You probably know that the computer keyboard is a duplicate, more or less, of the ones used on typewriters in the 20th century. You may even know that the reason most frequently given for the weird layout of the keys is that mechanical typewriters would get stuck if you pressed two keys close to each other a lot. There’s a little more to the story.
Christopher Latham Sholes is generally credited with the keyboard design we refer to as “QWERTY,” having patented it in 1878 for a typewriter design he sold to Remington, which was one of the manufacturing giants of the day and still known for their guns. Remington became a powerhouse in office equipment and a descendant of the company even produced one of the first commercially viable computers.
The part you know about the keys sticking together is true, but there’s another part that may or may not be a rumor that you may not be aware of. The arrangement of the keys seems both random and confusing at first, but it may have existed to help sell typewriters themselves. Long before the rapid typing we think of today, typewriter salesmen (yes, they were all men) had to find a way to show off their inventions. The easiest way was to type a word or two and, as rumor has it, they chose to type the words “type writer.” How convenient, then, that they could type those words by using the keys in the top row. (try this for yourself, I’ll wait.”) So, the layout may not have been as random as we tend to think… it could have been a legitimate sales gimmick.
The QWERTY layout persisted even though there have been several other layouts designed to make typing much faster or easier to learn No matter who tried or when, it was always the QWERTY layout that stayed with us. The success of the odd layout depends on something called “the network effect,” which says that something becomes more valuable as more people use it in a particular way. This applies to everything from light switches (everyone agrees that “on” is up) to telephones to USB plugs. At a certain point something becomes so common that even if it doesn’t make sense it still continues to succeed even when something more sensible comes along. In may ways, our technology trains us to use it, and the QWERTY keyboard was the first incredibly successful example of that.
As for the keyboard itself, it’s been a fairly predictable journey. The first “key boards” were in musical instruments, where a different musical note (which we still refer to as a “key”) was produced depending on which button or lever on a board was pressed. At one time, yes, the boards were real wood boards. Typewriter keyboards were used for teletype machines, which were initially used to send messages over a phone line and eventually were adapted for computer input. The mechanics of a computer keyboard have changed a bit, but for the most part, pressing a button closes a contact which is interpreted by a chip and sent to the computer as a code.
PC computer keyboards have had an incredibly successful life and haven’t changed a whole lot since the first IBM PC of 1981. Incredibly, with the right combination of adapters to change its long-obsolete DIN connector to a USB one, you can pick up a PC keyboard from the 1980s and happily type along on any personal computer made today, including Macs believe it or not. Those old keyboards are so overbuilt that they’re still found in thrift shops and yard sales, too. While you’re there, take a look at the old typewriters you’ll find, and you’ll realize that keyboards really pretty much look the same today as when your great-grandmother was a kid.