Iain Anderson gives a fascinating, but concise, run through on the history of the Mac keyboard.

Keyboards are at the core of the modern Mac experience, alongside trackpads and/or mice. Despite on-screen soft keyboards and dictation, for most of us they’re still the fastest way to move ideas from our heads onto our screens. On the Mac, many changes have been made over the years to accommodate different languages, modifier keys and hardware designs, and the software has changed too. In this article, we’re going to answer many (possibly unasked) questions and also give you a few tips on how your keyboard can make your job faster and easier.

What on earth is the Command key?

It’s that key to the left and the right of the space bar, and the main modifier key you hold down along another key to perform a command. In the US, Australia and Japan, it’s also labelled “command” these days, but in Europe it’s labelled “cmd”, and at least people now know what to call the key.

So what’s that weird squiggle?

There’s a fun story there. For a time during the Mac’s development, the Apple logo was used in menus where the squiggle is now, but Steve Jobs decided that there were too many Apple logos on-screen. Susan Kare, the designer of the original Mac icons, was asked to find a replacement, and found this one, a Bowen knot. Common in Scandinavia, it’s used on maps and street signage to indicate a place of interest. Everyone liked it, and it stuck.

This really is a real street sign. Photo credit: Margaret Shear [https://www.flickr.com/photos/shearforce/3838603833]

This really is a real street sign. Photo credit: Margaret Shear.

If you do head to Scandinavia, it’s very, very odd to see the Command key on signs all over the place. Here’s another one for good measure

Personally, I bought a t-shirt covered in Command key squiggles about 15 years ago. When I asked the designer where they got the idea, it turned out that they weren’t computer users and that they too had found it in a book, labelled as “remarkable feature”.

My old t-shirt, with my younger hands.

My old t-shirt, with my younger hands.

For more, read Wikipedia or this tale on Medium.

I thought there used to be an Apple Logo on the Command key?

Before the Mac, some of the later Apple II keyboards featured an Open Apple and a Closed Apple key. The Lisa keyboard featured a Command key with an Apple symbol on it, and while the earlier Mac keyboards omitted the Apple logo on the key, it made a return on the Apple II GS and Mac-compatible ADB keyboard, and stayed there until the Apple logo finally disappeared around 2007. More info here.

And what on Earth is the Option key — isn’t it called Alt?

No. The Option key should not be called Alt, even though it’s always had Alt written on it in small writing, to help with PC compatibility. On the US, Australian and Japanese keyboards, it’s actually got “option” written on it, but across Europe it’s got a strange ⌥ symbol instead. Because the only word written on the key is “alt”, many users mistakenly call it “alt” — which is understandable. But it’s a sad state of affairs when the confusion is widespread enough that a band can call themselves “Alt-J” instead of “Option-J”. (They liked the ∆ delta symbol which Option-J produces.)

While I like to think of the symbol as a flying saucer on an escalator, it’s actually a microswitch symbol.

While I like to think of the symbol as a flying saucer on an escalator, it’s actually a microswitch symbol.

The flip-side is that many novice users in Australia and the US don’t know what the symbols in the menus mean, because we don’t have the symbols on them. Nobody wins.

And what’s the Option key good for?

Usually for typing special or accented characters. Option-G = ©, Option-M = µ, and so on. It’s also good for typing accents with dead keys. Press Option-E, then type a vowel, and you’ll get a ´ on top of your vowel, like this: é. Nowadays you can also just hold a key down to see an even wider range of special variants, but the dead keys on `, e, i, u, and n are still handy. More on the Option key here. 

How do I find out how to type special characters?

To discover what else the Option key can do, activate the Keyboard Viewer by visiting System Preferences, Keyboard, and ticking “Show Keyboard & Character Viewers in menu bar” and then choosing Keyboard Viewer from the menu that appears.

Here’s how to get to the keyboard viewer.

Here’s how to get to the keyboard viewer.

Now, hold down modifier keys and see what changes. The bright orange keys are the dead keys mentioned earlier.

