The Striking Story of a Keyboard Design
Look down at your keyboard. See it? The first six letters spell QWERTY.
That’s what they call the keyboard layout we’ve been using for 140 years: the QWERTY layout.
It looks very much like an emphatic adjective: QWERTY! I propose we start using it that way.
Well, that’s very QWERTY! . . . She’s had a lot of trouble, but she is so QWERTY!
It would certainly be easy to type. Just slide a single finger across that row of keys. I’ll let you decide which finger. It may depend on your mood.
It would mean enduring.
Not only that. It would mean many good stories are told about the subject. Not all are true.
That certainly is the case with the QWERTY layout.
It appears QWERTY may have been conceived in the mind of an investor from Meadville, 90 miles to the north of Pittsburgh. It was then born in Milwaukee, WI., and grew up in Kittanning and Pittsburgh.
We’re talking about the late 1800s. There seems to have been a lot of tinkerers looking to get rich, at least in the just-victorious North. They often put their heads together, and their money, to come up with things that would sell.
Christopher Latham Sholes wanted to make a typesetting machine for his Milwaukee print shop after his typesetters went on strike. That idea failed. So he used it to make a machine for print shops that could be used to number pages, tickets, etc.
He and a fellow inventive printer patented a prototype . The patent attorney they went to also was an inventor. I told you, everybody was.
“Couldn’t this print letters and words, too?” he asked. That, of course, was Sholes original idea.
The attorney joined the partnership, providing development money.
The trio came up with the “literary piano.”
Seriously. It looked like a small piano. It was wooden. The keys were ebony and ivory. The alphabet ran the way it’s supposed to: ABCD. . . They got a patent in 1868 and typed hundreds of letters on the machine seeking investors.
One letter went to James Densmore who lived in Meadville at the time. He was so taken with the typed solicitation, that he bought a quarter of the patent without seeing the device.
Not Good Enough!
But, Densmore was no fool. He eventually inspected the invention, declared it “good for nothing” and encouraged them to improve upon it.
Sholes’ other two partners bowed out, discouraged. He and Densmore continued. They sent experimental versions to stenographers to try. One in Baltimore was particularly vicious in his reviews, destroying everything sent to him through hard use.
Sholes was outraged. The Meadville investor was not.
“This candid fault-finding is just what we need,” Densmore wrote. “We had better have it now than after we begin manufacturing. Where (he) points out a weak lever or rod let us make it strong. Where a spacer or an inker works stiffly, let us make it work smoothly. Then, depend upon (him) for all the praise we deserve.”
So, Sholes gathered himself and set out to perfect the machine, making 50 or so different versions. By 1873, he and Densmore took it to a manufacturer, E. Remington & Sons (later Remington Arms Co.) in upstate New York. The company looked it over and liked it so much it offered to buy the patent.
Sholes sold his half for $12,000 and returned to Milwaukee to refine other typewriter ideas.
Our man in Meadville thought the Remington offer was confirmation that he had invested in a money-maker. He insisted on receiving royalties instead of cash for his share of the patent. That step eventually earned him $1.5 million.
Densmore then left something for the rest of us.
Sholes was bedeviled by the tendency of some typearms to jam because one would not have returned to its resting place before the other was on its way to the paper. He worked tirelessly on the mechanism to little avail.
Densmore suggested a solution: Ditch the alphabetic order of letters on the keyboard and place oft-used letter combinations further apart. The greater spacing would allow the returning typearm more time to get out of the way. It worked. And it led to QWERTY.
Scores of inventors and manufacturers came along and patented various versions of the typewriter, but they had one glaring fault. You couldn’t see the page as you were typing. You had to lift the carriage out of the way and peer in.
That brings us to James Denny Daughterty of Kittanning, just up the Allegheny River from Pittsburgh.
He was a court stenographer in Armstrong County who had bought one of Sholes’ machines. He set out to improve upon it, particularly the visibility fault.
Over the course of 10 years he obtained various typewriter patents. If you have ever looked inside a typewriter, you know they are wonders of mechanical complexity.
In 1891, Daugherty contracted with a company in Groton, NY, to manufacture 2,000 of his “visible” typing machines.
His sales success was something to behold.
Only years later, he built a factory in Kittanning on what came to be called Typewriter Hill.
Oops, Not Good
But,things quickly went downhill for Daugherty.
His plant manager apparently allowed some fault to creep into the manufacture of a part or parts. Some 2,500 typewriters had to be scrapped.
Orders could not be met. Contracts were canceled. Bills came due. Daugherty had to sell his patents to a consortium of waiting Pittsburgh investors.
Some say the manager killed himself. The same people claim QWERTY came from Daugherty, as evidenced by the last four letters of his name. So, it is dubious the unnamed manager met such an end.
The Pittsburgh investors rename the Daugherty typewriter the Pittsburg Visible-Writing Machine. It continued to be manufactured in the Kittanning plant and Daugherty remained associated with the operation.
He is credited with creating the first “modern” typewriter. From that point onward, all had four rows of keys, visible frontstrike writing, and the QWERTY layout.
Interestingly, Daugherty was not a rigid, mechanical nerd who spent too much time alone in the workshop.
He was recognized for his speaking eloquence and poetry. In fact, he was called upon as the nation grieved the loss of assassinated President William McKinley in 1901. Daugherty delivered the eulogy for the president, who was a close friend.
Merging of Companies, Designs
The Pittsburgh company was essentially a mail-order business. It continued to produce the Daugherty-designed machine until 1908. In 1911, it sold the Daugherty patents to the Union Typewriter Co., a bigger trust that controlled many typewriter manufacturers, including Remington. All those companies incorporated Daugherty’s designs.
Daugherty worked for Union for a short time before going to Underwood to design an option for their typewriter, an attachment for adding, subracting and multiplying.
Now, let’s go back to QWERTY.
As the 20th Century zoomed along, people came up with “improved” keyboard layouts to which no one paid attention.
Stung, these experts in ergonomics, speed and sales, recounted how QWERTY was designed to slow typists. How the old machines couldn’t keep up with them. How new machines would not jam no matter how fast you typed. How its leads to Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and chipped nails.
Yet, we want our letters, our documents typed ever faster.
It is an absurdity of modern life, they argue.
I loved the story.
Turns out, it isn’t true.
QWERTY Wins Again
Believe it or not, there are people — mostly academics — who scientifically analyze these things. They have found the anti-QWERTY arguments meritless.
Firstly, QWERTY was not designed to slow typists. It was designed to move keys often used in combination further apart.
It did that, but there is no evidence that it slowed anyone down. Touch-typing hadn’t been taught yet. Designers expected typists to hunt and peck.
In fact, speed contests were conducted regularly during the early days of typewriter development. Newspapers covered them like they were following pioneer pilots and their flying machines.
The best contestants taught themselves touch-typing. Their speedy keyboard adventures amazed one and all. That’s when schools started teaching the “proper” way to type.
First, they had to order typewriters, though. QWERTY typewriters did very well in competitions. So they ordered them.
They still do well.
That’s why the layout is just so . . . how you say . . . QWERTY!
- See video of Daugherty typewriter in use here.
- To read a scientific, academic analysis of how QWERTY deservedly came to dominate keyboard layouts, and debunking myths claiming otherwise, go here.
- The exchange of patents, stock and legal briefs in the early history of typewriters is at least as complex as the machines themselves. I have presented a simplified version.
Leon J. Pollom, writer/researcher