The History of the Computer Keyboard

Why Your Computer Keyboard Has a QWERTY Layout

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The history of the modern computer keyboard begins with a direct inheritance from the invention of the typewriter. It was Christopher Latham Sholes who, in 1868, patented the first practical modern typewriter. Soon after, in 1877, the Remington Company began mass marketing the first typewriters. After a series of technological developments, the typewriter gradually evolved into the standard computer keyboard your fingers know so well today.

The QWERTY Keyboard

There are several legends around the development of the QWERTY keyboard layout, which was patented by Sholes and his partner James Densmore in 1878. The most compelling explanation is that Sholes developed the layout to overcome the physical limitations of mechanical technology at the time. Early typists pressed a key which would, in turn, push a metal hammer that rose up in an arc, striking an inked ribbon to make a mark on a paper before returning to its original position. Separating common pairs of letters minimized the jamming of the mechanism.

As machine technology improved, other keyboard layouts were invented that claimed to be more efficient, including as the Dvorak keyboard patented in 1936. Although there are dedicated Dvorak users today, they remain a tiny minority compared to those who continue to use the original QWERTY layout, which remains the most popular keyboard layout on devices of many types throughout the English-speaking world. QWERTY's current acceptance has been attributed to the layout being "efficient enough" and "familiar enough" to hinder the commercial viability of competitors.

Early Breakthroughs 

One of the first breakthroughs in keyboard technology was the invention of the teletype machine. Also referred to as the teleprinter, the technology has been around since the mid-1800s and was improved by 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 thanks to the efforts of Charles Krum between 1907 and 1910 that teletype system became practical for everyday users. 

In the 1930s, new keyboard models were introduced that combined the input and printing technology of typewriters with the communications technology of the telegraph. Punch-card systems were also combined with typewriters to create what were known as keypunches. These systems became the basis of early adding machines (early calculators), which were hugely commercially successful. By 1931, IBM had clocked over $1 million dollars in adding machine sales. 

Keypunch technology was incorporated into the designs of the earliest computers, including the 1946 Eniac computer that used a punch-card reader as its input and output device. In 1948, another computer called the Binac computer used an electro-mechanically controlled typewriter to input data directly onto magnetic tape in order to feed in computer data and 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 time-sharing, multi-user computer system called Multics. The system encouraged the development of a new user interface called the video display terminal (VDT), 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 assets easier to create, edit, and delete. It also made computers easier to program and use.

Electronic Impulses and Hand-Held Devices

Early computer keyboards were based either on teletype machines or keypunches but there was a problem: having so many electro-mechanical steps necessary to transmit data between the keyboard and the computer slowed things down considerably. With VDT technology and electric keyboards, the keys could now send electronic impulses directly to the computer and save time. By the late 1970s and early ’80s, all computers used electronic keyboards and VDTs. 

In the 1990s, handheld devices that introduced mobile computing became available to consumers. The first of handheld devices was the HP95LX, released in 1991 by Hewlett-Packard. It had a hinged clamshell format that was small enough to fit in the hand. Although not yet classified as such, the HP95LX was the first of the Personal Data Assistants (PDA). It had a small QWERTY keyboard for text entry, although touch typing was practically impossible due to its small size.

The Pen is Not Mightier than the Keyboard

As PDAs began to add web and email access, word processing, spreadsheets, and personal schedules, as well as other desktop applications, pen input was introduced. The first pen input devices were made in the early 1990s, but the technology to recognize handwriting was not robust enough to be effective. Keyboards produce machine-readable text (ASCII), a necessary feature for indexing and searching by contemporary character-based technology. Minus character recognition, handwriting produces "digital ink," which works for some applications but requires more memory in order to save input and is not machine-readable. Ultimately, most of the early PDAs (GRiDPaD, Momenta, Poqet, PenPad) were not commercially viable.

Apple's 1993 Newton project was expensive and its handwriting recognition was particularly poor. Goldberg and Richardson, two researchers at Xerox in Palo Alto, invented a simplified system of pen strokes called "Unistrokes," a sort of shorthand that converted each letter of the English alphabet into single strokes that users would input into their devices. Palm Pilot, released in 1996, was an instant hit, introducing the Graffiti technique, which was closer to the Roman alphabet and included a way to input capital and lowercase characters. Other non-keyboard inputs of the era included the MDTIM was published by Poika Isokoski, and Jot introduced by Microsoft.

Why Keyboards Persist

The problem with all of these alternative keyboard technologies is the data capture takes more memory and is less accurate than with digital keyboards. As mobile devices such as smartphones grew in popularity, many differently formatted keyboard patterns were tested—the issue became how to get one small enough to use accurately.

One fairly popular method was the "soft keyboard." A soft keyboard is one that has a visual display with built-in touchscreen technology. Text entry is performed by tapping on keys with a stylus or finger. The soft keyboard disappears when not in use. QWERTY keyboard layouts are most frequently used with soft keyboards, but there were others, such as the FITALY, Cubon, and OPTI soft keyboards, as well as a simple listing of alphabetic letters.

Thumbs and Voice

As voice recognition technology has advanced, its capabilities have been added to small hand-held devices to augment, but not replace soft keyboards. Keyboard layouts continue to evolve as data input embraced texting, which is typically is entered via some form of a soft QWERTY keyboard layout (although there have been some attempts to develop thumb typing entry such as the KALQ keyboard, a split-screen layout available as an Android app).

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