The Evolution of Keyboards

Keyboards are a huge aspect of everyday life in todays society. Some of us spend everyday working with them while almost all of us communicate with them on sites like Facebook. Even mobile phone companies are releasing phones with the qwerty keypad a major selling point. Blackberry sales have rocketed and the big touch screen phones from HTC, Samsung and the iPhone have the option of a qwerty keypad too.

A typical Blackberry design with their iconic qwerty keypad

So where did this everyday tool come from?

The qwerty keyboard, also know as the Sholes keyboard, was designed in the 1870s by Charles Latham Sholes. As you may already know, the qwerty keyboard gets its name from the arrangement of letters on the top row. But why are the arranged in this order?

Qwerty Keyboard

The first keyboards, found on early typewriters, were arranged in alphabetical order in a single long row a bit like a piano! Designers wanted an arrangement that would reduce the size of the typewriter. This brought in circular arrangements like the one below…

The piano and circular arrangements quickly proved awkward. In the end, a rectangular layout made up three rows emerged a lot like todays keyboards but these ones were in alphabetical order.

So why did the order change? Well to use a typewriter levers were manipulated by keys but they were large and ungainly so the size and spacing of the keys were dictated by these mechanical considerations. People started to design typewriters by the characteristics of the human hand but this meant when typists typed to fast the levers would collide and jam. Charles Latham Sholes’ design rearranged the keys so that letters which often appeared next to each other such as ‘i’ and ‘e’ would be on opposite sides of the keyboard eliminating the risk of accidental jamming. What’s more, this arrangement allowed for much faster typing.

The Sholes Keyboard

The design was so successful it became global and so broad that by the time computers were invented the arrangement stayed the same, even though the mechanical problems that Sholes had to overcome no longer existed. In fact, in the absence of these mechanical constraints, a better alternative to the qwerty keyboard has been designed with nothing but the the frequency of letters and ergonomics taken into consideration. The Dvorak keyboard…

Dvorak Keyboard

It allows for 10-15% faster typing but everyone I show it to recoils and rejects it immediately. This goes to show that the qwerty keyboard is so successful that even better keyboards can’t knock it off its perch.

Another reason why the qwerty keyboard is successful is because it’s easy to learn. There are keyboards out there that have as few as 10 keys. The work by pressing different combinations of keys, like a sort of chord, to create letters or even whole syllables or words. A keyboard with 10 keys has 1,023 possible combinations allowing the user to type any letter or number with a lot left over for other outputs.

Sternograph Machine

With todays technology, users can change the settings on their computers to select a keyboard type but then that would mean prising off the keys and rearranging them to match. It won’t be long before laptops are available with touch screen keyboards. They already exist on most smartphones and tablets.

iPad Keyboard


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