Ever wonder why the keypads in the smartphones and laptops of today or the keyboards for computers and even typewriters, all have their alphabets begin with QWERTY and not the standard ABCDE? Surely there has to be a reason for this when the most sensible thing to do well having invented keypads was to go according to the alphabetical order of letters? In order to understand how the QWERTY keypad of today came about, we need to look into the past! So gear up folks and let’s read the interesting story of QWERTY!
The invention of the QWERTY keypad is largely attributed to an American newspaper editor and inventor named Christopher Latham Sholes, who invented it in 1874. Sholes was also credited with the invention and patent of the earliest typewriter alongside Carlos Gildden and Samuel W. Soule in 1868.
This early typewriter had the second half of the alphabets in the upper row while the first half was in the lower row and despite receiving a patent for this model, inadequacies and problems with letters jamming led to Sholes experimenting to find a more efficient organization of the keys.
This experimentation led to building of another prototype for a typewriter in which the alphabets and numbers were divided into four rows, with the top most row having numerical from 2–9 while the other rows had alphabets and punctuation marks like comma and period. In this arrangement the closely used alphabets like S, T and more were separated between less commonly used alphabets in order to ensure the smooth functioning of the typewriter. Other reasons besides key jamming that were thought to bring about the prominent use of the QWERTY arrangement was the use for it in telegraph operations for whom the earliest arrangement of letters was extremely confusing and inefficient for the translation of Morse code. This was brought forth in a study conducted at Kyoto University in 2011.
After several such iterations of the typewriter having been invented by Sholes the design was sold to the Remington’s, a popular firearms manufacturing company that had branched out to producing appliances in 1873. This keypad design closely resembled the current QWERTY model, however it differed in that the R in QWERTY was originally a period.
The period punctuation mark was replaced by R before it went into production, coupled with other minor changes that were put forward by the Remington’s. These changes included the exclusion of 0 and 1 in order to cut down production costs as these numbers could be represented by the uppercase alphabets I and O.
This finalized version of QWERTY typewriter, called the Sholes-Glidden typewriter and later renamed as the Remington №1 typewriter went into production in 1874. In 1878 Sholes patented the QWERTY arrangement of the keypad. However, this first model of Remington’s sold poorly due to its high expense and inability to type in lowercase, ensuring that anything that was typed had a dramatic and emphatic appearance.
In 1878, Remington’s resolved these issues and released the Remington’s №2 which quickly gained popularity and higher sales numbers as it resolved the previous model’s issue by introducing a shift key enabling the shift from uppercase letters to lowercase letters when required. Incidentally, this model was also the first ever typewriter to have a shift key! By 1893, major typewriter manufacturers of the time including Remington’s, merged to form a company named the Union Typewriter Company which standardized the use of QWERTY alphabet arrangement.
Why is QWERTY, an alphabet arrangement system so old, still in use and employed in almost every gadget we use currently? How did no other letter arrangement system ever replace it? Well, some tried, but eventually didn’t succeed! One of those systems is Dvorak Keyboards patented and produced in 1936 by August Dvorak. It was invented in an attempt to create faster and more efficient typing systems.
However, they didn’t gain popularity despite rivaling in efficiency with QWERTY as this system had already been in place for nearly 60 years, making the switch from a tried and used system like QWERTY to Dvorak’s an unnecessary option as people were already accustomed to QWERTY key arrangements. The lock-in that was created by the QWERTY arrangement has therefore been maintained through time and technology owing to its familiarity.
Despite not standing a chance it is shocking to realize that both these options i.e. QWERTY and Dvorak, along with a plethora of other keypad arrangement systems like QWERTZ, Colemak, and even Morse code can be found in all gadgets these days, be it our touch keypads in our smartphones to the virtual keypads on our computer screens! However, it can still be seen that the QWERTY keypad system reigns as the de-facto winner among the arrangements. This is how an invention that was made a lifetime ago still holds its relevance and use today even in our modern world!