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

About Wendy Hughes

Wendy turned to writing, in 1989, when ill-health and poor vision forced her into early medical retirement. Since then she has published 26 nonfiction books, and over 2000 articles. Her work has appeared in magazines as diverse as The Lady, Funeral Service Journal, On the Road, 3rd Stone, Celtic Connections, Best of British, and Guiding magazine. She has a column in an America/Welsh newspaper for ex-pats on old traditions and customs in Wales. Her books include many on her native Wales, Anglesey Past and Present, The Story of Brecknock, Brecon, a pictorial History of the Town, Carmarthen, a History and Celebration and Tales of Old Glamorgan, and a book on Walton on Thames in the Images of England series, a company history and two books on the charity Hope Romania. She has also co-authored two story/activity books for children. Her latest books are: Haunted Worthing published in October 2010, a new colour edition of The Story of Pembrokeshire published in March 2011, and Shipwrecks of Sussex in June 2011 and Not a Guide to Worthing in 2014. She is working on a book entitled A-Z of Curious Sussex which will be published in 2016 Wendy also works with clients to bring their work up to publishable standard and is currently working on an autobiography with a lady that was married to a very famous 1940’s travel writer. Wendy has spent many years campaigning and writing on behalf of people affected by Stickler Syndrome, a progressive genetic connective tissue disorder from which she herself suffers. She founded the Stickler Syndrome Support Group and raises awareness of the condition amongst the medical profession, and produces the group’s literature, and has written the only book on the condition, Stickler The Elusive Syndrome, and has also contributed to a DVD on the condition, Stickler syndrome: Learning the Facts. She has also writing three novels, Sanctimonious Sin, a three generation saga set in Wales at the turn of the century, Power That Heal set in the Neolithic period entitled Powers that Heal, and a semi biographical book entitled New Beginnings which deals with two generations coping with blindness and a genetic condition. She has also had a handful of short stories published, and in her spare time is working on several at the moment. She also gives talks on a variety of subjects including Writing and Placing Articles, Writing Local History, Writing as Therapy, Writing your first novel, etc, and runs workshops on the craft of writing – both fiction and non-fiction. She is a member of the Society of Women Writers and Journalists, and a member of the Society of Authors.