Life Before QWERTY


On Technology


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.” George Iles’s 1912 book, Leading American Inventors, describes the mechanics:

The first row is of ivory, duly lettered; the second row is of ebony; and then, as you see, a third row, made up of letters and characters that are little used, is in the form of pegs. The framework is of wood, with the leverage below, and the basket form of typebars above closely resembles those of some machines in use today. The original model was very clumsy and weighty. The writing was on a tape of tissue paper, and the platen was fastened to the body of the boxlike affair. The writing could not be seen till it was completed, and when the document was once removed from the machine there was no way by which it could be replaced with any degree of certainty that the lines would correspond with those previously written.

07253_2003_001.tif Typewriter Patent drawing 6/23/1868As an early developer declared, “It was good for nothing except to show that its underlying principles were sound.” But its technical advances, enumerated below, were enough to earn it a patent, and to attract the attention of investors and fellow inventors:

(1) A circular annular disc, with radial grooves and slots to receive and guide the typebars so that they struck the center. (2) Radial typebars to correspond with this disc. (3) A ratchet to move the paper-carriage by the breadth of a tooth when a key was struck. (4) A hinged clamp to hold the paper firmly on its carriage.

Sholes was intent on winning over the stenographer demographic—he assumed such workers were the likeliest customers, and that they would do the most to improve the product—so he did the natural entrepreneurial thing and hired a consultant. He sent James Ogilvie Clephane, a renowned court reporter in Washington, D.C., an early model and told him to give it hell. Clephane did; so unforgiving was his field-testing that he destroyed a succession of costly prototypes, and he told Sholes in no uncertain terms that his typewriter was garbage. But his brutal feedback began the long process that culminated in the QWERTY design.

Not that this was a cakewalk; Sholes and his companions went through years of prototypes, and fell deeply into debt, before they arrived at a marketable model, and even then, in 1874, no one really wanted the typewriter, known by that point as the Remington 1. It cost $125, a small fortune for the day, and typewritten correspondence was stigmatized as impersonal and impolite. Sholes faced competition from a league of rival manufacturers, many of whom he’d once worked with.

Typewriter Sholes, Glidden and Soule Sheet 2 of 2 07253_2003_002Still, in its incipient form, Sholes’s machine was at least fun to develop. Leading American Inventors includes this bucolic account of work in the Milwaukee mill where he held court with his colleagues, Carlos Glidden and Samuel Soule:

In that grimy old mill on the Rock River Canal there were interludes to lighten and brighten the toil of experiment. All three partners were chess players of more than common skill, and they often turned from ratchets and pinions to moves with knights and pawns. Ever and anon a friend would drop in, and the talk would drift from writing by machinery to Reconstruction in South Carolina, or to the quiet absorption by farms and mills of the brigades mustered out after Appomattox. Then, with zest renewed, the model was taken up once more, to be carried another stage toward completion. One morning it printed in capitals line after line both legibly and rapidly. Sholes, Soule, and Glidden were frankly delighted.

Today the site is marked with a reverent plaque, courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Society, which buoyantly claims that “C. Latham Sholes perfected the first practical typewriter.” Would that it were so.