Sholes early typewriter, is an understroke or blind writer the typebars are arranged in a circular basket under the platen (the printing surface)

by Wendy Hughes

I think I must be the only person in Britain who has not enjoyed this glorious weather.  Maybe it is part of my condition or the fact that I also have diabetes, we are not sure, but just an hour in the sun and I ended up spending two days indoors at my keyboard, and started to wonder why it is called qwerty keyboard, and why the letters are arranged as they are.

 

Every day as you set your fingers to your typewriter, iPad or computer you are using a system that has been for around for almost a century and a half, and created by a man who deliberately designed it to slow typing down!  Christopher Latham Sholes (February 14, 1819 – February 17, 1890) developed the first commercial typewrite in 1867, and the letters were set out in alphabetical order on the keyboard of his first machine.  It was designed to be operated by two or four fingers at the most.  This created a problem because as typists became more proficient and speeded up their key strokes, the bars carrying the letters would jam.  This was because the little type hammer did not have time to return to its original place before the next was on the move. Instead of trying to solve this mechanical difficulty Christopher Sholes decided to rearrange the letters on the keyboard placing the letters found most commonly in words as far apart as possible.  This solved the problem of the keys jamming and QWERTY was born, which went on to become the universal layout for keyboards.  However it has been described as the original computer virus, and we still put up with virus today because it overworks some fingers and, if you are right handed, the weaker hand.

Remington 2 1878 – the first with a shift key

However by the early 1870s we saw the true success of typewriters when Remington, the famous gun makers, won a contract from Christopher Sholes to go into mass production.  The very first machines typed capital letters only, but within a few years the shift key had been introduced, making lower and upper case letters possible.

 

In 1883, a machine was produced on which the typist could actually see what was being written. Up until then, the paper had been on a hidden flat surface moving along guide-rails, and these machines were called ‘blind’ writers.  On Sholes Remington machines, the typist had to life the carriage up to see his/her work.  Despite the advances, the spread of this new technology was slow, partly due to the fact that the typescript produced by ribbon tended to fade quickly.  Therefore companies who required long-term records showed little interest in purchasing typewriters until permanent ink became available in 1885, then things changed forever, and as they say the rest is history.

 

So next time you sit in front of your keyboard spare a thought for the man who invented the QWERTY keyboard.

Remington 1892 model