Saturday, 08 September 2012 02:00

Typewriters and the QWERTY Keyboard

Written by Lorne VanSinclair for the Orillia Packet & Times

88 content RemingtonIt's interesting that even our most modern, technologically advanced devices rely on classic styles when it comes to the part where they interface with humans. For instance instead of flashy digital readouts, most of our cars have round dials on the dashboard, a look that harkens back to steam technology because, well, we just like it that way.

The most modern iGadgets that can do just about anything still use what is called the QWERTY keyboard for text. They tried other configurations but now most boast a full QWERTY keyboard, just like on a typewriter, as a feature. Why? Is it because it is the most logical, or easiest to use or most intuitive? No, no and no. The QWERTY keyboard is frustratingly illogical and non-intuitive, there is no rational reason for it to exist in the modern era but all attempts at replacing it have ultimately failed. So why do even teenagers who have never touched a typewriter insist on using it?

The QWERTY, or universal keyboard is named after the first six keys on the top row of letters, but why are the keys in that particular order? To understand that we have to look at the history of typewriters, which is a pretty good exercise because the typewriter is one of the most important, and most ignored, inventions of the modern era. It revolutionized communication and affected our social history in ways that might not seem obvious at first.

Ever since Guttenberg invented the printing press in the 15th century, the stage was set for typed, rather than hand written communication. However getting a machine to type what a person is thinking is not easy and, in Europe at least, there wasn't a lot of demand for one as labour was cheap and machines were expensive.

In mid 19th century America though, labour was relatively expensive, manufacturing was getting easier and there was a thirst for invention.

In 1867, Scientific American magazine published an article on the Pterotype, a prototype machine developed in England by John Pratt, which they dubbed the "type writer" or "literary piano".

The Pterotype was too complex for mass manufacturing but the article caught the attention of John Sholes, a printer in Milwaukee. Inspired by the article, Sholes set about to develop a type writing machine and, with the help of Samuel Soule and Carlos Glidden, filed a patent in 1868 for what is now accepted as the first modern typewriter.

88 Sholes-Glidden typewriterThere were still a lot of problems though. Sholes machine had each letter on the end of a rod; the rods hung in a circle underneath the platen and were pushed up by the keys. That meant the user couldn't actually see what was being typed. The keys were naturally in alphabetical order but the rods would jam if two that were side by side were pressed in quick succession.

Sholes decided that the best way to solve the problem was to rearrange they keys so letters that were commonly typed in succession, say R and S, were placed far apart from each other and less likely to jam the rods. He used a study by James Densmore to determine what letters are commonly typed together and then came up with the QWERTY keyboard.

From a typists point of view the QWERTY keyboard is so illogical that even today many people think it is designed to slow down typing, but Sholes had the opposite intention. It was important enough to him that he included it in his patent application of 1878.

Sholes wasn't into marketing so once he had the thing working he sold the patents to the Remington Company, which also manufactured guns and sewing machines. Remington typewriters were not successful until they figured out how to make upper and lower case letters but after that, they were a roaring success. The early Remington models resembled sewing machines; the shift key was a treadle, operated by foot and, as the typist still couldn't see what was being typed, they are now referred to as blind machines.

Shortly after the Remington Sholes & Glidden typewriter was introduced, Mark Twain became the first author to submit a typewritten manuscript to his publisher.

88 BlickensderferThe next major step in typewriter evolution came from American inventor George Blickensderfer in 1892. His Blickensderfer Model 5 was mechanically much simpler than the Remington and for the first time typists could see what they were typing. The Blick, as it's called by collectors, was light enough to be portable and used a type wheel instead of rods so there was no need for the QWERTY keyboard arrangement. The bottom row of the Blick keyboard contained the most commonly used letters, DHIATENSOR. Even though his arrangement was more efficient for typing, the QWERTY keyboard was already so entrenched that Blickensderfer still had to offer it as an option.

Although his product was very good, and he later went on to invent the first electric typewriter, the Blickensderfer Company did not last long. The relatively few surviving machines are now valuable collectors' items and the DHIATENSOR keyboard is just a footnote in history.

88 victorian-typewriterThe period between 1900 and 1920 is the most interesting for typewriter collectors. It was like the Wild West as everybody tried to come up with the ultimate writing machine. There are some pretty bizarre examples and it's the ones that failed and ended up in an evolutionary dead end, that are the most valuable today. The successful machines, the ones you see in flea markets and yard sales all the time were considered junk until very recently. There is now a renewed interest in the classic, pre-1920 machines. In part it's because they look so good and make nice office decorations but also, I think it's because there is a connection with modern devices. In a typewriter, you can see where the computer and smart phone came from but more importantly, you can actually see how a typewriter works. Every one of those levers and bolts has an obvious function. You may love your Android device but pretty well nobody understands what happens behind that screen.

By 1920 the typewriter world had pretty well stabilized. It was absolutely essential in any modern office so standardization, not experimentation, was necessary. It was the office, not the typewriter that had to change. Up to then, business offices were staffed almost exclusively by men but for some reason men didn't take to the new-fangled device so for the first time women were hired as office workers. It seems trivial now, but it was an important first step for women to gain a foothold in the club.

Every important development in typewriter technology happened before 1920. The only thing to work on was that stupid keyboard. In 1944 Dr. August Dvorak came up with another, more rational keyboard. His arrangement put all the vowels on one side of the home row. There were many tests by the U.S. Government that concluded Dvorak's keyboard resulted in faster typing and there is some evidence it does reduce strain but it didn't catch on. You can still download software to change your computer keyboard to the Dvorak arrangement but almost nobody does. We use the illogical, strain-inducing QWERTY keyboard because we are used to it, we just like it that way.