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Life Before QWERTY

June 23, 2014 | by

scholes

The history of the typewriter is, as with the history of the personal computer after it, rife with collaboration, ingenuity, betrayal, setbacks, lucre, acrimony, misguided experimentation, and bickering white men. There are rough analogs for Bill Gates and for Steves Jobs and Wozniak (though there’s no one so delirious and insane as Steve Ballmer)—and one such analog is Christopher Latham Sholes, a Milwaukee printer whose first “type-writer” was patented 146 years ago today.

Sholes is widely credited with having invented the first QWERTY keyboard. It helped to prevent jams and increase typing speeds by putting frequently combined letters farther apart—but that took years of trial and error; the initial iteration of his typewriter was far more rudimentary in design. It looks like a miniature piano crossed with a clock and/or a phonograph and/or a kitchen table—and Sholes did, in fact, design the prototype out of his kitchen table. As you can imagine, it didn’t boast what today’s designers would call “intuitive UX.” Its keys, borrowing from innovations in telegraphy, were arranged as such:

3 5 7 9 N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
2 4 6 8 . A B C D E F G H I J K L M

Notice the absence of 0 and 1; Sholes and his cohort assumed that people would make do with I and O. They also couldn’t be bothered with lowercase letters—the first Sholes model was in a condition of eternal caps lock, doomed to permanent shouting. And yet in another sense Sholes was full of intuition and prescience: purportedly, the first letters he typed on the machine were “WWW.” Read More »

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