Tired Of Writing With Pen And Ink Christopher Latham Sholes Designed The QWERTY Keyboard 150 Years Ago !


Today, as it seems, I am going to write. But about what? May be about what I do. Or maybe what I am doing right now. What am I doing? I am typing. Typing on a keyboard. A keyboard that was designed about 150 years ago. At least, the foundation was laid.

So, in a way, we can say (unintentional rhyme, intentional pun), that the most advanced technology is based on the design that is about a century old. As it seems, it doesn’t matter how much a tree grows or is about to grow, it always begins with a seed.

So today we are going to feature the man who planted it, moreover nourished it per se. Christopher Latham Sholes. Inventor of QWERTY design for keyboard.

Born on 14th February 1819, grandchild of eminent pilgrims on maternal side and a gunboat commandant on paternal side, Christopher had four brothers [1]. All of them were taken as apprentice by their own father. His father taught him and his brothers the minute details and techniques of printing and then freed them to make their own way.

Sholes became a newspaperman. After being taught by his father and others in the art of printing. He left his home at the age of eighteen, to work for his brothers Charles and Henry Sholes. Charles, who himself was not entirely antithetical than Christopher. Not only he was a newspaper publisher, he was also a politician. He served as Mayor of Kenosha and served in Wisconsin state Assembly and Wisconsin State Senate [2].

Christopher worked with his brother for two years and then moved to Madison and then to Southport, Wisconsin and founded the Southport Telegraph. He started publishing and writing articles on social reforms and against malpractices like capital punishment and war. He led a campaign for the same in the Wisconsin State Assembly.

While he encountered and wrote about various things including famous trial of John McCaffary in 1851, one particular event became quite famous in that time, about James J. Strang, his “Voree plates” and his claim of being one true prophet [3]. He also wrote about a brawl between two members of council chamber, resulting in death of one, which he witnessed himself. Not only his article was reprinted across the country, Charles Dickens himself featured this event in his “American Notes”.

Sholes advocated the provision of communication. He believed that only through proper communication, people can be brought together and then only, they, as a society, can reach their full potential. He knew that coming together and conversing is an important leg of democracy. His ‘Telegraph’ gave free ad space to any itinerant teacher of handwriting [1].

He was a good politician, a good Democrat and showed his worth every time whenever given the chance, as a member of Senate, city clerk, assemblyman, postmaster or when provided with federal post. Although later he went through a thought change, and became a Republican and supported Lincoln throughout his campaign.

He had a protracted political and journalism career but he was always an inventor. At the end, his profession paved the way to utilize the passion within him.While publishing papers, he got tired with the tedious work of writing with pen and ink and numbering the pages. At last, a strike by compositors at his printing press gave him the push. Although the concept of typewriters started as early as early 1700. But the early designs were highly inefficient, unwieldy, difficult to use and often broke.

He got a problem, he needed to solve it, for the sake of both his passion and profession. He started spending more and more time at C.F. Kleinsteuber’s machine shop in Milwaukee. Which was like a work place and hub for amateur inventors and curious fellows who like to tinker around the metal.
While on his way to make something commercially profitable, he acquired two acquaintances on the way, Samuel W. Soule and Carlos Glidden, both sharing the same enthusiasm and persistence to make something new.

Inspired by a prototype typewriter featured in “Scientific American”, the trio started working on reducing the complexity of prototype and make it feasible. And they made what then was referred to as ‘literary piano’ having black and white keys laid out in two rows.

One James Densmore saw the potential in the invention, he bought the share in their patent and urged them to further work on it to make it more usable and commercially acceptable.So they worked, continuously. They made designs and prototypes and sent them to stenographers, engineers and mechanics to test them. They made more than 50 prototypes each costing more than 250 dollars back them. Every time, they got to know a lot of shortcomings of the machine. Disheartened by number of rejections and complaints Soule and Glidden left the project and Sholes worked alone to make the machine better.

Before they could present their product to any manufacturer they had to overcome one more problem, the jamming of keys. So, Sholes and Densmore rearranged the letters of keyboard so that it would be mechanically most efficient reducing the jamming problem, hence designing the first QWERTY keyboard.

They presented the final version to E. Remington and Sons. Remington, owner of the same arms company decided to buy Sholes patent and offered him 12,000 $, which Sholes gladly accepted because he thought that the design can never be commercially successful, although Densmore didn’t and in return for patents, asked for certain royalty. Remington also appointed engineers and mechanics to work on the machine to make it even more desirable, and at the end, first usable typewriter was commercially manufactured. And the rest is history.

Sholes, unknowingly, gave the world something important. Not only it facilitated the official work all around the globe, it also tiled the way of women in offices. The QWERTY design became so popular that it is still in use in modern keyboards and smart devices instead of the fact that digital keys don’t jam. I guess.

So whenever you start typing thank a man who spent his lifetime building the QWERTY keyboard.


2^ http://legis.state.wi.us/lrb/pubs/ib/99ib1.pdf

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