Every time that we sit down in front of a computer screen, we are in front of one of the most emblematic tools of modern life. Not the screen, but rather the Qwerty keyboard — named after the first six letters in the top row of keys — which is the standard keyboard layout for any Latin alphabet typewriter. The Qwerty keyboard is one of the most important, if least regarded, inventions in history; the medium for millions of communications over a period of almost 150 years.
The first typewriters appeared in the early 19th century. They were primitive, with keys in alphabetical order. A practical typewriter was introduced in 1868 in the US, patented by the amateur inventor and newspaper publisher Christopher Latham Sholes, also using alphabetical order. However, when typists writing at speed used commonly-used letters in sequence, often letters placed beside each other, the mechanically-operated keys regularly jammed.
History is unclear on what happened next. One version is that Sholes changed the keyboard design, spacing out the most-used keys in order to slow the typists down and prevent the keys from jamming. There is an alternate theory that Sholes received letter-ordering input from telegraph operators (an important medium in those days), who found the alphabetical layout confusing for morse code.
In 1873, Sholes signed a contract with the gun-making company Remington to manufacture keyboards. He patented a new, definitively-Qwerty keyboard in 1878. Three years later, Remington and the other four largest typewriter manufacturers merged to form just one company — all using the Qwerty keyboard. The company also offered touch-typing classes to the public, using machines with the Qwerty keyboard. Qwerty dominated the market.
However, there were alternatives … but they all failed. The most famous is the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard, patented in 1932, which put the most common letters in the ‘home row’ (the middle row). The keyboard market, however, has refused to change.
Keys to Success
There are many reasons for this. One is simply that Qwerty is what we are all accustomed to. There is also little proof that other systems produce faster typing speeds. And the Qwerty keyboard is home to millions of people around the world.
Almost 150 years old, the Qwerty keyboard shows no signs of losing popularity. However, change could be coming. Computing has become more mobile, touchable and wearable. Some experts think that we are close to a revolutionary change, whereby we will use voice input or even messages sent directly from our brains to connect with computers or smartphones, and keyboards and touch screens will be a thing of the past.