Scroll Lock and 17th Century Men’s Fashion

New PC users often have questions about the “extra” buttons found on the modern computer keyboard (when compared to the old fashioned typewriter). The F-keys generate a lot of interest along with Print Screen, Scroll Lock, and Pause/Break. While the function keys and Print Screen serve notable purposes, the most common questions about Scroll Lock are “What does it do other than make that light on the keyboard turn on? If it doesn’t do anything, why is it still there?” The next time you field these questions, try the following illustration to explain it.

Have you ever wondered why men’s suit coats often have buttons on the sleeve? These buttons were introduced centuries ago and used (most heavily in the 1600s into the 1700s) on men’s coats and doublets. At the time, it was fashionable to have long, frilly shirt sleeves hanging out underneath. Additionally, the cuffs of the jackets were often elongated, requiring them (and the shirt sleeves) to be buttoned back if the wearer wanted to be able to do anything useful with his hands. (One can see how this would be especially important for soldiers and surgeons, which is perhaps why the buttoning cuff became known as a Surgeon’s Cuff). The lengthy sleeves and cuffs eventually disappeared, but the buttons remained — the legacy of the earlier style.

Unlike window grilles/grids which merely imitate the appearance of their functional counterpart, cuff buttons on today’s suits are still real buttons, not decorations that appear like buttons. They could still serve a true functional purpose if needed. In fact, Lois Fenton indicates that high-end suits often do make use of these buttons. But for most suits, those buttons just sit there, idle. They’re legacy buttons.

Similarly, Scroll Lock is a legacy button. It is one of  a couple keys on the keyboard that once served a purpose but don’t anymore because their functions have, like the evolution of the cuff button, become obsolete over time. The button was simply never removed. It’s not a “dummy” button. It is still a functional button but simply doesn’t have a modern purpose. Like the suit buttons, if someone invented a new use for it, there would be nothing preventing it from being useful once again.

In fact, just recently I discovered Scroll Lock getting a new lease on life. I have an electronic KVM switch that allows me to use one keyboard and mouse for two computers. By pushing a certain key combination on my keyboard, the switch toggles my keyboard and mouse connection between my two computers. Guess which key the manufacturer employed to activate this special “toggle” command? Scroll Lock. And why not? It’s there, functional, and not being used for anything else. Of course, it still bears the name “Scroll Lock,” not “Switch keyboard & mouse,” so perhaps an idea (which might help newer users) for the manufacturer to consider is including a replacement key, like the gag panic button I often see advertised. For a few cents of plastic, it would be a nice touch.

I hope you find the above analogy useful in explaining the Scroll Lock legacy to newer users. Since analogies have proven so effective for teaching concepts to newer users, it is stories like these that I’ll be incorporating throughout my forthcoming book. Stay tuned for more posts on teaching technology concepts through analogies.

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