The Quirky QWERTY


New Scientist

A typewriter utilizing the QWERTY keyboard.

Amelia McCrory, Columnist

As many people use the invention of the keyboard daily, numerous questions on the origin of the format have been composed. What benefits has the QWERTY keyboard brought to the technology world and where will it bring us next?

According to New Scientist, the invention of the keyboard began in a small Milwaukee workshop in the year 1866. The men behind this innovation were Christopher Latham Sholes and Carlos Glidden, who merged their knowledge and philosophies. Prior to the friendship, Sholes worked on a product which numbered pages of books, as Glidden read Type-writing Machine; an informative article by Scientific American. The article was crucial to Glidden’s understanding of the invention. Together, this inspired the two to create a machine which printed thoughts twice as fast as writing them. 

One year later, they had three patents attached to their invention. But the prototype looked fairly similar to a piano, disappointing many. The keyboard had an ivory or ebony key for each letter, which jammed easily. An optimistic investor named James Densmore quickly bought a quarter share of the patents, without viewing the product in-person. This led to the disappointment of Densmore, causing him to name the product ‘useless.’ On the alternative side, Sholes managed to convince Densmore to stay because of the product’s potential. In 1872, the three redesigned the product changing the keys to a circular shape. This transformation caused Shores to file for an additional patent, which did not specify the placement of the lettered keys.

Spontaneously, the QWERTY appeared when Scientific American published a significant article about the “‘Sholes’ Typewriter.” This piece provided an image of the engraved keys spelling out QWERTY. The article not only provided branding, but a life-changing deal. After Densmore displayed the keyboard to the engineers of  E. Remington & Sons, they signed a contract leading to the production of the QWERTUIOPY keyboard. This made Sholes unhappy, causing the reconfiguration separating the Y with T and U. After this instance, in 1874, Remington put the keyboard on the market, eventually selling 100,000.

Even though the history of the QWERTY has been explained, we still wonder about the reason behind the letter rearrangement. The most common explanation shares that the highly used letters were spread apart to slow the typing speed. This prevented keys from becoming jammed, especially on a typewriter. However, this was proven wrong due to the common pairings of  T/H and E/R being placed close together. To continue, another theory suggests that the arrangement was designed to be able to spell “TYPEWRITER QUOTE” with the top row.

A century after the Shole’s Typewriter was constructed,  historian Jan Noyes of Loughborough University concludes, “there appears … to be no obvious reason for the placement of letters in the QWERTY layout.” As the 1930s approached, many had concluded that the QWERTY keyboard was more beneficial when typing using the ‘hunt and peck method.’ Competition then arose when August Dvorak created the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard, which is now utilized when implementing the Latin Alphabet.

Although the benefits of the QWERTY keyboard arrangement are up for debate, the significance of it to the development of computers is clear.