Circa 1874 AD
The Sholes (QWERTY) Keyboard

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It is commonly believed that the original layout of keys on a typewriter was intended to slow the typist down, but this isn't strictly true. The main inventor of the first commercial typewriter, Christopher Latham Sholes, obviously wished to make their typewriters as fast as possible in order to convince people to use them.

However, one problem with the first machines was that the keys jammed when the operator typed at any real speed, so Sholes invented what was to become known as the Sholes keyboard.

The Sholes keyboard (circa 1874)The Sholes keyboard (circa 1874)

The term digraph refers to combinations of two letters that represent a single sound, such as "sh" in "ship," where these letters are frequently written or typed one after the other.

What Sholes attempted to do was to separate the letters of as many common digraphs as possible. But in addition to being a pain to use, the resulting layout also left something to be desired on the digraph front; for example, "ed", "er", "th", and "tr" all use keys that are close to each other. Unfortunately, even after the jamming problem was overcome by the use of springs, the monster was loose amongst us -- existing users didn't want to change and there was no turning back.
The original Sholes keyboard (which is known to us as the QWERTY keyboard, because of the ordering of the first six keys in the third row) is interesting for at least two other reasons: first, there was no key for the number '1', because the inventors decided that the users could get by with the letter 'I'; and second, there was no shift key, because the first typewriters could only type upper case letters. (Sholes also craftily ensured that the word "Typewriter" could be constructed using only the top row of letters. This was intended to aid salesmen when they were giving demonstrations.) (Nothing's simple in this world. For example, instead of the top row of characters saying QWERTY, keyboards in France and Germany spell out AZERTY and QWERTZU, respectively.)

The first shift-key typewriter
(in which uppercase and lowercase letters are made available on the same key) didn't appear on the market until 1878, and it was quickly challenged by another flavor which contained twice the number of keys, one for every uppercase and lowercase character.

For quite some time these two alternatives vied for the hearts and minds of the typing fraternity, but the advent of a technique known as touch-typing favored the shift-key solution, which thereafter reigned supreme.

Speaking of which, the figure above shows the 'A', 'S', 'D', and 'F' keys in white to indicate that these are the home keys for the left hand. Similarly, the other four keys shown in white are the home keys for the right hand. The terms home keys and home row refer to the base position for your fingers (excluding thumbs, which are used to hit the space bar) when you're practicing touch typing, which means that you type by touch without looking at the keyboard.
However, Sholes didn't invent these terms, because he actually gave very little thought to the way in which people would use his invention. The end result was that everyone was left to their own devices, effectively meaning that two-fingered typists using the "hunt-and-peck" method ruled the world. It was not until 1888 that a law clerk named Frank E. McGurrin won a highly publicized typing contest with his self-taught touch-typing technique, and a new era was born.

Finally, lest you still feel that the QWERTY keyboard is an unduly harsh punishment that's been sent to try us, it's worth remembering that the early users had a much harder time than we do, not the least that they couldn't even see what they were typing! The first typewriters struck the paper from the underside, which obliged their operators to raise the carriage whenever they wished to see what had just been typed, and so-called "visible-writing" machines didn't become available until 1883 (see also The Dvorak keyboard).


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These notes are abstracted from the book Bebop BYTES Back
(An Unconventional Guide to Computers)
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