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Endings are Complicated

Endings are complicated.

endings are complicated

Typing was once a more physical experience. Each page of paper was inserted and rolled around a platen. Each keypress was a levered, mechanical event. With each inked letter impressed on the paper, a third of the typewriter’s mass, the part called “the carriage,” would move one space to the right to prepare for the next character to be typed.

By the end of a line of text, the carriage had to be returned to begin the following line. So typists reached up with their right hand, caught the carriage return bar, physically moved the carriage to the original position, and rotated the platen up to begin the next line of text.

The most physical movement in typing was at the end of each line of text.

I am grateful my parents suggested I take a typing elective in high school. At the time, typing was taught on typewriters, but I was lucky. I learned to type on an IBM Selectric II with 2,800 parts and a bell that sounded “Ding!” at the end of each line.

The Selectrics were electromechanical, and small motors assisted some of the actions. A large “Return” key replaced the Carriage Return bar.

The first computer I used was my dad’s Epson QX-10 which ran on the CP/M operating system and utilized the ValDocs interface. Ads for the QX-10 claimed, “Anyone can use it. Even bosses.”

It was 1983, so it was slow. One review at the time reported ValDocs “is slow. Sometimes it merely dawdles slightly, but other times, it crawls. Entering text becomes a disconcerting pastime when the screen display lags as many as 60 characters behind your typing, and you lose characters.”

Slow was good for me. I am still a slow writer. I slowed often enough to consider my thoughts that ValDocs and I got along well. Neither of us rushed the other.

The ValDocs writing environment was elementary. There were no windows, fonts, or fancy layout features. ValDocs was a text editor, not a word processor.

And the keyboard had a “Return” key.

Computers do not store characters as impressions on paper. Instead, they require a way to store characters digitally. We say computers save things as “ones and zeroes.” They do.

The standard way digital devices store text is to use ASCII. Here is the ASCII code for six characters in “LUMCFS“: 01001100 01010101 01001101 01000011 01000110 01010011.

Literally, it is ones and zeros.

Through the years, I have maintained the practice of writing nearly every first draft in ASCII text. ASCII is the set of ones and zeros behind the characters on your keyboard.

ASCII is the abbreviation for “American Standard Code for Information Interchange.” ASCII was first standardized on October 6, 1960. In 1968 President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered that federal government computers use ASCII.

Teletype machines used ASCII to communicate “quickly” worldwide before the internet and public communication satellites. The standard teletype machine was the Teletype Model 33. It printed ten characters per second.

The first teletypes had a particular difficulty at the end of a line of text. It took twice as long for the machine to prepare for the next line of text as it did to receive one character of text. If the Teletype received a new character during the machine’s movement to the next line, then this new character, which would have been the first at the beginning of the new line, was lost.

Engineers solved this by using two ending characters after each line: a “Carriage Return (CR),” which told the machine to return the print head to the left, and a “Line Feed (LF),” which moved the paper up one line. CF+LF became Teletype’s standard way to end a line of text.

Then in 1981, IBM added new ASCII characters and introduced the “Extended ASCII” codes for use with its first model of the personal computer. The improvement was necessary, and the “enhanced ASCII” is good. (It added accent marks and the copyright symbol.)

Today, after 60+ years of ASCII, one problem remains unresolved.

Endings are complicated because there are too many ways to end a line.

MS-DOS used the combination of a CR with a LF character to terminate lines, consolidated into an EOL “End of Line” character. Windows does the same. UNIX and all the flavors of Linux use a LF character only. Apple’s OS X used a single LF character, but the original Mac operating system used a single CR character for line breaks.

From the typewriter’s Carriage Return bar to a Selectric’s “Return” key, to the Teletype’s CR+LF, to EOL, to a computer keyboard’s “Enter” key, to the various flavors of ASCII used by different operating systems, there is still no standard, single way to do the simplest thing – end a line.

You see, endings are complicated.

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