Rasmus Malling-Hansen, a writing ball, and the evolution of modern typing

150 years ago, Reverend Rasmus Malling-Hansen invented the Hansen Writing Ball and sparked what we now know as modern typing. From the first typewriters to today’s touch screens and redefined user interfaces, the way that we input, store, and share information has undergone a dramatic evolution.
This IBM typewriter ad from the 1950s is but one step in the evolution timeline that spans from the Hansen Writing Ball to today's computer keyboards and mobile touchscreens

When you think of basketball, you probably think of Michael Jordan. When you think of movie directors, Steven Spielberg probably comes to mind. When you think of typing on your computer or smartphone, surely you think of…Reverend Rasmus Malling-Hansen?

OK, so Reverend Malling-Hansen may not be a household name, but tracing the modern idea of typing – the tap-tap-tap of individual letters and symbols – leads back to him and his Hansen Writing Ball, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary.

I doubt that Reverend Rasmus Malling-Hansen could have predicted that an evolution of his innovation would become an essential feature of so many of our devices, but his work spawned an evolution in typing and communication that extends to this day. Here is a look at three significant milestones along that evolutionary path.

The Typewriter as Most of Us Know It (1950s to 1970s)

I’m admittedly biased toward the typewriter. As a kid, I loved to write. I was a child of the 90s, so I spent most of my time with a computer keyboard, but one day, I discovered this dusty white and green box in my basement. Inside? A typewriter. I yanked it out, asked my parents to help me set it up, and I was off and running…err…typing. I remember feeling a sense of satisfaction through the deeper and sharper mechanical clicks of the keys, and of the bar rigidly sliding back to its starting position when it reached the end of each line. I felt important, like I was doing what professional writers did. And there was something about the way that letters and words would appear on the paper – that font, the slightly faded text, and the occasional inconsistency in spacing. There was an authenticity to it that was enjoyable to experience.

Computer Keyboards Come Alive (1980s – Present)

Alas, like the rest of the world, the appeal of the typewriter could not outweigh the convenience and ubiquity of the computer keyboard. My house, my school, my friends’ houses, my parents’ offices – computers and their keyboards were everywhere. And it wasn’t just typing that defined computer keyboards. Computer games were huge when I was growing up, and when you wanted to play ‘Tetris,’ ‘Monster Truck Madness’ (those graphics, though…), or ‘Doom’ (still the most terrifying game ever), your hands were glued to the keyboard and mouse. Even the slowest of typists kicked it into high gear when pressing the arrow key meant outrunning a monster in ‘Doom.’

Computers and their keyboards continued to develop as we entered the new millennium – different sizes, shapes, and models. They enabled new and more convenient forms of communication, like email and AOL Instant Messenger (the question isn’t whether you are ashamed of your first-ever screen name, but how ashamed you are) and paired seamlessly with the Internet and other programs.

This, of course, all led up to one of today’s most common keyboard types – the touchscreen.

The Touchscreen Takeover (2007 – Present)

Touchscreen keyboards really took off when Apple released the first iPhone in 2007. Other phone-centric keyboards had dominated before, including the QWERTY keyboards on our old flip phones and even the built-in full keyboard from BlackBerry, but the touchscreen was a true innovation that remains the overwhelming keyboard of choice for today’s smartphones, tablets, 2-in-1s, and many other devices.

One of the most striking differences of the touchscreen keyboard when it first came out was the silence. There was tapping, but there was no clicking, or noise of any kind. It was an absolute game-changer in high school, as you no longer had to hide your phone behind your history book and firmly press each individual key with finite precision to avoid the click-click-click that was the equivalent of a dog whistle for teachers.

What will the next phase of typing look like? Well, already we are moving beyond the standard tapping and pecking, in favor of gestured swiping – moving your finger from letter to letter in one motion along the keyboard to input text. And, more and more, we are talking to our computers and other devices instead of physically typing into them. We ask questions, request information, complete tasks – all with our voice. We anticipate this trend continuing and expanding in the years ahead, particularly as we think about the rise of the Internet of Things. Will voice ever completely supplant keyboards and typing? Probably not. What’s happening is a happy marriage between the two – each taking the lead in the right situations, and always complementing one another. It’s a testament to how groundbreaking his invention was to safely assume that, in another 150 years, a variation of Reverend Rasmus Malling-Hansen’s original vision will still be at the forefront of our text input, communication, and general engagement with devices.

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Greg Payne

About Greg Payne

In his role on the corporate communications team, Greg provides comprehensive support for Nuance’s Mobile-Consumer division’s communication efforts, spanning content development, media and analyst relations, and internal communications. Greg graduated from Endicott College in May of 2012 with a Bachelor’s degree in communication, and is currently completing Northeastern University’s Master of Science in Corporate and Organizational Communication program. Greg is a certified personal trainer and in his spare time he enjoys running half marathons and other road races, experimenting with new workouts, cooking, and screenwriting.