From Typewriters to Cellphones: The History and Evolution of the Keyboard


The ease of mass producing textual material (books) brought on by the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440, triggered the need for introducing similar ease and efficiency in the production of written text but on a smaller scale. Enter, the keyboard: a mechanical arrangement of all the letters of the alphabet on a single device which could be used to write with far greater ease and efficiency than by hand.


The keyboard was originally used in the typewriter, one of the most revolutionary inventions of the 19th century. Since the commercial introduction of the typewriter, the keyboard has undergone major changes to the digital keypad format we see today. 


What has the evolution of this rather understated invention been like and what changes has it undergone through time?


Let’s follow the keyboard journey, as it evolves from the mechanical typewriter to the ubiquitous computer accessory, right up to the digital touchpad we see in almost every mobile device around us:


Early Typing Devices:


1575: Francesco Rampazetto, an Italian employee of a printing press is credited with designing the first ever mechanical device, to impress letters on paper but on a scale smaller than the printing press. This machine is considered to be the first ever typewriter.


1714: Henry Mill, an English inventor, patented his design of a typewriter. Although there is no record of the machine being built, his was the first typewriter design that was patented for commercial purposes.


1802: Again from Italy, Agostino Fantoni designed his own special typewriter for his sister who was blind.


1808: Pellegrino Turri invented the office staple: carbon paper, and thereafter used it in his own typewriting device.


1829: William Austin Burt, an American inventor, designed and patented his own typing device and called it a Typographer. It was a rectangular box mounted on legs and used rotating levers for making impressions of the letters on paper. It drew some attention but soon discarded as a novelty as it was even slower than writing by hand, and therefore impractical.



Fig: Typographer by William Burt


1855: Giuseppe Ravizza, another Italian inventor, designed a compact typing device. The speciality of his design was that it allowed typists to actually see the workings of the machine,when typing.



Fig: Ravizza typewriter


1865: Just ten years later, an American by the name of John Pratt, built his own design of typewritercalling it the Pterotype.



Fig: Pterotype by John Pratt


Apart from these, there were a number of other typewriter models designed in Europe and America. However, none of them were commercially manufactured on a mass scale and allmaintained the traditional arrangement of the alphabet from A-Z on the keys.


Commercial Typewriters:


1865: The first commercially manufactured typewriter was designed by Reverend Rasmus Malling-Hansen and was called the Hansen Writing Ball. It was the first typewriter design that tried to speed up typing by using its own letter arrangement on a hemispherical keyboard. A cylinder rotated under the writing head, and letters were impressed on the paper attached to the cylinder. 



Fig: Hansen Typing Ball


Even though the Hansen Writing Ball was commercially manufactured, it did not gain popularity due to the impractical keyboard design, and was very quickly replaced.


1867: The first typewriter design that achieved commercial success was the model developed by Christopher Latham Sholes, Frank Haven Hall, Carlos Glidden, and Samuel W. Soule. Commonly called the Sholes-Glidden Typewriter, it was the first device to use the QWERTY key layout which is the ubiquitously used keyboard layout we see today. The machine was similar to a sewing machine in appearance but could only type lower case characters.



Fig: Sholes Glidden Typewriter


First manufactured on 1st March, 1873, Sholes manufactured a total of 50 machines independently but was unable to produce any more. As a result, he sold the rights of production in the same year to the popular gun manufacturer, Philo Remington. The following year, 1874, saw the release of the Remington Typewriter, which instantly became a huge success. The celebrated author, Mark Twain purchased one in 1874 and became the first author to submit a typed manuscript. He was soon joined by stalwarts like Ernest Hemingway, Rudyard Kipling, George Bernard Shaw, and Ian Fleming, making the typewriter almost symbolic of certain types of authors.



Fig: Remington Model 1


The first Remington model could only type characters in a single case but in 1878, the Remington No. 2 was launched and featured both lower and upper case characters.


1880: A smaller and more compact typewriter called Index Typewriter was commercially manufactured. It was smaller, lighter, and more portable than the Sholes design. However, although cheaper, it was not marketed properly and soon became obsolete.



Fig: Index Typewriter


1890s: In this decade, John Thomas Underwood, a competitor of Remington, purchased the production rights for a practical “front stroke” typewriter designed by inventor Franz Xavier Wagner. In 1897, 250 units of the Underwood Typewriter were ordered by the US Navy, firmly establishing it in the marketplace.



Fig: Underwood typewriter


Electric Typewriters:


1892: Modern technology brought in modern designs for the typewriter and the keyboard. The first electric typewriter was designed by Dr. Thaddeus Cahill and was patented in 1896. In his machine, Dr. Cahill used two individual keyboards for his entire set.



