The Origin of QWERTY


There are very few things that are surrounded with as much hearsay and rumor as the origins of the QWERTY layout of typewriters and keyboards. The reason behind the QWERTY layout isn’t as simple as ‘so the bars for each letter don’t collide with each other.’ That’s nonsense – it would make far more sense to improve the mechanism before changing the arrangement of the keyboard around.

That’s not the only fallacious argument for the creation of QWERTY. It’s also been called a marketing ploy; Stephen Jay Gould popularized the idea of the QWERTY keyboard being as it is so a salesman could peck out TYPE WRITER on the top row [1]. This also makes little sense. Why would the top row and not the home row be so privileged as to contain all the letters the make up the name of the machine. For that matter, wouldn’t a sales pitch be more impressive if TYPE WRITER were typed with one hand?

This doesn’t mean there’s not a method behind the madness of QWERTY – it’s just not as simple as jammed typewriter mechanisms or appeasing the wishes of salesmen in the 1870s. QWERTY didn’t come out of thin air, though, but folk tale history of this keyboard layout is sadly deficient.

The First Typewriters

TypeWriting
The announcement of a type writing machine in the July 6, 1867 issue of Scientific American

The invention of any keyboard layout begins with the invention of a typewriter, and the excessively arguable inventor of the typewriter is Henry Mill, an English inventor who in 1714 obtained a patent for a device “for impressing or transcribing of letters singly or progressively one after another, so neat and exact as not to be distinguished from print, very useful in settlements and public records”. In other words, a device that would emboss paper with letters. Little other information exists about this device, but if one thing is clear: this device did not mark a piece of paper with ink; carbon paper was not invented until one hundred years later.

The first mention of a machine with keys used to write on a piece of paper with a sheet of carbon paper was in the July 6, 1867 issue of Scientific American. This device, created by John Pratt, used a type plate that moved horizontally and vertically, using a hammer to press one letter at a time into a piece of paper.

The Malling-Hansen Writing Ball, invented in 1865
The Malling-Hansen Writing Ball, invented in 1865

While Pratt’s device used a series of keys arranged in a matrix, it was certainly not what we are accustomed to today. Pratt’s ‘Petrotype’ used seventeen keys to move a metal plate along columns and rows of characters.

One of the first typewriters to use a single key for each character was the Malling-Hansen writing ball, invented in 1865. This device was a dome studded with keys, each one pressing a hammer down on a piece of paper. You could not see the letters as they were typed.

The layout of the keys on the Malling-Hansen writing ball was not random; the most commonly used letters were directly underneath the fastest writing fingers. This was the first typewriter that could produce printed text faster than a human could write by hand.

The Sholes Typewriter

The first commercially successful typewriter was designed by Christopher Lantham Sholes, Carlos Glidden, Samuel W. Soule and James Densmore. The first typewriters designed by Sholes and company would copy an earlier design, the printing telegraph, invented in 1848.

Printing telegraph, c. 1849
Printing telegraph, c. 1849

The printing telegraph used a piano-style keyboard, with each key representing a letter of the alphabet. Sholes’ first keyboard borrowed this idea, producing a keyboard with mechanism not unlike a daisy-wheel printer in 1868. This ‘Type Writing Machine’ was granted patent 7,868 in the United States, however it would not be a commercial success.

Early-keyboard
The keyboard layout of Sholes’ Type Writing Machine, c. 1868
Sholes' 1870 keyboard
Sholes’ 1870 keyboard

The piano layout quickly gave way, and in 1870, Sholes produced a new typewriter with a keyboard that would appear somewhat modern at first glance. This keyboard consisted of capital letters, numbers 2-9, a hyphen, comma, period, and question mark. The most likely layout for Sholes’ 1870 keyboard layout comes from Koichi and Motoko [2], and retains most of the layout from the piano-inspired printing telegraph. Letters are arranged almost alphabetically, although the vowels have moved to the top row.

Sholes would quickly leave the typewriter business, but not before approaching George Harrington and Daniel H. Craig of the American Telegraph Works. Harrington and Craig promised to purchase several typewriters, but not before several improvements were made, including a change of the keyboard arrangement.

