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, the Remington Company began mass marketing the first typewriters starting in 1877. After a series of technological developments, the typewriter gradually evolved into the 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 and is still the most popular keyboard layout on devices of all types in the English speaking world. The most compelling is that Sholes developed the layout to overcome the physical limitations of machine technology at the time. Early typists pressed a key which would, in turn, push a metal hammer that would rise up in an arc, strike an inked ribbon making a mark on a paper and then return to its original position. Separating common pairs of letters minimized the jamming of the mechanism.

As the machine technology improved, other keyboard alignments were invented that claimed to be more efficient, such 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.

That's been attributed to the QWERTY keyboard 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. Punched card systems were also combined with typewriters to create what was called keypunches. These systems were the basis of early adding machines (early calculators), which were hugely commercially successful. By 1931, IBM had sold over one million dollars worth of adding machines. 

Keypunch technology was incorporated into the designs of the earliest computers, including 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 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 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 and Hand-Held Devices

Early computer keyboards were based either on teletype machines or keypunches. But the problem was that there were many electro-mechanical 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. 

In the 1990s, handheld devices introducing mobile computing became available to consumers. The first of handheld devices was the HP95LX, released in 1991 by Hewlett-Packard. It was a 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 (PDAs). It had a small QWERTY keyboard for text entry, although touch typing was impossible due to its small size.

Pen Computing

As PDAs began to add web and email access, word processing, spreadsheets, and personal schedules and other desktop applications, pen input was introduced. The earliest 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. Handwriting without character recognition produces "digital ink", which works for some applications, but requires more memory to save and is not machine-readable. Most of the early PDAs (GRiDPaD, Momenta, Poqet, PenPad) were ultimately not commercially viable.

Apple's Newton project in 1993 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 problems with all these technologies are the data capture takes more memory and is less accurate than 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 a built-in touchscreen technology, and 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 has included texting: texting is entered typically through 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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Bellis, Mary. "The History of the Computer Keyboard." ThoughtCo, Feb. 24, 2018, thoughtco.com/history-of-the-computer-keyboard-1991402. Bellis, Mary. (2018, February 24). The History of the Computer Keyboard. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-the-computer-keyboard-1991402 Bellis, Mary. "The History of the Computer Keyboard." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-the-computer-keyboard-1991402 (accessed February 24, 2018).