Most of us probably use one every day – even on mobile devices such as phones and tablets. However, have you ever wondered why the letters on a computer keyboard are not placed in alphabetical order? How did the layout of the computer keyboard really originate?
The first semblance of a computer keyboard was in the invention of the typewriter. In 1868, Christopher Latham Sholes patented the first modern typewriter. Nine years later, in 1877, the Remington Company mass produced the first typewriters. These were then further developed to become the first standard computer keyboard just like the ones we use today.
The teletype machine was one of the earliest breakthroughs in keyboard technology. It was created sometime in the mid-1800s. Over the course of the century, many inventors helped to develop and improve it, including Charles L. Krum, David Edward Hughes, Donald Murray, Edward Kleinschmidt, Emile Baudot, Frederick G. Creed and Royal Earl House. However, it was largely due to the work of Charles Krum from 1907 to 1910 that the teletype machine was adapted and made practical for the everyday user.
The QWERTY keyboard layout was patented in 1878 by Sholes and his partner James Densmore. Although there are several beliefs as to why this particular keyboard layout was developed, one explanation is that the QWERTY layout was meant to reduce the physical limitations of typewriters at that time. On early typewriters, typists would press a key that pushed a metal hammer to strike an inked ribbon, which would then mark the keyed character on a paper before the hammer returned to its rest position. The problem with this mechanism was that when common pairs of letters were keyed together, the mechanism could potentially jam. Separating these letters would minimize jamming of the mechanism and make the typewriter run smoother.
The Dvorak keyboard layout was patented in 1936 by Dr August Dvorak and his brother-in-law, William Dealey. The keyboard took 12 years to perfect, and was developed through extensive study of languages that used the Roman alphabet, the physiology of the hand and numerous practical studies. This layout aims to be faster and more ergonomic than the QWERTY default. Dvorak users believe this keyboard requires less finger motion, thus reducing errors, increasing typing speed and reducing injuries from repetitive finger motion, such as carpal tunnel syndrome.
Dvorak has not replaced QWERTY for a number of reasons. Some say that it was due to the second World War occurring shortly after the Dvorak keyboard was patented. Others believe that by the time Dvorak was patented, most typewriters were already using QWERTY, and to change them would be costly and inefficient. Moreover, most people were probably already used to typing using QWERTY and did not feel the need to change. However, there are still dedicated Dvorak typists today, and most operating systems offer the option to change your keyboard mapping to Dvorak.
The 1930s saw the invention of new technologies that attempted to combine typewriters with telegraphs, creating a new keyboard model that was able to register input and print an output while also able to communicate like the telegraph. Additionally, a new innovation was created that combined punch card systems with typewriters. This technology, called keypunches, was further developed into the early calculator (known at that time as “adding machines”). These early calculators were hugely successful – by 1931, IBM had already sold more than $1 million worth of adding machines.
Keypunching was integrated into early computer designs, such as the Eniac computer in 1946. Two years later, the Binac computer was developed, which used an input system consisting of an electro-mechanically controlled typewriter that fed inputs onto magnetic tape. This contributed to the birth of the electric typewriter, taking technology one step further to developing the modern computer.
The First Computer Screens
In 1964, MIT, Bell Laboratories and General Electric collaborated to create a computer system called Multics, which allowed for time-sharing and multi-user operation. A user interface was developed for this system which made use of the cathode ray tube technology being used in televisions at that time. This created a display screen for the computer which was called a video display terminal. The text that the user was typing would be displayed on the screen, making it much easier for people to create, edit and delete text.
Personal Data Assistants
The early teletype machines and keypunches had one major drawback – since they made use of so many electro-mechanical steps to transmit simple data between the keyboard and the computer, they were considerably slow. With the development of electric keyboards and video display terminals, keyboards could now send electronic impulses directly to the computer, thus speeding up the process and saving time. As such, computers were largely adapted to use these technologies by the early 1980s.
In 1991, Hewlett-Packard introduced the first handheld device that enabled mobile computing, the HP95LX. It was basically a handheld computer, compact enough to carry along, and even came with its own small QWERTY keyboard – although it was difficult to type quickly due to the keyboard’s size. Nobody had coined the term “personal data assistant” yet then, but the HP95LX would be the first.
Personal data assistants would facilitate productivity features to the everyday folk, such as web and email access, spreadsheets, word processing editors, personal schedules and other desktop applications, digitizing many aspects of people’s lives in one pocket-sized device.
Beyond the Computer Keyboard
People began to explore other forms of computer input. In the early 1990s, the first pen input devices were created, although they were not very effective since the technology to recognize handwriting was not developed enough. Input via handwriting was not machine readable and required more memory to be saved compared to typing letters. Although early personal data assistants such as GRiDPaD, Poqet, Penpad and Momenta tried to incorporate pen input, they were ultimately not very viable for everyday use.
Apple came up with the Newton project in 1993 as another form of pen input, but it was expensive and the handwriting recognition was poor. Following that, two Xerox researchers, Goldberg and Richardson, invented a system called Unistrokes that allowed users to handwrite a form of shorthand which would then be converted into letters on a device. Palm Pilot was released in 1996 and took off in popularity.
The Soft Keyboard
Despite the advances into handwriting recognition technology, most people still stuck with computer keyboards as their main form of input because it was still more accurate, faster and the capture of data took up less memory. Mobile phones grew in popularity in the 2000s, sparking off the problem of getting a keyboard small enough to be used accurately on a mobile device.
Early mobile phone designs included the phone keypad seen on dated Nokia models. Other companies, such as Blackberry, tried to shrink the complete keyboard to fit below the device’s screen. Eventually, the “soft keyboard” was developed – not made of hardware keys, but rather a visual display on the screen that functioned on touchscreen technology. A user would input text by tapping with their fingers or a stylus. The soft keyboard would also disappear when not in use, saving space for other displays on the screen. Most of us would probably be familiar with the soft keyboard on many mobile devices today.
The Future of Computer Input
As artificial intelligence systems have evolved in recent years, it is now possible to input text without typing a single key or writing a single stroke – using voice recognition technology. Although current voice recognition technology may still leave much to be desired, there may come a day when they replace computer keyboards fully.