The QWERTY Keyboard

The idea for the typewriter had been around since the early 1700s, but people wondered, “Why would we want such a thing when we have perfectly good quill pens?”

In the years after the U.S. Civil War, though, a Milwaukee newspaper editor and printer named Christopher L. Sholes persisted, producing a working model in 1867.  “Working” may be giving it too much credit; the earliest typing machine devised by Sholes and a couple of his friends was not exactly a marvel of efficiency.  Specifically, the keys kept getting stuck.

The design, for those too young to remember typewriters, was a sort of internal basket of metal arms.  When a letter button was pushed, a lever was engaged, causing the metal arm with the corresponding letter to strike the page.  The problem was that those arms had an unfortunate tendency to snag each other.

It occurred to Sholes and one of his financial backers that a modification to the keyboard might solve that.  Instead of the alphabetical rows of characters Sholes’ first machine had (A-M on the bottom row, N-Z on top), the most-used letters would be separated from each other to avoid collisions.  Actually, it wasn’t just the most-used letters he isolated — it was the letter pairs that occur most frequently in the English language.

It so happened that Sholes’ investment partner had a brother named Amos Densmore who studied letter-pair frequency.  Back then, people had fascinating hobbies, like whittling and studying letter pairs.

OK,  just off the top of your head, since you probably haven’t devoted serious study to letter pairs, what do you think would come up often?  Right — TH is the most common pair, and there’s HE, AN, RE, ST… well, we could go on for hours like that, but the point is that Christopher Sholes took these into consideration and adjusted his keyboard accordingly:  “Let’s see… if we put the E up here and H over here…”

The manufacturing rights for the Sholes & Glidden Type-Writer were sold to E. Remington & Sons in 1873.  (Demand for Remington’s main product — rifles — had waned when the Civil War ended, so they were looking for other stuff to manufacture.)  Mechanics at Remington tinkered with the letter arrangement a little more, but by 1878 the QWERTY keyboard, known for the first six letters on the top row, had become the standard.

There were other typing machines and other keyboard arrangements that came along, but the Remington No. 2 was the most popular.  This was due in part to people like Mrs. L.V. Longley of Cincinnati, who used it to teach stenographers to use all their fingers, not just hunt and peck.   Then there was a guy named Frank McGurrin, who won a widely publicized speed-typing contest in 1888 on a Remington with a QWERTY keyboard.

That letter arrangement — and having the keys set on the diagonal, rather than straight in line — has been the standard for keyboards ever since.  So now you know why the mechanical arms in our laptops and iPads don’t get all tangled up!

3 responses to “The QWERTY Keyboard

  1. I thought sure with the development of personal computers developers would switch to more efficient layouts or at least give consumers a choice. Even hunt ‘n peckers would have benefitted from an alphabetical layout.

    • I think there were a couple of attempts to change keyboard layouts on texting devices, but old habits die hard. It’s almost like trying to change the order of letters in the alphabet — wouldn’t it make more sense to have the first be the most used (E, I believe) and the last be the least used?

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