The Origin of the QWERTY Keyboard
And no it was not designed to slow up typing
It makes no sense. It is awkward, inefficient and confusing. We've been saying that for 124 years. But there it remains. Those keys made their first appearance on a rickety, clumsy device marketed as the "Type-Writer" in 1872. Today the keyboard is a universal fixture even on the most advanced, sophisticated computers and word processors electronic technology can produce.
How could we get stuck with this type of keyboard?
In this case, the answer lies in the old proverb about the early bird catching the worm. As far as the typewriter keyboard is concerned, being first was the whole ball game.
1878 Typewriter Patent Drawing, featuring the QWERTY Keyboard. Years after its introduction, it was considered important enough to include in a patent. .
The name "QWERTY" for our typewriter keyboard comes from the first six letters in the top alphabet row (the one just below the numbers). It is also called the "Universal" keyboard for rather obvious reasons. It was the work of inventor C. L. Sholes, who put together the prototypes of the first commercial typewriter in a Milwaukee machine shop back in the 1860's.
For years, popular writers have accused Sholes of deliberately arranging his keyboard to slow down fast typists who would otherwise jam up his sluggish machine. In fact, his motives were just the opposite.
When Sholes built his first model in 1868, the keys were arranged alphabetically in two rows. At the time, Milwaukee was a backwoods town. The crude machine shop tools available there could hardly produce a finely-honed instrument that worked with precision. Yes, the first typewriter was sluggish. Yes, it did clash and jam when someone tried to type with it. But Sholes was able to figure out a way around the problem simply by rearranging the letters. Looking inside his early machine, we can see how he did it.
The first typewriter had its letters on the end of rods called "typebars." The typebars hung in a circle. The roller which held the paper sat over this circle, and when a key was pressed, a typebar would swing up to hit the paper from underneath. If two typebars were near each other in the circle, they would tend to clash into each other when typed in succession. So, Sholes figured he had to take the most common letter pairs such as "TH" and make sure their typebars hung at safe distances.
He did this using a study of letter-pair frequency prepared by educator Amos Densmore, brother of James Densmore, who was Sholes' chief financial backer. The QWERTY keyboard itself was determined by the existing mechanical linkages of the typebars inside the machine to the keys on the outside. Sholes' solution did not eliminate the problem completely, but it was greatly reduced.
The keyboard arrangement was considered important enough to be included on Sholes' patent granted in 1878 (see drawing), some years after the machine was into production. QWERTY's effect, by reducing those annoying clashes, was to speed up typing rather than slow it down.
Sholes and Densmore went to Remington, the arms manufacturer, to have their machines mass-produced. In 1874, the first Type-Writer appeared on the market. No contemporary account complains about the illogical keyboard. In fact, few contemporary accounts even mention the machine at all. At its debut, it was largely ignored.
Sholes & Glidden Type Writer, 1874. Treadle model.
The original Type Writer was heavily decorated with colorful decals and gold paint. A foot treadle was provided for the carriage return. If you think it all looks a lot like an old sewing machine, you're right. No coincidence, though. William Jenne, the Remington engineer who set up the typewriter factory had been transferred from Remington's sewing machine division.
A table model (above) was also offered with a handle at the side instead of the foot pedal. Among the first users was Mark Twain, who fiddled around with it before putting it aside. Yes, Twain did become the first person to submit a novel in typed form to the publisher, but that wasn't until much later ("Life on the Mississippi,"1883), and he didn't type it himself... it was a typed copy of his handwritten manuscript. Twain fans, by the way, might cite his autobiography, which says "Tom Sawyer" was his first book submitted in typescript. Not so. The old fella remembered it wrong, and careful research by Twain historians has proven otherwise.
The first machines typed only capital letters. The new Remington No. 2 offered both upper and lower case by adding the familiar shift key. It is called a shift because it actually caused the carriage to shift in position for printing either of two letters on each typebar. Modern electronic machines no longer shift mechanically when the shift key is pressed, but its name remains the same.
Does anyone know the alternative keyboard design that was supposed to make it easier to type? Whatever happened to this different keyboard layout? Write a "Letter to the Editor" if you know.
I spent a lot of time looking for a clean joke with “typewriters” in it. Not easy to find a joke about this. As a matter of fact it’s not easy to find a manual typewriter. If you have any stories or jokes you would like to add to this article, just click on the “Letter to the Editor” and add your comments.
It's a fine sunny day in the forest, and a rabbit is sitting outside his burrow, tippy-tapping on his typewriter. Along comes a fox, out for a walk.
Fox : "What are you working on?"
Rabbit : "My thesis."
Fox : "Hmm. What is it about?"
Rabbit : "Oh, I'm writing about how rabbits eat foxes."
Fox : "That's ridiculous! Any fool knows that rabbits don't eat foxes!"
Rabbit : "Come with me and I'll show you!"
They both disappear into the rabbit's burrow. After a few minutes the rabbit returns to his typewriter and resumes typing. Soon a wolf comes along and stops to watch the hardworking rabbit.
Wolf : " What's that you are writing?"
Rabbit : " I'm doing a thesis on how rabbits eat wolves."
Wolf : " You don't expect to get such rubbish published, do you?"
Rabbit : " No problem. Do you want to see why?"
The rabbit and the wolf go into the burrow, and again the rabbit returns by himself, after a few minutes, and goes back to typing.
Finally a bear comes along and asks, "What are you doing?
Rabbit : " I'm doing a thesis on how rabbits eat bears."
Bear : "Well that's absurd!
Rabbit : "Come into my home and I'll show you"
As they enter the burrow, the rabbit introduces the bear to the lion.
Moral: Rabbits can eat anything they want if they have a powerful enough friend. (This is a good example of the power of politics.)
If you would like to learn more about technology that can make you more powerful, please contact Kintronics at 1-800-431-1658 or 914-347-2530 (outside the USA), or just send us an email.
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