What’s a pound sign?

This one had me confused for years, though you might not have realized it’s even an issue. In Britain, pound means £. In the US, pound means # (which other parts of the world often call a “hash mark”). When I was a kid, I once used an Apple IIe which had a switch under the keyboard that would switch between the two options instantly—every # became a £, or vice versa. Very strange.

Here’s a European ISO keyboard, with symbols instead of words for the modifier and tab keys. (Image: Marco Verch)

Here’s a European ISO keyboard, with symbols instead of words for the modifier and tab keys. (Image: Marco Verch)

What are the differences between different keyboard layouts?

Around the world, there are three different physical layouts: JIS in Japan, ISO in Europe and French Canada, and ANSI in most other places (including the US, English Canada and Australia). Still, the ISO and ANSI physical keyboard layouts see a variety of different arrangements of their keycaps (Qwerty, Azerty, Qwertz and more). Find out more here.

Personally, I can’t stand the tall, thin Return key on the ISO keyboard, but that’s because I’m used to ANSI. Stick with what you’re used to, and be careful if you buy a laptop overseas.

Good old ANSI with its wordy shortcut keys.

Good old ANSI with its wordy shortcut keys.

Can you rearrange the key positions?

If you choose a different layout in System Preferences > Keyboard > Input Sources, then sure. Some countries’ layouts may hide punctuation used heavily in your programming language of choice, so feel free to try something different. Back in the day (the early 1990s) you could use ResEdit to make your own, but nowadays we mostly settle for the built-in options and a little rearranging of the modifier keys for when we have to use PC keyboards.

Who’s up for a quick session of KCHR resource editing for old times’ sake? (Image from Apple’s ResEdit Reference [https://developer.apple.com/legacy/library/documentation/mac/pdf/ResEditReference.pdf]

Who’s up for a quick session of KCHR resource editing for old times’ sake? (Image from Apple’s ResEdit Reference [https://developer.apple.com/legacy/library/documentation/mac/pdf/ResEditReference.pdf]

How come Mac shortcuts aren’t the same as Windows ones?

Because Microsoft didn’t copy them properly. Place your left thumb on Command, and you can easily reach the common Z, X, C, V, S, W and Q shortcuts with your left-hand fingers. Control is in the wrong place for the same trick to work, and you’ll end up using your pinkie finger instead of your thumb, using two hands, or giving up on shortcuts entirely.

What are the best shortcuts, then?

  • Command-S to Save.
  • Command-W to Close the current window.
  • Command-Q to Quit the current app.
  • Command-Z, X, C V to Undo, Cut, Copy and Paste.
  • Command-Tab to switch apps—but it’s more subtle than that. Keep holding Command, and every time you press tab, the highlight moves one app along the list. (You only switch to the highlighted app when you release Command.) Pressing the ` key above tab moves you one back, as does (the torturous) Shift-Tab. Still holding Command, right? Press Q to Quit the current app if you want, and quit everything by performing a Q-tab-Q-tab-Q-tab-Q dance.
  • Control-eject to Shut Down (with a confirmation dialog where you can press R to Restart, S to Sleep, Return to Shut Down or Esc to cancel).
  • Command-Option-eject to Sleep (without confirmation).
  • Option-left and Option-right to move a text cursor by one word.
  • Option-drag to copy in the Finder and most Adobe apps.

And for screenshots?

  • Command-Shift-3 to snap the whole screen to a file on the Desktop.
  • Command-Shift-4 to snap a selected part of the screen (drag a box, or press Space then click a window instead) to a file on the Desktop.
  • Control-Command-Shift-3 or Control-Command-Shift-4 perform the same functions, but to the clipboard instead of a file.

Phew!

Yep. While they started with old RJ-11 connectors, moved to ADB, then USB and Bluetooth, and started out chunky and clacky, moved through tiny and color-matched iMac keyboards to the silver and white svelte keyboards of today, the keyboard remains a vital part of the puzzle. I couldn’t have written this article without one. In ten years, though—who knows?

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