History of the Computer Keyboard

The Invention of the Computer Keyboard Begins With the Typewriter

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The invention of the modern computer keyboard sprung from the invention of the typewriter. It was Christopher Latham Sholes who, in 1868, patented the typewriter that we commonly use today. Soon after, the Remington Company began mass marketing the first typewriters starting in 1877. But before the typewriters evolved into computer keyboards, there were a few key technological developments that paved the way for the transition to take place.

Early Breakthroughs 

One of the first breakthroughs toward building what we now know as the computer keyboard was the invention of the teletype machine. Also referred to as the teleprinter, the technology was around since the mid 1800s and was improved upon thanks to inventors such as Royal Earl House, David Edward Hughes, Emile Baudot, Donald Murray, Charles L. Krum, Edward Kleinschmidt and Frederick G. Creed. But it was through the efforts of Charles Krum that teletype underwent significant development from 1907 to 1910 in ways that made the system much more practical.

Models introduced in the 1930s combined the input and printing technology of typewriters with the communications techology of the telegraph. Elsewhere, punched card systems were combined with typewriters to create what was called keypunches. These systems were the basis of early adding machines and IBM was selling over one million dollars worth of adding machines in 1931.

You can say that early computer keyboards were adapted from the punch card and teletype technologies. One of the earliest computers was the 1946 Eniac computer, which used a punched card reader as its input and output device. In 1948, another computer called the Binac computer used an electro-mechanically controlled typewriter to both input data directly onto magnetic tape in order to feed in computer data and to print results.

The emerging electric typewriter further improved the technological marriage between the typewriter and the computer.

Video Display Terminals

By 1964, MIT, Bell Laboratories and General Electric had collaborated to create a computer system called Multics, a time sharing and multi-user system. The system encouraged the development of a new user interface called the video display terminal, which incorporated the technology of the cathode ray tube used in televisions into the design of the electric typewriter. This allowed computer users to see what text characters they were typing on their display screens for the first time, which made text easier to create, edit, and delete. It also made computers easier to program and use.

Electronic Impulses

Early computer keyboards were based either on teletype machines or keypunches. But the problem was that there were many electromechanical steps in transmitting data between the keyboard and the computer that slowed things down. With VDT technology and electric keyboards, the keyboard's keys could now send electronic impulses directly to the computer and save time. By the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, all computers used electronic keyboards and VDTs. Nevertheless, Christopher Latham Sholes, the inventor of the first typewriter and the designer of the QWERTY layout, is largely responsible for the computer keyboard design we know today.