How the Qwerty Keyboard was Born

by Ray Setterfield


Event Date: June 23, 1868
Location: Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA

American newspaper editor Christopher Latham Sholes was granted a patent on this day for a typewriter. There are claims by others to have invented the machine, but Sholes is widely believed to have produced the first commercially successful model.

It was hardly an original idea. Back in 1714 it was announced on behalf of Queen Anne of Great Britain that Henry Mill, an engineer, born in 1683, had been granted a patent by the Queen for a writing machine. The patent notice read:

“Our Trusty and welbeloved Henry Mill, gent., hath by his petiçon humbly represented unto Us that he hath by his great study and paines & expence invented and brought to perfection an artificial machine or method for impressing or transcribing of letters, one after another, as in writing, whereby all writing whatsoever may be engrossed in paper or parchment so neat and exact as not to be distinguished from print; that the said machine or method may be of great use in settlements and publick records, the impression being deeper and more lasting than any other writing, and not to be erased or counterfeited without manifest discovery.”

Nobody knows what the apparatus looked like or how it worked and there have been patents registered by others for machines that could pass as a typewriter. But credit for the first modern version goes to Christopher Sholes, who lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

The problem with his first machine was that the keyboard was arranged alphabetically, just as anyone would expect. But as operators learned to type at speed it was discovered that the metal arms bearing each character often became entangled.

Sholes studied the problem with his partner Amos Densmore and worked out which letters were most often used. They then put them as far apart as possible on a new keyboard, reducing the chance of clashing arms because they would come from opposite directions. And thus the “Qwerty” keyboard, still is use today, was born.

Sholes was as pleased as punch with his “Qwerty” typewriter and described it as “a blessing to mankind.” Even so, he sought expert advice and opinion and in early 1873 approached engineers at the Remington company which, apart from firearms, made sewing machines and farm tools.

Remington were highly impressed and offered to buy the patent from the partners. Sholes agreed and accepted $12,000 for his half-share. The more canny Densmore, however, would not sell unless the company agreed to pay him royalties. It has been estimated that these were eventually worth $1.5 million to the astute partner.

Thanks to Sholes and Densmore, Remington began producing typewriters just a few months later. One of their early customers was Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, one of Twain’s most successful works, published in 1876, is widely believed to be the first novel written on a typewriter.

Published: September 4, 2017

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