Necessity is the mother of invention

16th April 2024
Sheryl Miles

Christopher Latham Sholes’ work remained with us even though it is no longer needed.

Christopher Latham Sholes was born on 14 February 1819 in Mooresburg, Pennsylvania. He was an apprentice in a print shop, and when he learned his trade, he took up publishing himself in nearby Danville and later in Kenosha. He edited and published a newspaper called ‘The Kenosha Telegraph’ there.

It was the desire to improve the work of printers that brought the world an invention which, despite being over 150 years old, is still widely used today. This is despite the fact that the technology for which it was developed is now a thing of the past.

From page numbering to the typewriter

The initial idea was to develop a machine for automatic page numbering. This would significantly speed up the work of publishing books or producing numbered tickets, etc. Another printer, Samuel W. Soule, became involved in the project, and a fully functioning prototype was built in 1866. Had Sholes stopped there, we would probably never have heard of him. We would probably also be typing on completely different keyboards today. Fortunately, when the American inventor saw the results of his work, he saw other possibilities for using the machine. After only a year, he and his team created a model of the machine equipped with fonts with the full alphabet, numbers, and punctuation marks.

Interestingly, the model was actually a structure created from components of other already working machines, adapted to the new role – there were parts of clockwork mechanisms, the telegraph, or keyboard instruments. What was important, however, was that it was one of the first really working prototypes of a typewriter, although this model also had to undergo several more modifications before it became known as Remington No.1.

QWERTY keyboard

The element that set Sholes’ structure apart from any other was the keyboard he developed, which is now known as QWERTY. The designer created a character layout that minimised the risk of the font arms getting jammed. The element that determined the position of the characters was the frequency of occurrence of individual adjacent letters in English. The letter layout that we are so familiar with from our computer keyboards manufactured decades after its development, has remained almost unchanged, even though the initial reasons for its development have now become irrelevant.

QWERTY is optimal for typing speed – hardly anyone uses a typewriter today, but in computers or phones that we use with one hand, the character layout is still the same. Of course, the are many modifications around the world that adapt the original layout to the needs of specific languages.

A few interesting facts about the famous keyboard are worth noting - Sholes’ design did not include the numbers ‘1’ and ‘0’, as they could be replaced by ‘I’ and ‘O’, making the device easier to build. Typewriter salesmen often used the word ’typewriter’, to show the speed of typing as it was easy to type in since the letters were arranged in a single row. The characters ‘qwertyuiop’ also constituted the content of the first email ever sent and were simply a string of random characters. ’qwerty’ itself is one of the most frequently used passwords according to NordPass.

In addition to his publishing activities and his work on the famous keyboard, Christopher Latham was a successful politician. He served in the Wisconsin State Senate and later in the Wisconsin State Assembly.

Irreplaceable interface (UI)

It was observed many years ago that, although technology has allowed us to build cars controlled by joysticks for decades, manufacturers and consumers alike seem to strongly favour the use of a steering wheel. And this is not necessarily out of habit – sometimes the solution is simply so good that it needs no further evolution. The same is true for the QWERTY keyboard layout. It has become a ‘second nature’ to us. After all, single-board computers or even microcontroller modules allow us to develop all sorts of ways of interacting with machines (e.g., voice recognition). Similarly, touchscreens can display any character layout. However, they mostly display the keys in the QWERTY layout. What’s more, nowadays we can buy individual keys without any problem and arrange them in any way – but in order to make the device comfortable to use, the designer usually opts for a method invented more than 150 years ago – even in smartphones or portable label printers.

This brilliantly illustrates not only the human ability to coexist with technology, but also that a world-changing invention does not have to be complicated at all. Sometimes all it takes is a very good idea.

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