Name something that you use every time you say hi to someone, order food, or call in sick for work, but probably haven’t ever given a second thought to? Any guesses? Chances are if you’re reading this article, you’ve used it to get here. Yes, be it on your phone screen or your tabletop, I’m talking about your keyboard. The keyboard has become more than just an accessory to your computer, it has become one of the essential tools used for human communication.
But why is the keyboard how it is? Has it always looked this way? The History of the QWERTY keyboard is fascinating, involving a sharp-minded newspaper publisher, a market-controlling cartel, and an industry that paved the way for women’s place in the office. But first, let’s put the history of the QWERTY keyboard into context.
A Small History Lesson
The story of the QWERTY keyboard begins in the late 1800s. Though the concept of the typing machine had been around since 1714, the patent for the first practical typewriter was filed in 1868, created by inventor and newspaper publisher Christopher Latham Scholes. This was the first commercially successful typewriter and its design is credited to Scholes along with inventors Carlos Glidden, and Samuel W. Soule.
The arrangement of the keys of this typewriter was unusual for the time. Scholes experimented on a trial-and-error basis for five years until he reached a four-row arrangement. This arrangement was ‘Q’, ‘W’, ‘E’, ‘,’, ‘T’, ‘Y’, the precursor to the modern ‘QWERTY’ arrangement we know today with ‘R’ replaced by the period key. Christopher Scholes is credited as the inventor of the QWERTY layout for this contribution.
But QWERTY wasn’t popular just yet. Rather it was less innovative than other designs of the time, like the Hansen Writing Ball. This was a spherical device with many keys protruding out of it, placing the most used letters of the alphabet closest to the fingertips that could type the fastest. This made for a surprisingly ergonomic and fast typing machine.
E. Remington and Sons
Christopher Sholes and Carlos Gidden eventually left their project with backer James Densmore in 1867. Though Sholes continued to improve his design on his own through the 1870s. In 1873, Densmore approached E. Remington and Sons, one of America’s largest manufacturers of Guns and Sewing machines with his typing machine.
Remington made several adjustments to the machine, including replacing the period key with ‘R’, creating the modern ‘QWERTY’ layout of today. The typewriters were then sold under the name ‘Remington No.1’. The QWERTY layout eventually took off with the release of the later iteration ‘Remington No. 2’, which added more features like upper and lower case letters and a shift key.
Union Typewriter Company
The next part of the story has to do with an old-fashioned cartel. Remington enjoyed a monopoly on the typewriter business for quite a while. But the market soon became too competitive and Remington was starting to lose sales to newer companies with better designs. So in 1893, E. Remington and Sons proposed a merger with four large typewriter manufacturers in an effort to fix prices and control the market. Trusts like these were commonplace at the time. Remington being the biggest company, essentially had full control over the venture.
Remingtons influence meant that the other companies were happy to follow the design of the Remington typewriters, including their QWERTY layout. Undercutting the competition meant the Union typewriters sold like candy. As the typewriters soared in popularity, it essentially cemented QWERTY as the standard for all typewriters and keyboards to follow.
How the QWERTY Typewriter Brought Women into the Office
As the first commercially successful typewriter, the Scholes-Glidden typewriter is one of the most influential inventions in history. Early advertisements of the typewriter depicted Scholes’ daughter typing away on the keys of a typewriter, an image that created an impact that would later give birth to an entire industry.
When Remington acquired the patent for the Scholes-Glidden typewriter, they were huge in the sewing machine business. Their marketing strategy included employing women to demonstrate thor machine at trade shows and hotel lobbies. This also drove home the idea that typewriters were “women-friendly” and had a place in the household. Remington also used their experience in sewing machine making to make their typewriters prettier and more appealing to women.
In the late 1800s, women were already working at factories and different service industries. But the typewriter singlehandedly drove the acceptance of women in the clerical and office workforce. Typing and Stenography were seen to be a more dignified profession with pay sometimes being ten times or more than that of a factory position. Typing schools popped all across the US, teaching women to be efficient typists as well as being “office-appropriate”. Before 1874, the number of women in clerical positions in the United States was 4%, whereas the number increased to 75% by 1900. The typewriter opened the door to the office for the women, a milestone that led to the acceptance of women in the office as equals to men.
Early Computers and QWERTY
The early room-sized computers of the 1940s used traditional typewriters as the primary method of data entry. These typewriters on pedestals are what evolved into computer terminals in the late 1950s and 1960s. In 1655, MIT’s Whirlwind computer became the first computer in the world to allow direct keyboard input, thus setting the standard we still use today.
The true universal recognition of QWERTY as the final word in computer input came in 1976, with the release of the first real personal computers. The most popular computers at the time were the Apple II, the Commodore PET, and the TRS-80, most commonly referred to as the “Trinity”. These home computers closely resemble the modern PCs of today and each featured a QWERTY keyboard as the primary source of input.
The huge popularity of these computers created a completely new segment of consumer electronics. Their success meant QWERTY was here to stay, from the desk PC, to the laptop, to the keyboard-phones of the 2000s, to finally the smartphones of today.
The story of QWERTY has some interesting twists, but that doesn’t mean it’s over. Some keyboard enthusiasts still believe that the adoption of QWERTY was a result of capitalist manipulation and there are even better options out there. Dvorak was patented in 1936 as a faster and more efficient alternative to QWERTY. Many countries in Central Europe use different versions of QWERTY like AZERTY, and QWERTZ. Russia, owing to its completely different alphabet system, uses JCUKEN.
So QWERTY may be the most popular keyboard layout, but by no means is it the final answer. Maybe as we move towards a future where AI and Machine Learning will our computers will guess our inputs for us, QWERTY will just be another curiosity that time forgot.