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typewriter keys

Tech Throwback Thursday: The typewriter lives on 140 years later

April 01, 2015
By Alexander Lucas

How many spaces do you type after a period? Do you type without looking at the keyboard? 

I ask because there is an incredible 140-year legacy surrounding the physical keyboard for computers, and the virtual keyboard on tablets and smartphones.

And yet the legacy of this machine, the typewriter, still hangs over us even in a thoroughly digital age. For instance, I still regularly type two spaces after the period. And despite its near-universal use, the QWERTY keyboard is not the most efficient keyboard layout. So where did all this madness start?

hansen writing ball

Early writing machines

The first patent known for a writing machine belongs to an English inventor, Henry Mill, dating back to 1714. Through the 19th century, over 100 designs were patented, many meant to aid the blind in composing letters. None were ever commercially produced, however, as the machines were much slower than handwriting.

Rev. Rasmus Malling-Hansen developed the first commercially produced typewriter in 1865. Known as the Hansen Writing Ball, the design was unique, with the letter keys arranged on a half globe that used pistons to print on the paper below it.

hansen writing ball

The Hansen Writing Ball was the first typewriter to produce text faster than a person could write by hand. This was due to the experimentation in the letter placement. Hansen arranged the keys so that the most used letters were below the fastest and strongest fingers.

While the Hansen Writing Ball won awards at several world exhibitions in the 1870s, it was produced by hand and was soon surpassed by future models. Friedrich Nietzsche purchased a Hansen Writing Ball once his sight began to fail and had this to say about it:

"The Writing Ball is a thing like me: of iron yet twisted easily – especially on journeys. Patience and tact must be had in abundance as well as fine [little] fingers to use us."

early typewriter

Commercial success, slow adoption

The first commercially successful typewriter was the Sholes and Glidden Typewriter, designed in 1867. Designed by a trio from Milwaukee, Christopher Sholes, Samuel Soule and Carlos Glidden, the "Type-Writer" took its form from a number of preexisting inventions. The carriage movement was performed by an escapement, the keys originally came from telegraph keys and the type hammers came from piano keys.

It was not until E. Remington & Sons began to manufacture the device in 1874 that it went into mass production. Despite this, only 400 machines were purchased in its first year because of its high price, poor performance and industry resistance.

As a quick aside, E. Remington & Sons may be a familiar name. The company exists today as Remington Arms Co., America's oldest gun maker. The typewriter business would be spun off in 1886 and eventually refashioned as Remington Rand. Through another few acquisitions, mergers and renames, this company's genealogy now lies with Unisys.

In 1878 the Remington No. 2 was released with the ability to write upper and lower case letters and a QWERTY keypad. These two elements would become extremely important for the development of all future typewriters.

QWERTY's dominance

Why QWERTY? The keyboard layout is not intuitively logical. 

Sholes' first keyboard layout had the letters progressing alphabetically left to right in a piano fashion, with two rows and keys on the diagonal. The second iteration had all the vowels and common punctuation on one row and consonants following on succeeding two rows in order. This arrangement of consonants can still be seen on the keyboard with the sequence "DFGHJKL."

Once the keyboard was sold to Remington, mechanics changed some of the letter order to resemble the final QWERTY layout. 

This still begs the question: Why the change and why the diagonal placements?

I have a few answers. Early typewriters experienced a common defect: the keys would frequently jam. Letters had to be offset so the bars would not lay on top of each other, like on a piano with the black keys.

Most people assumed the rearranged letter sequences also had to with letter jams. Theories abounded that the letter arrangement was based on an efficient method of handling letter frequency, letter combination frequency or positioning of the letters under the strongest fingers. However, none of these are true.

One interesting alternative explanation, while exciting, is likely apocryphal. You can type the word "TYPEWRITER" using only the top row of letters. There are only four other 10-letter words in the English language that can be done in this manner. Bonus points if you can figure any out in the comments below.

kinesis machine

Alternatives and input innovations

There are several alternative arrangements out there that do challenge the QWERTY layout, though they are not widely adopted, including the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard, Colemak, MALTRON and PLOVER. All four methods change the layout in order to optimize keystrokes for common letter combinations and word frequency in order to reduce motion. According to PLOVER, for instance, you can gain a 700 percent efficiency with a QWERTY alternative. 

A more digital solution to keyboard efficiency has come from "swipe-to-type" technology that allows for sweeping motions rather than a series of taps. This, combined with spelling auto-correct, has made it much easier to type on a mobile device than it had been with a small scale digital keypad.

With the rising efficiency and accuracy of cheap voice recognition software, optimal keyboard layouts could be even less of an issue, except in cases where you cannot talk. Voice recognition apps are now widely built into new smartphones and tables.

Darn double space

One final note concerning the double space after a period.

Although many typographers had already united in the one-space rule for printing work, a single space on a typewriter was far less legible due to the monospace nature of fonts on the machine. Two spaces made typewritten text more readable. But once typing moved to computers with non-monospaced fonts the practice continued, largely due to the instruction from teachers who learned under typewriters and continued the practice.

On the first draft of this article I double-spaced 62 percent of the time. Old habits die hard. Thank you, copy editors.

For more Tech Throwbacks, check out my last article about future technology: Where’s the flying car sci-fi promised? Also let me know in the comments if you think the QWERTY keyboard will die anytime soon.

A self-styled storyteller, Alexander Lucas loves to share his vast knowledge of tech, innovation and design trivia. TEKsystems’ resident video designer is also an avid history buff and writes about technology innovation through time.

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