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The QWERTY keyboard layout is named after the top row of alphabetic keys, which starts with those letters. It names both a physical layout as well as a logical layout of key symbols onto those keys.
The layout was designed for the Sholes and Glidden Type-Writer mechanism from the 1870's. It was not the first typewriter but it was the first that was commercially successful, thus setting the standard.
The staggering of the four rows of keys comes from the manual typewriter's mechanical design. Each key is on an arm with all arms laid
out in a plane at the same distance apart from one-another. The key-arms are linked to arms with typing elements laid out in the same order.
The Printing Telegraph, invented in 1846 had a keyboard similar to a piano with two rows of letters in alphabetical order offset 1/2 key from one-another. David Edward Hughes' improved models from the 1860's onwards tended to have 28 keys with letters in alphabetical order from left to right on the top row and from right to left on the bottom row. Digits and punctuation were entered on the top row together with a shifting mechanism. Each shifted symbol was printed above the key's unshifted symbol.
Christopher Latham Sholes is the man most credited (or blamed) for having created QWERTY. Besides being an inventor, he was a newspaper man and politician in 1860's Milwaukee, USA. In 1868 he had together with Carlos Glidden, William Soulé and Frank Haven Hall manufactured and marketed a desktop "Type-Writer" with a piano-like keyboard similar to Hughes' telegraph's. It was sold to companies with telegraphists who received American Morse code and needed to type it quickly. The mechanism did not have any Shifting-mechanism and could type only upper-case letters. A machine with digits on the left hand side may have been manufactured for a time.
Sholes parted ways with the others and continued to develop the machine with a new keyboard, backed by financier James Densmore. In 1870, Sholes produced a keyboard with four rows with digits and more symbols. The keyboards have been lost before they could be drawn or photographed but some details of the layout are known from correspondence with early adopters. It was most likely inspired also by John Pratt's earlier type-writing machine, the Pterograph that Sholes had read about in Scientific American. Digits were on a separate top row, mimicking earlier keyboards without the need for a shifting mechanism. Like Pratt's pterotype, the letters I and O were used for digits 1 and 0 - a cost-saving measure which persisted among some manufacturers until the 1970's. The second row from the top had vowels and symbols. Consonants were on the two bottom rows but still in alphabetical order as before. Around this time, the Space bar was introduced and W was moved to the top row because it was a semi-vowel.
It is known that feedback from several early customers and beta-testers further influenced the layout, although not all detail are known. Harrington and Craig Telegraph Works in New York even demanded several changes as a condition for purchase of type-writers. It is unknown which those were but it has been speculated that the reason why Z, S and E are close together is because the Morse code for 'Z' is close to the code sequence for "SE" and they wanted to minimize hand movement.
The August 10 1872 issue of Scientific American (Volume 27, issue 6) features a copperplate picture of the "Type-Writer" on the first page. It is the first image of a proto-QWERTY keyboard ("QWE.TY") in print.
1874: The first QWERTY
E. Remington & Sons in New York bought rights to the Type-Writer in 1873 and they chose to call the design Sholes and Glidden Type-Writer.
Several more changes to the layout were made by Sholes and by Remington's experienced engineers Jefferson Clough and William Jenne. Most notably was swapping . and R, thus creating the first "QWERTY" layout. The machine had the ⁝ (tricolon) symbol which was a convention used for telegraphing newspaper articles to indicate a paragraph break.
The first machine was delivered in April 1874. Sholes' and Glidden's patent for the machine, showing the layout was filed in 1875 and granted in 1878. Here Sholes' influence at Remington ended, engineering taken over by Clough and Jenne who made improvements in later revisions, the last revision also sold as the Remington Type-Writer No. 1.
In 1878, Remington released the Remington No. 2: the first QWERTY typewriter with both upper and lower-case as well as symbols on shifted numeric keys. The mode was set with a lever: up for upper case and down for lower case. The mode could be overridden temporarily using an Upper Case key in the lower left corner or a Lower Case key in the upper right corner. Other types of customers than telegraph companies started to buy machines and sales skyrocketed.
