Sholes’s Keyboard

[Picture of Typewriter]Writing and drawing by hand have been around as long as we have, but surprisingly, mechanical reproduction has been around almost as long — think of stamped coins, woodcut pictures, engravings and even signet rings stamping wax seals.

There was a Chinese clay printing system around about 1040, and a Korean metal version a few hundred years later — neither of which became very popular using the massive array of glyphs required. Block printing was well established in 1447 when Johannes Gutenberg invented a movable type printing press that revolutionised the modern world because it was based on a simpler character set than Chinese, because it coincided with mechanisation and industrialisation, and because there was a rise in secular works of science and literature.

In the USA during the mid-19th century, a smaller portable mechanical device was invented by Christopher Sholes that mechanised written English. He called it a “Typewriter”, and it comprised a carriage mechanism, and a piano style of keyboard, where a character type is moved by levers when a key or button is depressed. The metal glyph is hammered against an inked ribbon, to leave an impression on paper inserted into the machine.

However, Sholes found that his levers would stick and smudge the ink when keys were pressed at the same time, or when the intervals were too short to allow the lever to fall back out of the way of the next character, so he experimented with a variety of mechanical solutions for speedy and clumsy typists.

His levers improved, and the key sizes and spaces between were greatly improved, but the problem remained, Sholes began to disrupt the alphabetic sequence, and this improved the results by slowing down the typist. It was not very scientifically done – Sholes began by separating out the vowels and placing them together on the top row. This was slowly refined by dropping the ‘A’ to the middle row and re-arranging the other vowels on the top row: ‘E’, ‘U’, ‘I’ and ‘O’. Each refinement was designed to keep the keys and levers from sticking, and so the best method was to try to share out the characters between the two hands. The original alphabet layout had three rows, two rows of ten and a row of 6:


Even back in 1873, there was some help for the Sholes & Glidden Co. in that there has been a standard piece of ‘greeking’ text used since the original printing press days to show the effect of a font typeface and page layout. This standard is derived from Ancient Latin– from a work on Ethics by Cicero around about 45 BC called ‘De finibus bonorum et malorum‘. The Latin originally said “Neque porro quisquam est qui dolorem ipsum quia dolor sit amet, consectetur, adipisci velit . . .“, but soon became “Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et…“, and is understood to represent very well the frequence and occurance of letters in English (which is why it has survived to this day intact).

It was not a perfect system, but it resulted in the ‘QWERTY’ keyboard used today — even when there are no mechanical levers to stick – as with computer keyboards.

The basic Sholes arrangement from the 1930s used in the mass production of business typewriters, and adopted by other manufacturers and models — is three rows, a row of ten, a “home row” of 9, and a bottom row of 7. Look at how “Lorem ipsum dolor sit…” would have to be typed using both hands:


There was also a row of numbers added, as well as keys for punctuation marks, but these were used by manufacturers to get around patents and copyright by moving a glyph to a new position their keyboard was not a Sholes keyboard!

For many, the cleverest and most important innovation was the shift method to make each key or button serve a second purpose – usually changing the case from regular to Capitalisation, small case to large case. The carriage mechanism held the paper and moved the patten and inked ribbon along one character space at a time as each key was pressed. The return mechanism pushed the entire carriage back to the start position to the far left tab as well as rotating the patten to move the row of characters down the page.

Computer innovations:

The “commercial at” is the character “@” a glyph which has been around for years and little used has become one of the most used characters today.

IBM electronic typewriters and early computers had a developed keyboard that included a separate number keypad to the far right, and this remains for most computer keyboards except laptops and PDAs. Alt, Alt Gr, and combinations of Ctrl and Alt were introduced in electronic typewriters and computer word processors for special characters, and foreign accents.

Toshiba invented the “Fn” or “Function” key which added even more functionality to each key for use with their laptop keyboards – this primarily allowed a set of normal keyboard character keys to become a numeric keypad, but there are all sorts of extra Fn functions today — and some laptops have had to switch the Fn key with the Ctrl key for patent and copyright reasons.

Electronic typewriters also introduced the much hated “Caps Lock” feature retained by computers and laptops still.

Non-English typewriters and keyboards have developed to suit the languages used, but all are based on the Sholes typewriter keyboard. Sholes developed other keyboard layouts (as have others) to improve comfort, precision and speed later on, but while these may be better, they have never become as popular as the “real thing”.

Sholes’s typewriter changed the world, but as the typewriter has been replaced by the computer, we have to re-evaluate the design, and look only at the keyboard layout design. As this is the world’s most popular, and as the basic Sholes design has remained unchanged since launch, this has to be declared a classic design of significance and great importance.


3 Responses to Sholes’s Keyboard

  1. Xelor says:

    I like the way this site is so interesting you must really love designs

  2. billy says:

    VERY good article! Helped me O lat alot

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