Christopher Latham Sholes and the QWERTY Keyboard

By Karen Harris | January 10, 2023

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Typing on a QWERTY keyboard. (Getty Images)

As preschoolers, we learn our ABCs and gain an understanding of alphabetical order. But when we sit down to type on our computer keyboards (or on a typewriter, if you are old school), you can see that the keys on the keyboard are not arranged in alphabetical order. Where the letter A should be, we find the letter Q instead. And where the letter Z should be, we find the letter M. You will also notice that the first six letters, if you were to try to read the keyboard from left to right, spell out QWERTY, which is how we got the name for this arrangement of letters on the modern keyboard. Just when and why was the QWERTY keyboard developed? The answer may not be what you think.

The Invention of the Typewriter

Christopher Latham Sholes, an American inventor, journalist, and politician, is best remembered for inventing the first practical mechanical typewriter, for which he received a patent in 1868. Sholes, who was born in February 1819 in Mooresburg, Pennsylvania, worked as a journalist and was the editor of several newspapers, including the Milwaukee Sentinel. It was during his time in Milwaukee that he developed his interest in the mechanics of printing. 

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Photograph of Christopher Latham Sholes (1819-1890) an American inventor who invented the QWERTY keyboard, along with Frank Haven Hall, Samuel W. Soule, Carlos Gladden and John Pratt. Dated 19th Century. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Imag

Printing One Letter at a Time

The newspaper printing presses of the early 1860s required a typesetter to select one letter at a time to spell out the words that were to be printed. That gave Sholes an idea. He began experimenting with the idea of a desktop machine that could print one letter at a time. After much trial and error, Sholes and his associates, Carlos Glidden and Samuel W. Soule, successfully developed a working prototype of the first practical mechanical typewriter in 1867. The following year, they received a patent for the invention.

Keyboard Problems

Sholes’s mechanical typewriter was a hit but there was a glitch. Fast typists noted that the keys would jam together if the user typed too quickly. When the keyboard buttons were pushed, the typewriter’s mechanism swung an arm with the corresponding letter upward to strike the paper. When the typist hit letters that were close together, the corresponding arms got wedged together and jammed up the typewriter. Sholes studied the problem and determined that he could rearrange the letters on the keyboard so that common pairs of letters that were frequently used in words were positioned far apart from each other on the keyboard. This solution was effective for two reasons. First, it slowed down the typist. Second, the swinging arms were coming from different places, so jams were less frequent.

Finding the Right Arrangement

The first step in finding the right arrangement of the letters on the keyboard required Sholes to have a solid knowledge of frequently used letter combinations in the English language. For this, he drew inspiration from the work of educator Amos Densmore who released a study of bigrams, or letter pairs, frequency. He also sought feedback from telegraph operators on common letter groupings. Sholes tried numerous different arrangements to find the one that created the fewest typewriter jams. In April 1870, Sholes’s final arrangement of a four-row, upper-case keyboard with all six vowels in the upper row was set.