Inventive Genius: The Modern Typewriter
CHRISTOPHER Latham Sholes patented the first practical modern typewriter in 1868.
Soon after, the Remington Company began mass marketing the first typewriters.
There are several legends around the development of the QWERTY keyboard layout, which was patented by Sholes and his partner James Densmore in 1878.
As to why this keyboard layout was chosen, it had to do with functionality.
Early typists pressed a key which would, in turn, push a metal hammer that would rise up in an arc, strike an inked ribbon making a mark on a paper and then return to its original position. Separating common pairs of letters minimised the jamming of the mechanism.
As the machine technology improved, other keyboard alignments were invented that claimed to be more efficient, such as the Dvorak keyboard patented in 1936.
In the 1930s, new keyboard models were introduced that combined the input and printing technology of typewriters with the communications technology of the telegraph. Punched card systems were also combined with typewriters to create what was called keypunches. These systems were the basis of early adding machines (early calculators), which were hugely commercially successful. By 1931, IBM had sold over one million dollars worth of adding machines.
Keypunch technology was incorporated into the designs of the earliest computers, including the 1946 Eniac computer, which used a punched card reader as its input and output device. In 1948, another computer called the Binac computer used an electro-mechanically controlled typewriter to input data directly onto magnetic tape in order to feed in computer data and print results. The emerging electric typewriter further improved the technological marriage between the typewriter and the computer.
In the 1990s, handheld devices introducing mobile computing became available to consumers. The first of handheld devices was the HP95LX, released in 1991 by Hewlett-Packard. It was a clamshell format that was small enough to fit in the hand. Although not yet classified as such, the HP95LX was the first of the Personal Data Assistants (PDAs). It had a small QWERTY keyboard for text entry, although touch typing was impossible due to its small size.
Apple’s Newton project in 1993 was expensive and its handwriting recognition was particularly poor. Goldberg and Richardson, two researchers at Xerox in Palo Alto, invented a simplified system of pen strokes called “Unistrokes,” a sort of shorthand that converted each letter of the English alphabet into single strokes that users would input into their devices. Palm Pilot, released in 1996, was an instant hit, introducing the Graffiti technique, which was closer to the Roman alphabet and included a way to input capital and lowercase characters. Other non-keyboard inputs of the era included the MDTIM was published by Poika Isokoski, and Jot introduced by Microsoft.
The problems with all these technologies are the data capture takes more memory and is less accurate than digital keyboards. As mobile devices such as smartphones grew in popularity, many differently formatted keyboard patterns were tested—the issue became how to get one small enough to use accurately. One fairly popular method was the “soft keyboard.”
A soft keyboard is one that has a visual display with a built-in touchscreen technology, and text entry is performed by tapping on keys with a stylus or finger. The soft keyboard disappears when not in use. QWERTY keyboard layouts are most frequently used with soft keyboards, but there were others, such as the FITALY, Cubon, and OPTI soft keyboards, as well as a simple listing of alphabetic letters.