Monday, May 6, 2013

Fact of Fiction? The Legend of the QWERTY Keyboard

Sholes qwerty patent 
U.S. Patent No. 207,559. The first appearance of the QWERTY keyboard. (image: Google patents).

What came first: the typist or the keyboard? The answer depends on the keyboard. A recent article in Smithsonian’s news blog, Smart News, described an innovative new keyboard system that proposes a more efficient alternative to the ubiquitous “universal” keyboard best known as QWERTY – named for the first six letters in the top row of keys. The new keyboard, known as KALQ, is designed specifically for thumb-typing on today’s smart phones and tablets. It’s an interesting and by all accounts commercially viable design that got me thinking about the rationale behind the QWERTY keyboard. Unlike KALQ, it couldn’t have been designed to accommodate a specific typing technique because, well, the idea of typing –touch typing, at least– hadn’t been invented yet. It turns out that there is a lot of myth and misinformation surrounding the development of QWERTY, but these various theories all seem to agree that the QWERTY layout was developed along with, and inextricably linked to, early typewriters.

In the 1860s, a politician, printer, newspaper man, and amateur inventor in Milwaukee by the name of Christopher Latham Sholes spent his free time developing various machines to make his businesses more efficient. One such invention was an early typewriter, which he developed with Samuel W. Soulé, James Densmore, and Carlos Glidden, and first patented in 1868. The earliest typewriter keyboard resembled a piano and was built with an alphabetical arrangement of 28 keys. The team surely assumed it would be the most efficient arrangement. After all, anyone who used the keyboard would know immediately where to find each letter; hunting would be reduced, pecking would be increased. Why change things? This is where the origin of QWERTY gets a little foggy.

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