The Beginnings of QWERTY

And so the beginning of the development of the QWERTY keyboard began. The design was not dictated by a sales department, or the limitations of the mechanics of the first typewriters. Instead, the design of the QWERTY keyboard was designed for Morse code, with significant regard given to putting the most frequently used letters on the home row.

The Morse code used in 19th century America was not the Morse code we know today. American Morse code is subtly different from the International Morse used today. American Morse encoded the letter ‘Y’ as (·· ··); two dits, a space, and two dits. ‘Z’ is encoded as (··· ·), and was commonly confused with ‘SE’, especially when appearing as the first letters of a word. Therefore, the ‘S’, ‘E’, and ‘Z’ keys should be close together. For the same reason, C – in Morse, (·· ·) – should be placed near both ‘S’, ‘I’, and ‘E’. There is a reason we don’t use American Morse anymore.

The 1872 keyboard arrangement
The 1872 keyboard arrangement

These efforts culminated in the typewriter that would grace the cover of the August 10, 1872 cover of Scientific American. For the first time, something resembling the modern QWERTY layout was available. It wasn’t perfect – ‘M’ wasn’t next to ‘N’, ‘C’ and ‘X’ were swapped. Characters, numerals, and punctuation were all over the keyboard, but this was what suited the telegraphers and became the basis of the first commercially successful typewriters.

Sholes, Densmore and other investors eventually contacted the E. Remington & Sons company in Ilion, New York. While this company is famous today for producing firearms, in the 1800s, the sewing machine was the prize of Remington’s catalog. Densmore and Remington signed a contract for the manufacture of the Remington No. 1 Typewriter in early 1873, and after a visit by Sholes – who sold his share of the patent for $12,000 – decided the brand name for this device should be the ‘Sholes & Glidden Type-Writer.’

Improvements were made to the Remington No. 1 Sholes & Glidden Type-Writer, including moving the ‘O’ and ‘I’ characters nearer the  ‘9’ numeral. Sholes demanded ‘Y’ be moved to the center, next to the ‘T’.

The Remington No. 2 Typewriter, c. 1882
The Remington No. 2 Typewriter, c. 1882

In 1878, Byron Alden Brooks invented the platen-shift mechanism [3] that would allow the Type-Writer to print two characters with the same key. This idea was sold to Remington & Sons, and in 1882, Remington slightly changed the design of the Type-Writer, in part to evade patents and in part to appease a new market – shorthanders. The design of the Remington No. 2 moved the ‘M’ next to the ‘N’, and interchanged ‘C’ with ‘X’. This is the modern QWERTY layout.

The Keyboard We Know Today

The QWERTY keyboard was not designed to keep a typewriter from jamming. The primary users of the first typewriters were Morse operators who could send and receive at least thirty words per minute. When used by stenographers, the typewriter would be used to record more than one hundred words per minute. There is no indication the mechanics of the typewriter improved when moving to this new consumer market, and the idea that QWERTY ‘stops typewriters from jamming’ can easily be rejected. In any event, the character ‘R’ is used more frequently than a period, and if the design of QWERTY were influenced by jammed mechanisms, it wouldn’t make sense to move the period to the side of the keyboard, with ‘R’ moving to the middle.

The QWERTY keyboard was also not designed to be a marketing device. If putting the brand name of the typewriter on the top row of letters was a priority, why not also include the rest of the brand name, including ‘SHOLES’, and ‘GLIDDEN’? The story of QWERTY being a marketing ploy is merely an aside presented by Stephen Jay Gould when discussing evolution, local minima, and the Dvorak keyboard [4].

The truth is, QWERTY was influenced more by the telegraph, specifically American Morse code, and partly by shorthanders who created a new method of typing.

The Sholes Typewriter, as seen on the August 10, 1872 cover of Scientific American
The Sholes Typewriter, as seen on the August 10, 1872 cover of Scientific American


 

[1]  Gould, Stephen Jay. Ch. 4 “The Panda’s Thumb of Technology” in Bully for Brontosaurus. New York: Norton, 1991.

[2] Yasuoka, Koichi and Yasuoka, Motoko, “On the Prehistory of QWERTY”, in ZINBUN  vol. 4, 2011.

[3] Byron Alden Brooks, “Improvement in type-writing machines,” US Patent 202923, Apr 30, 1878.

[4] August Dvorak and William L. Dealey, “Typewriter keyboard,” US Patent 2040248, May 12, 1936.



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