Q&A: Who invented the ‘QWERTY’ typewriter layout?
This layout, so familiar on our modern keyboards, is the legacy of a design process that began with Christopher Latham Sholes...
This Q&A first appeared in the November 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine
Sholes was a newspaper editor, printer and politician in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the second half of the 19th century.
Having already patented a page-numbering machine, Sholes was encouraged to invent a letter-writing machine. He read an article in the July 1867 edition of Scientific American describing the ‘Pterotype’, John Pratt’s prototype typewriter, and decided he could do better. Together with fellow printer Samuel W Soule and lawyer Carlos Glidden, Sholes created a new, simplified version with keys laid out in alphabetical order in two rows.
It was one of dozens of similar inventions at the time. But thanks to criticism from a stenographer and consulted by his new financial backer, James Densmore, Sholes spent the next five years making improvements, rattling through around 50 iterations. Finally, in March 1873, E Remington and Sons, manufacturers of firearms and sewing machines, bought the ‘Sholes & Glidden Type-Writer’.
Sholes had split up commonly used letter pairs to avoid the type bars jamming together when pressed in quick succession, so at this stage the second of four rows of keys began with QWE.TY. Remington themselves replaced the full stop with an R. It has been said they did so because it allowed salesmen to impress customers by tapping out the word ‘typewriter’ from one row. Whatever the reason, QWERTY was the layout for the wildly popular Remington No 2, released in January 1878, and continues to be used today.
Dan Cossins, freelance journalist.
Enhance the festive season with a subscription to BBC History Magazine + David Mitchell's latest masterpiece UNRULY - signed and hardback!
As a print subscriber you will also get FREE access to HistoryExtra.com worth £34.99