Fig: Dr. Thaddeus Cahill electric typewriter


1902: An electric typewriter was patented by the Blickensderfer Manufacturing Company but due to its impractical design, failed to gain traction.



Fig: Blickensderfer typewriter


1910: Charles L. Krum and Howard Krum jointly designed the first electric typewriter that achieved massive commercial success. It was called the Morkrum Printing Telegraph. It utilized a wheel for making impressions on paper and was eventually used to send telegrams, as a teletypewriter.



Fig: Morkrum Electric typewriter


1920: American inventor, James Fields Smathers designed an electric powered typewriter which,after several design modifications, was launched successfully. The rights of this device were sold to the Northeast Electric Company in 1923. They further modified the design and came up with the highly successful Remington Electric model in 1925.


1928: The Northeast Electric Company was taken over by General Motors and the Electromatic Typewriter Inc. was created. Their first model was launched in 1929. 



Fig: Electromatic Typewriter


1933: Typewriters and keyboards underwent a phase shift as tech giant, International Business Machines (IBM) entered the fray. IBM acquired Electromatic Typewriters Inc. and redesigned the basic typewriter. With a huge investment of 1 million US dollars, the IBM Electric Typewriter Model 01 was launched in 1935. It saw great success and IBM subsequently launched the Model 04 in 1941 with advanced features.



Fig: IBM Electromatic


1936: August Dvorak and William Dealy came up with a unique keyboard layout. They claimed that the newly patented Dvorak layout was more ergonomic and easier to type on than the now standard QWERTY layout. Several additional keyboard layouts have been designed since but the QWERTY remains the most popular choice with the Dvorak, a close second.



Fig: QWERTY keyboard layout



Fig: Dvorak keyboard layout


1946: A computer called ENIAC used the keyboard to record data on magnetic tapes and with the 1948 BINAC, became one of the first devices to use a separate dedicated keyboard.


1961: IBM introduced a completely innovative design with the IBM Selectric typewriter. It used a replaceable type ball to impress letters on paper. It was fast, jam free and novel.



Fig: IBM Selectric Typewriter


1964: This year brought another major phase shift in keyboards as MIT, Bell Laboratories, and General Electric engaged in a collaborative project. They created a multi user computer system based on time sharing, called Multics. Multics allowed the creation of a novel user interface in terms of typing, called the Video Display Terminal (VDT), often credited to be the first dedicated computer monitor. VDT used cathode ray tube technology, the same technology as used in televisions. They integrated it in to their keyboard for the first time in history allowing typists to view what they written on screen prior to printing on paper. This technology became the basis for the development of electronic keyboards for the computers we see today.


1973: IBM first introduced two-colour interchangeable cartridges in their typewriters.


Hybrid typewriters:


1970s: IBM and other typewriter manufacturers started developing a hybrid version of the keyboard, modifying the input (key presses) and output (typed characters) sequence of keyboards. These devices printed characters using the dot-matrix method and could correct mistakes, upto a certain extent.


Electronic typewriters:


1981: The Xerox Corporation produced the latest keyboard for typing. This highly advanced typewriter was not a fully- fledged computer but featured a dedicated processor and RAM, an external memory storage, and an LCD display of a single line, similar to calculators.

Soon, other companies like Canon, Phillips, Smith-Corona, and Brother Industries Ltd. released their own variants of the electronic typewriter. By the late 1970s and the 1980s, electronic impulse based keyboards became standard devices.



Fig: Xerox Electronic typewriter


Handheld devices: 


1991: Hewlett-Packard introduced the first handheld device, the HP95LX - signalling the conversion of the keyboard to keypad. It featured a full QWERTY keypad for entering data, along with a display. With its unique clamshell design and compact handheld form factor, this device became one of the first Personal Data Assistants (PDA). PDAs soon gave way to more mobile computing solutions such as laptops and smartphones.



Fig: HP95LX


2000s: Smartphones began gaining popularity due to the Blackberry and featured a full QWERTY keypad. By the mid - 2000s, almost all smartphones featured the integrated QWERTY keypad but by the end of the decade, phone manufacturers started shifting away from physical keypads to digital ones and these digital QWERTY touch-keypads began to rise in popularity.



Fig: Blackberry phones


2006: LG announced the release of LG Prada, the first smartphone to feature a capacitive touch-keypad. This soon became the standard text entry method for touch based mobile devices and today almost all devices use these type of digital touchpads.



Fig: Common smartphone soft touch-keypad


Summing up:

As computers gained popularity, keyboards and printers emerged from typewriters becoming separate input and output devices respectively. Typing technology advanced from the mechanical impressing of characters on paper to the sending of small electrical impulses to a computer, which translates these signals into the visible characters we seen on screen and then printing these characters to paper, if we need. Technology hasadvanced to the extent that digital touchpads are standard on all touchscreen mobile devices.



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