Trivia Tuesday: Origins of the scroll lock

I thought I would start up a little section here on Neowin, where every Tuesday I will post some sort of (hopefully) interesting piece of tech trivia or fact. Check back here every week and hopefully you will learn something new about the technology world

Scroll lock: it is without a doubt the most useless key on a keyboard, but surely at one point in the life of the keyboard the key was used for something. Surely nobody would be stupid enough to include a key that nothing actually uses.

Well at some point way back in the early 80s, the scroll lock key was invented for use on computers, unlike some keys pulled straight from a typewriter like caps lock and shift. It first appeared on the IBM PC/XT’s keyboard in 1983, which only had 83-keys, and bizarrely still remains on most current 104+ key keyboards despite having essentially no use anymore.

Originally the key did actually have a use. Back before many programs included scroll bars in their user interfaces, or people had scroll wheels on their mice, the scroll lock would enable the arrow keys to scroll text/content displayed on the screen. The scroll lock key was also used to prevent some software from automatically scrolling as new text appeared, particularly in terminals to make it easier to read the output.

Nowadays the scroll lock essentially does nothing. One notable program that still makes use of the key is Microsoft Excel: normally when you use the arrow keys it scrolls and changes the selected cell, but pressing the scroll lock keeps the same cell selected and instead just allows the arrow keys to scroll. If you want to see it in action, just launch Excel if you have it installed and you’ll see what I mean.

So there you go. Once upon a time the scroll lock had a practical use to control the scrolling behaviour of programs and the keyboard, but in modern computing times it only has use in very few applications. As it isn’t used all that often, it makes it a fantastic key to use for macros as it won’t disrupt normal functionality. Alternatively you can have a few brief moments of fun turning the keyboard light on and off, before leaving the scroll lock key to die alone once more.

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