The number of keys had been reduced and the numeric row was shifted one step to the right. Some symbols such as . (period) that had their own keys on the previous machine were however still on the upper-case layer as before. Many shifted symbols on the numeric row are somewhat similar to how they are now.
1882: Remington Standard QWERTY
In 1882, Remington released the Remington Standard Type-Writer No. 2 with a slightly changed QWERTY layout so that they could avoid having to pay royalties to Sholes and his partners. The letters X and C were swapped and the M key was moved down a row - resulting in the letter layout that still persists today.
1878 onwards: Promoting QWERTY
The first typing schools for QWERTY arrived in the 1878's, the first with William Wyckoff's six-finger method for the Remington No. 2, followed by Elizabeth Longley's eight-finger method for the Remington Standard. Wyckoff's school entered into a partnership with Remington - one of many to follow between typing schools and typewriter manufacturers. Those early methods were however somewhat different to the touch typing method used today: for instance, both had the left hand's "columns" slanting the other way. Following these, Remington did divide the keyboard into left- and right-hand keys (with 6 on the right side) in the typewriters' documentation.
In 1893, Remington, Smith Premier, Densmore, Yost and Caligraph formed a trust (cartel) to promote and control the sales of typewriters from the five respective companies. They decided on using Remington's "Standard" QWERTY layout as standard.
Myths and legends
There are several legends about the origin of the QWERTY that are difficult to verify.
Stephen Jay Gould had popularized the idea that Clough and Jenne had swapped R and . so that Remington's salesmen could type "TYPEWRITER" using only the letters on one row. However, the official name was then still "TYPE-WRITER" and the hyphen was not on that row.
It has often been said that the QWERTY layout had been arranged from the alphabetical layout to minimize the risk of type-bars colliding and thereby jamming the machine. Some have claimed that the purpose had been to slow typists down to avoid jamming, others that it had been to avoid jamming while typing fast. What is proven though is that the layout was originally intended for telegraphists who needed to be able to type at the speed at which they received American Morse code - and code at the time could have been transmitted at over 30 words per minute.
One story tells that Densmore's brother Amos who was an educator would have provided Sholes with an ordered list of the most common digraphs (two-letter combinations) in the English language and that Sholes would have relocated letters in those diagrams to place their type-arms further apart. However, that could have happened after the formation of QWERTY. Sholes continued to invent improvements to his typewriter for the rest of his life. In 1889, he filed a patent with a layout which (like Dvorak 47 years later) had the vowels on one-hand side on the home row. It was awarded first after his death in 1890.
The keyboard layout has often been criticised for having the common digraph "ED"/"DE" typed with the same finger. There is no evidence that Sholes had even considered touch typing and early schools of typing QWERTY did actually use different fingers for those keys.
Lillian Malt, designer of the Maltron keyboard and layout has criticized the QWERTY layout, saying that "With greater use of computer aided technology, it becomes increasingly apparent that the cost of maintaining the standard qwerty keyboard design and layout is too great for developed societies to tolerate."
- Smithsonian.com: Fact of Fiction? The Legend of the QWERTY Keyboard
- DavidEdwardHughes.com: Hughes Telegraph #4. Retrieved 2016-10-10
- Koichi Uasuoka, Motoko Yasuoka: On the Prehistory of QWERTY. Kyoto University. ZINBUN No.42. March 2011, pp.161-174.
- The Virtual Typewriter Museum: Sholes & Glidden (Perfected)] Retrieved 2016-10-11.
- Type-Writer.org: 1889 Remington Standard No. 2
- U.S. Patent No. 568,630, awarded to Christopher Langham Sholes
- Lilian Malt: Keyboard design in the electronic era Conference Paper No. 6. PIRA Eurotype. September 1977