It was in June of 1868, that the typewriter was patented by Christopher Latham Sholes. It only had capital letters and it took up as much room as a large table. Typewriters were slow sellers at first, but Mark Twain bought one almost as soon as they came out, and in 1883 Twain sent the manuscript of his book Life on the Mississippi to his publisher in typed form, the first author ever to do so.
Sholes’ machine was not the first typewriter. It wasn’t even the first typewriter to receive a patent. But it was the first typewriter to have actual practical value for the individual, so it became the first machine to be mass-produced. After receiving his patent, Sholes licensed it to Remington & Sons. The first commercial typewriter, the Remington Model 1, hit the shelves in 1873.
The earliest typewriter keyboard resembled a piano and was built with an alphabetical arrangement of 28 keys. It was assumed that this would be the most efficient arrangement. Anyone who used the typewriter would know where to find each letter without having to look for it and typing speed would be increased.
So why did the typewriter switch to the qwerty layout that we all use today? There are two very different theories about this. One story goes that with the old alphabetical typewriter, the keys tended to get stuck whenever a user typed a succession of letters whose type bars were near each other. So Sholes redesigned the arrangement to separate the most common sequences of letters like “th” or “he”. In theory then, the QWERTY system should maximize the separation of common letter pairings. But the idea doesn’t quite hold when you consider that “er” is the fourth most common letter pairing in the English language.
The other story says that the QWERTY system emerged as a result of how the first typewriters were being used. Early adopters and beta-testers included telegraph operators who needed to quickly transcribe messages. However, the operators found the alphabetical arrangement to be confusing and inefficient for translating morse code. This theory suggests that the typewriter keyboard evolved over several years as a direct result of input provided by these telegraph operators.
Whatever the reason for its creation, the qwerty keyboard was quickly accepted. Sholes took out a patent for the qwerty layout in 1878. When the first generation of computer keyboards emerged, there was no longer any technical reason to use the qwerty layout…computers don’t get jammed. But against this was the fact that millions of people had learned to type on QWERTY keyboards and the layout was familiar.
So the QWERTY stayed and we continue to use it not just in computers, but even on tablets and smart phones…a 136 years after it was created.