History of the QWERTY keyboard

Old typewriter keyboard

The development of typewriting and the QWERTY keyboard

The history of the QWERTY keyboard as we use it today is fascinating. QWERTY is a keyboard layout for Latin script used to write English. The name comes from the order of the first six keys on the top left letter row of the keyboard (Q W E R T Y). The QWERTY arrangement has been with us for over 140 years and looks set to endure for many years to come.

Gutenberg Printing Press

Books are produced en masse

The use of movable metal type for printing was pioneered in Germany around 1440 by Joseph Gutenberg. He was a blacksmith, goldsmith, printer and publisher who brought elements from all these disciplines together to create individual pieces of type that could be arranged to print any text. The technology worked brilliantly and enabled the printing of over 20 million books by 1500. In the century from 1500 to 1600 over 200 million books were produced. This mass production of books greatly reduced the cost of books and made them accessible to the whole community.

However, Gutenberg printing presses were not able to replace hand writing for one-off documents. The race was on to perfect a writing machine that could produce unique documents and could be easily operated.

Early Model Scoles And Glidden Typewriter,

Typing machines emerge

The first record of a typing machine was to an English inventor Henry Mill but little is known of his machine and none survive. By the late 1800s many inventors began to experiment with ways of typing letters mechanically. At the time, there were many ingenious machines created.

In 1867 the inventor Christophe Sholes, together with Samuel W. Soule and mechanic Charles S. Glidden, produced their first “Type Writing” machine. It worked by striking a paper with a series of mechanical arms each with individual letters mounted on the end. It was originally designed to print page numbers on books. The keys were arranged in two rows. The device had some fundamental flaws, the most serious being the tendency for the mechanical arms that typed the letters to jam.

In 1873 Scholes and his associates produced a new model of their typewriter that arranged the keys in four rows. The most commonly typed keys were separated from each other thus decreasing the mechanical jamming problem. The machine was known as the Sholes and Glidden typewriter. This was a major milestone in the history of the QWERTY Keyboard. The machine was produced under licence in 1875 by the Illinois (New York) based arms manufacturer, Remington and Sons. The machine was named the Remington No 1 and was a commercial failure as it did not sell in large numbers. The type was all in upper case.  The keys were arranged as follows:

2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 – ,
Q W E . T Y I U O P
A X & C V B N ? ; R

Typewriter, vintage illustration.

QWERTY is born – history is made

After receiving feedback the Remington company updated the machine to create the Remington No 2. The new machine was released in 1877 and was hugely successful. It was the first to use the QWERTY keyboard layout as we know it today and could type upper and lower case letters moving between the two by use of a “Shift” key. The four rows of letters were arranged as follows:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 – =
Q W E R T Y U I O P [ ]
A S D F G H J K L ; ‘
Z X C V B N M , . /

And so was born the modern typewriter and QWERTY. It remains in use unaltered in the arrangement of the letters and numbers and the use of the “Shift” key to change cases. Over the years there have been thousands of different models of typewriters produced by a host of manufacturers, all of them copying the same original design.

An,Old,Electric,TypewriterTypewriters go electronic

The next radical development in the historical development of QWERTY happened in 1978 with the invention of the electronic typewriter. This machine used an electronic “memory” capable of storing text and then automatically typing it on demand. It allowed the rapid reproduction of commonly typed passages and snippits of information. Instead of the letters being mounted on moveable arms they were located on a rotatable ball that struck the paper. The technology was jointly developed by the Olivetti Company in Italy and the Casio Company in Japan.

QWERTY is with us to stay

The QWERTY standard remains in use today on electronic keyboards and tablet computers. The ongoing use of this arrangement is due to the inertia inherent in the massive user base world-wide and the difficulty of learning a layout that differs from the currently entrenched standard. Alternative keyboard arrangements have been tried over the years but they have not provided significant advantages over the widely adopted QWERTY standard. They have all failed to gain a sufficient user base to challenge QWERTY. Meanwhile, more and more computers and mobile devices are produced every year and most use the QWERTY layout for type written input. Voice recognition may change this in coming years but this can only work where there is relative quiet and so can never fully replace typed input from the QWERTY keyboard.


The development of touch typing and the typing pool

From the very beginning skilled operators were required to operate the “Type Writing” machines and many offices that had previously been the domain of men, hired women as typists. The machines were designed to allow rapid operation and to achieve this required the use of all 10 fingers. Today, we still use the QWERTY keyboard layout and typing is a vital skill required by all.

Lady typing in yellow light

Photo by eelke dekker CC Logo

Touch typing is a vital skill for today’s world

The history of the QWERTY keyboard tells us that those who have not mastered touch typing are at a lifelong disadvantage. Hunting and pecking was never acceptable for use on an original typewriter. Those who “hut & peck” or use just a couple of fingers could lose thousands of hours of productivity because they type slowly. It is vitally important that children today master the 21st century skill that had its genesis way back in the 19th century. Typing Tournament helps the current generation develop the vital skill of touch typing.

FREE Typing Tips Poster: Typing Timeline

Free Typing Tip Poster - Typing timeline

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