What is the Qwerty Keyboard?

atkins-bookshelf-triviaJohannes Gutenberg (1395-1468) invented mechanical moveable type printing in 1439 (his magnum opus was the Biblia Sacra, the 42-line bible, published in 1455), but it took another 428 years for someone to improve upon it, or more precisely, create a sort of personal printing press — the typewriter. Christopher Sholes, a newspaper editor and printer, teamed up with two friends, Carlos Glidden and Samuel Soule, to develop the first working “type-writer” in 1867. To a 21st century school-aged child, the Sholes and Glidden Type-writer might look like some torture device; but the basic mechanics of the type-writer worked very well for hundreds of years. When a key was pressed, a hammer with an individual character stamped on it (known as type bars) would strike an inked ribbon (wound from one spool to another) against a piece of paper that rested on a platen. The original typewriter had two rows, arranged in a logical order. The first row had the odd numbers and letters N to Z; the second row had even numbers and letters A to M.

When looking at a keyboard many people ask: “why are keyboards arranged the way they are?” QUIRKY would be a better name than QWERTY. It might seem like someone reached into a bag of Scrabble tiles and picked out a completely random order, or perhaps Sholes and his friends had too many puffs of the peace pipe. The reason is directly related to the mechanical structure of the machine. The row of keys had to be offset because each type bar had to be separated from its neighboring type bars. Sholes had to re-arrange the keys because commonly used letters on neighboring type-bars kept jamming. In order to help a typist type faster, the location of the keys, now on four rows instead of two, was revised based on helpful feedback from telegraph operators (who had a great deal of experience in “typing” messages) and lots of trial and error.

In 1873,  Sholes and his partners sold their invention to sewing machine (and later, firearms) manufacturers E. Remington and Sons for $12,000. Remington’s engineers fine-tuned the keyboard, arriving at the QWERTY keyboard layout, named after the six letters (q, w, e, r, t, and y) located in the top left row. Sholes’s original home row (d, f, g h , j, k, and l) remained unchanged from its early inception. The Remington No. 2 was introduced in 1878, featuring a shift key that allowed the typing of upper and lowercase letters (this term is a vestige of Gutenberg’s printing press, where individual type blocks were stored in shallow wooden drawers, called cases; capital letters were typically stored in an upper case, and the minuscules were stored in the lower case).

Renowned American author Mark Twain bought one of the early Remington typewriters and is said to have submitted the first typed manuscript to a publisher.

An alternate keyboard design, Dvorak Simplified Keyboard (or Dvorak Keyboard), was introduced in 1936 by August Dvorak and William Dealey. The Dvorak keyboard is supposed to be an improvement over the QWERTY by rearranging the letters so that the typist’s fingers have to travel less distance, and reduce the number of awkward finger motions for common letter combinations. A study completed in 1956 indicated that there was little difference in typing speeds between QWERTY and Dvorak typists.

Read related post: the Fastest Texter in America

For further reading: Patents: Ingenious Inventions by Ben Ikenson, BDL (2004)

Join the conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.