A History of Typing and the Evolution of the American Keyboard

  Written By Janelle Sullivan

The histories of typing and the keyboard in America have been influenced by some of the very virtues that the country holds in esteem: practicality, efficiency and simplicity. All of these attributes have figured into the creation, design and implementation of the modern QWERTY keyboard that can be found on any number of technological devices. From its beginnings as the brainchild of inventor Christopher Sholes, to its current status as an ubiquitous symbol of typing, this keyboard layout has significantly contributed to the way that we live and have communicated for more than 100 years. Unlike other technological fads, the QWERTY keyboard has resisted major change by continually proving its worth, relevance and ease-of-use throughout the years. Regardless of many advances in technology, the QWERTY keyboard will likely remain a mainstay and standard for future generations to come.


The origin of the QWERTY keyboard is a colorful merging of history and practicality. In 1868, Christopher Sholes, Samuel Soule and Carlos Glidden filed for a patent for what has come to be known as the first typewriter. Like more modern typewriters, this machine had the instantly-recognizable characteristics of a moveable carriage and lever which enabled typists to rearrange the position of paper at will. Unlike typewriters of later generations, the keys on this machine were arranged in a consecutive "ABC" format.

Creating the QWERTY Keyboard

Remington & Sons began selling the Sholes & Glidden typewriter in 1873, and the American love affair with the typewriter was born. In 1875, Sholes and a man named Amos Densmore decided to reconfigure the typewriter so that the keys on it mirrored the current QWERTY layout and provided an alternative to the popular two-finger typing method. This was accomplished using a study headed by Amos Densmore, which detailed letter-pair frequencies initiated by typists. The physical mechanisms of typewriters, including their linkages and typebars, also figured into how the new QWERTY layout eventually looked and worked.

The impetus behind this change was Sholes' desire to protect the integrity of the typewriter while it was in use. Before the QWERTY layout was implemented, it was more likely that keys would clash and jam while typing, since many commonly typed letters were often located next to each other. Recent reports by The Smithsonian, however, suggest that telegraph operators had great influence over the current layout of typewriters' keys. According to this respected educational facility, the QWERTY keyboard was also created to help typists decode Morse code quickly and efficiently. Sholes was given the patent for the new QWERTY keyboard in 1878, and was credited with making typing easier and faster for both personal and professional typists. By 1890, the QWERTY formation could be seen on as many as 100,000 different models of Remington typewriters.

QWERTY Keyboard Challenges

While the QWERTY change was a fortuitous and easy one for some typists, making working easier and faster, others experienced distinct problems in the shift. Some typists found that the space between letters slowed down their typing. This obstacle was most pronounced while trying to memorize the new configuration of keys and assimilate the functions of more modern machines. Given enough time for proper memorization and utilization, the QWERTY keyboard proved to be a sound investment in efficiency.

QWERTY itself was challenged, when competing keyboard layouts, like the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard, arose as potential replacements in the early 20th century. By that time, however, QWERTY enjoyed a stronghold on the market and many consumers began to associate machines for typists with the QWERTY layout itself. When major companies known for manufacturing technological devices for typists began adopting the QWERTY layout for their own machines' designs, QWERTY's place in the history of typing was all but sealed. As times have changed, so has the QWERTY layout – these keyboards have also come to feature numerical keypads to accommodate users who need easy access to numbers, as well as letters.

The Future of the QWERTY Keyboard

While the QWERTY keyboard provides substantial benefits to users, including uniformity, its future promises some interesting possibilities. Today, QWERTY keyboards are incorporated into a large range of typing devices, including mobile phones and tablets. The ubiquity of these devices, and their shrinking sizes, however, pose questions about the practicality of QWERTY keyboard configurations. Many of these devices have incorporated special software to help navigate a QWERTY keyboard using just one hand, but technology developers often consider reconfiguration of these devices' keyboard layouts to make their use easier and even more intuitive. Despite this possibility, QWERTY keyboards remain a familiar and welcome attribute in any technological device that requires the quick input of text.

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