From time to time, your inner Mavis Beacon might wonder about the seemingly nonsensical arrangement of your keyboard. What’s the story behind QWERTY?
On June 23, 1868, Christopher Latham Sholes, Carlos Glidden, and Samuel Soule filed a patent for “An Improvement In Type-Writing Machines,” the Sholes, Glidden & Soule typewriter. This early typewriter promised a “better way of working type bars, of holding the paper on the carriage … [and] of holding and applying the inking ribbon” (all vital for successful typewriter function). The Sholes, Glidden & Soule typewriter was pre-QWERTY; it featured only six piano keys.
Sholes wasn’t satisfied, however, and kept tinkering with the design and order of the keys, ultimately settling on QWERTY in 1873, when he sold his design to the manufacturer Remington. The curious thing is that no one is completely sure why he landed on QWERTY. Some think he was trying to slow typists down and avoid jams. One design experiment, with two rows of keys, placed common pairings, such as “ST,” next to each other, which caused mechanical problems. The keys stuck together. Another theory posited by researchers from Japan’s Kyoto University suggests that feedback from telegraph operators influenced the design. QWERTY allowed them to more quickly transmit messages in Morse code.
Regardless of its origins, nothing has ever replaced QWERTY, even though Sholes himself spent the rest of his life trying to improve it. By 1890, Remington had produced more than 100,000 QWERTY typewriters, and in 1893, the five largest typewriter manufacturers agreed to adopt QWERTY as a design standard. Legions of QWERTY-trained typists followed, and despite promising alternatives such as the Dvorak keyboard, it’s here to stay—even on your smartphone.
Tech Time Warp is a weekly feature that looks back at interesting moments and milestones in tech history.