QWERTY Keyboards

When was the ball point pen invented? What about paper clips, or fax machines? Vic Hollefruend, our Retail Furniture Manager, is on the case, researching and compiling everything you would want to know about who, where, why, when, and how of office supplies. We are pleased to present Vic’s History of Office Stuff.


Sholes_Glidden_typewriterAll hail “The QWERTY”. What a funny word! It’s a made up word that doesn’t really mean anything; yet millions of people understand the reference.

The story goes like this: In 1875, two men, Christopher Sholes and Amos Densmore, decided to rearrange the typewriter keyboard so that the commonest letters were not so close together and the type bars would come from opposite directions; BUT WHY????

Well, take a look at the keyboard of any standard typewriter or computer today. “Q,W,E,R,T and Y” are the first six letters in the second row. This new arrangement was only part of the over-all rearrangement that Sholes and Densmore came up with, and they had a good reason!

Clashing Letters

The first practical typewriter was patented in the United States in 1868 by Christopher Latham Sholes (pictured). His machine was known as the type-writer. It had a movable carriage, a lever for turning paper from line to line, and a keyboard on which the letters were arranged in alphabetical order.

But Sholes had a problem. On his first model, his “ABC” key arrangement caused the keys to jam when the typist worked quickly. Sholes didn’t know how to keep the keys from clashing and sticking together, so his solution was to keep the typist from typing too fast.

He did this by using a study of letter-pair frequency prepared by educator Amos Densmore, brother of James Densmore, who happened to be Sholes’ chief financial backer. The “QWERTY” keyboard itself was determined by the existing mechanical linkages of the type-bars inside the machine to the keys on the outside. Sholes’ solution did not eliminate the problem completely, but it was greatly reduced.

The keyboard arrangement was considered important enough to be included on Sholes’ patent granted in 1878, some years after the machine was into production. “QWERTY’s” effect was to reduce those annoying clashes, and therefore, speed up typing rather than slow it down.

Balancing Act

The new setup was the “QWERTY” arrangement that typists use today. Sholes claimed that the new arrangement was scientific and would add speed and efficiency; however, the only efficiency it added was to slow the typist down since almost any word in the English language required the typist’s fingers to cover more distance on the keyboard.

It was soon realized that the advantages of the typewriter outweighed the disadvantages of the keyboard, and so typists memorized the crazy letter arrangement, and the typewriter became a huge success.

In the beginning, there was buying resistance to the first typewriters. Poor spellers could no longer hide their ignorance by using illegible handwriting.

Here are some interesting tidbits for you:

The word typewriter can be typed entirely using the top row of the QWERTY keyboard; it has been speculated that this may have been a factor in the choice of keys for ease of demonstration, although this is unlikely.

The average person is expected to type 30-40 words per minute using the touch typing technique on a QWERTY keyboard. 40-50 words per minute is considered excellent, and some typists have been clocked at over 90 words per minute.

Samuel L Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, was probably the first author to submit a typed manuscript to his publisher. He was one of the first to purchase a Sholes & Glidden typewriter.

The least expensive typewriter, produced in the late 1800`s, cost only $1, and was appropriately named, “The Dollar Typewriter”.

The early typewriters used Courier 12 point as a writing standard. You have to admit it is a lot more interesting now!

Have yourself a “QWERTY” kind of day; That is to say, may your clashes, jams and sticky situations be few.


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