A case from history

In the world of computing, it is safe to say the case is we use many terms that were brand new in the twentieth century.

Printer at Beamish Museum Print Shop

In the print shop at Beamish Museum

Errors caused by ‘bugs’ literally were that. Grasshoppers or crickets would get into the workings of early mainframe computers and would short out circuits causing the program to crash.

A mouse was a rodent until hijacked by us geeks as the name for a pointing and basic (not to be confused with BASIC) command entry device.

Needless to say, it should come as no surprise that larger versions of the mouse device, often provided by workstation ergonomic specialists, are now being referred to as ‘rats’.

But other terms go back a lot further and have been acquired from a much older craft.

Have you ever wondered why this, ‘A’, is referred to as an ‘uppercase A’? Or this, ‘a’, would be called a lowercase ‘a’?

A case of history

It all goes back hundreds of years within the printing industry.



Type on a Setting Stick by Wilhei (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

In the early days of the printed word, the mirror image of letters would be cut out of metal strips. To build up words individual letters needed to be placed together and a tool called a ‘Setting Stick’ would be used to hold the letters whilst the typesetter built up the words. Blank spacers would be put between the words to build up the sentences.

Once a block of text had been set, it would be put into a frame, in order for a whole page to be built up and put into the printing press.

Once the print job had been completed, the frame of text would need to be taken apart again and the individual letters put back into their pigeon holes in the store. So the printer needed a collection of pigeon holes to store not only letters but also numbers, punctuation marks, the blank spacers and any other symbols or patterns that would be used.

All these pigeon holes were held together in a large wooden box and this box was known as a type case.

Cases of type

Cases of type

Each case would have hundreds of pieces of metal in them and the typesetters needed to be able to assemble type in the quickest possible time. That meant the individual pieces of metal that needed to be used had to be kept in some sort of order in the type case.

We only tend to use capital letters (uppercase) at the start of a sentence or with names, yet small letters (lowercase) are used substantially more throughout the text. So it made sense to have the small letters stored in a type case closer to the typesetter.

The capital letters (uppercase) would then be stored in a type case within reach, often propped above the other type case holding the small letters. Due to their respective positions, they became known as ‘the uppercase’ for capital letters, and the ‘lower case’ for small letters.

Now in the days of computing, the only difference between uppercase and lowercase characters is the use of the shift key on the keyboard, however the old printing name lives on.


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