Keyboards are the unsung heroes of our era. Billions of people depend on these input devices to get their work done. You need a keyboard to type that cringe-inducing status on Facebook, suck up to a virtue signaling celebrity on Twitter, or post angry comments on my article. Yet, the majority of us do not know how we ended up with the current most widely accepted QWERTY layout. More importantly, what system did people use before that? Let’s find that out before you Ctrl + W this tab.
The Early 1800s
Roots of modern keyboards go back to the mechanical typewriters. And while researching this topic I realized that it is tricky to zero in on a single person who invented the typewriter. Michael H Adler, who studied the history of typewriters, wrote in his book The Writing Machine, “Close to a hundred inventors were doomed to build writing machines before one of them ‘caught on’. Almost all of these machines worked badly, in varying degree of badness” So, we can’t really be sure about who freed us from the pen and paper. It is said that the early typewriters were seen as aid devices to help blind people write. Most of the early stories of mechanized personal writing machines come from Italy. According to some sources, Agostino Fantoni invented the typewriter in 1802 to help his sister Carolina Fantoni, She was struggling to pen letters due to her fading vision. In an alternate version, Pellegrino Turri, known for giving us carbon paper, invented the typewriter to help Carolina. For the next few decades, inventors from Europe and the USA worked towards making such a machine feasible on a large scale.
Hansen Writing Ball 1865
The first commercially available typewriter was the Writing Ball invented by Rasmus Malling-Hansen. This Danish product was a highly sought-after machine in Europe. Reports are suggesting that these typewriters were seen in many offices in the UK. It had a dome-shaped cap with 52 keys, each corresponding a character or symbol connected at the bottom. What’s more interesting is that Hansen’s Writing Ball did not require you to manually slide the carriage to the right. The curved frame that held the paper was moved using an electromagnet. That’s quite impressive for its time. And going by the image embedded below, the Writing Ball is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful machines ever made.
Hansen made several refinements to the original design over the next few years. In the 70s, Hansen showcased the Writing Ball at the world exhibitions in Vienna and Paris. Where it is believed to have won the best product award. The Writing Ball was used by many world-famous personalities including Mark Twain and Friedrich Nietzsche. There’s no information on this typewriter’s layout, but you can tell from the images that it is definitely not QWERTY.
Sholes & Glidden Prototypes – 1868
In the late 60s, American inventors Sholes, Soule, Densmore, and Glidden began working on a typewriter. They were granted the first patent in 1868. Their earlier typewriter concepts had an alphabetical arrangement of keys.
Since everyone was familiar with the alphabetical order, there was no learning curve. Yet, we know it for sure that Sholes redesigned the keyboard. Many sources including The New Yorker and How Stuff Works claim that it was due to the mechanical failings of their early designs. If a user quickly typed adjacent letters, their typebars would jam after striking letters on the paper. There’s an elaborate story explaining how Sholes tasked his son-in-law to make a list of most common two-letter sequences. He then, redesigned the keyboard to avoid pairings such as ‘th’, ‘hi’, and ‘no’. However, this theory is rejected by the Smithsonian research complex. Citing the Kyoto University’s research paper, it claims that the layout change was a result of the feedback from early adopters who were mostly telegraph operators. At this point, Sholes had finalized a QWE.TY button arrangement. And no, it is not a typo.
First QWERTY Typewriter – 1874
To offload the manufacturing responsibilities, these inventors partnered with arms manufacturer E. Remington and Sons. After the end of civil war, Remington was looking to diversify its portfolio and was already making sewing machine tables. This should explain why Sholes & Glidden typewriter model Remington No. 1 looked like this.
It is said that before going into production, Remington made last minute changes to the keyboard most notably swapping ‘.’ with ‘R’. The product took some time to take off mostly due to its $125 price tag, which was the average annual income in the US. However, thanks to the lack of competition, Sholes & Glidden typewriter moved thousands of units. The company also kept on refining its products. Take, for instance, its more compact Remington No. 2.
Since early workforce was trained for QWERTY typewriters, other brands had no option but to follow Sholes & Glidden’s layout. Something that has barely changed after 150 years. Surprisingly, Sholes himself wasn’t a big fan of QWERTY layout later in his life. In 1889, he proposed this XPMCH layout to replace the QWERTY arrangement. You can tell from looking at your existing keyboard that this concept never took off. For better or worse, people were too invested in the existing design to experiment.