Friday, December 16, 2016


Christopher Sholes introduced the Qwerty keyboard on one of his early typewriters, which was patented in 1873. This device and it's patents were sold to the Remington company. No matter what you believe about the origin of QWERTY, this sale to a dominant corporation is how it became a standard. Most people have heard the tale that it was designed to slow down typists. This claim is highly apocryphal.

The first keyboards were in alphabetical order.  This led to a mechanical problem. Many commonly used  letters, that were commonly used in sequence were close together. This led to jamming. Typing the "A" then the "B" because you were sending a letter to ABC, could jam. So by design QWERTY separated these letters more. Vowels are more spread out. But it wasn't perfect. Letters "E" and "R" are awful close together.. so is "E" and "R" not that I mention it, and "I" and "O."  It's enough to cast doubt on even that popular theory.  Another theory states that QWERTY arranged all the letters needed to type the word ‘typewriter’ in one row to aid typewriter salesmen. Clever but also apocryphal.

My favorite theory comes from Koichi Yasuoka and Motoko Yasuoka, two researchers at Japan’s Kyoto University. You can read some of their research here. Back in 2011 they pointed out that there were no professional typists back in 1873. The first patent for a ballpoint pen wasn't issued until 1888, to John Loud. (graphite pencil date back as early as 1500.)  So when Sholes was shuffling the keys around he may have had a specific customer in mind: telegraph operators.
The fi rst customer for Sholes was Edward Payson Porter, the principal of Porter's Telegraph College, in Chicago, IL. At the time it had 28 keys arranged in alphabetical order laid out much like piano keys. Then in September, 1870, Sholes visited New York to meet George Harrington and Daniel Hutchins Craig of the American Telegraph Works. They promised to buy a number of typewriters but required some specific improvements. The "S" key was moved in between Z and E because of the ambiguity of American Morse code. The S key was three dots, and the E a dash, the Z three dots and a dash. The issue was specific to their trade. By 1873 the new Sholes typewriter had 43 keys and was also being used by Western Union Telegraph Co.

The evolution from alphabetical order was a progression and accidentally grew into QWERTY among the different requirements.In 1873 they demoed their now more mature typewriter design to Remington. The current model then was called a Sholes & Glidden Type-Writer. It now even had a special key with three vertical dots indicating a paragraph separator in Western Union code. In 1873 three recent models began QWERTU, QWL-TY and QWERTY.  In December 28, 1874 they began to accumulate patents, the drawing of the keyboard read QWERTY.  Remington bought out Sholes. In 1874 the Remington Type-Writer No. 2 began with the keys QWERTY.  Changes continued to be made, but the basics had been laid out.

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