Keyboard Heritage

Keyboard Heritage
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You’ve got a lot of keys on your keyboard. What are some of them doing there and where did they come from?

The funny thing about legends, myths, and traditions is that people keep propagating them from generation to generation until, one day someone asks “Why do we wear pink hats and jump up and down on Saturdays?”

Somewhere along the line, the origins were simply forgotten.

You may notice your keyboard has a lot of keys. You may even use some of them – but not all of them. Just what are some of those obscure keys doing there? And where did they come from?

The origins of the keyboard we use today are steeped less in innovation and more in evolution. Which, funnily enough, explains some of the keys of a modern keyboard, inherited as they are from previous generations.

There is evidence that the concept of a typing machine goes as far as back 1714, where British engineer Henry Mill claimed he had developed an “Artificial machine for the impressing or transcribing of letters, singly or progressively one after another as in writing... so neat and exact as not to be distinguished from print”. No one knows if Mill got to build his invention.

It wasn’t until 1867 that American engineer Christopher Sholes built the first practical typewriter (there were earlier attempts, but they didn’t last). And he’s the important one here – for machine schematics aside, Sholes is the one who is responsible for the layout of the keys that we still use today.

The machine Sholes built had a bit of problem – its levers for commonly typed keys would easily jam up. Initially the keys were laid out alphabetically, and an associate of Sholes by the name of James Densmore suggested splitting the keys up to slow a typist down and reduce the chance of this happening.

And that’s exactly what Sholes did, creating the keyboard we refer to today as QWERTY – for the first six letters for the first row.

Little did Sholes know that one day his layout would be known for more than just QWERTY. For many of us, it’s the WASD layout.

Sholes, unfortunately, didn’t believe his invention would be popular and sold it to the Remington Arms Company (yes, guns) which later mass-produced and marketed the first commercial typewriter in 1873. With a big company engine behind it, the mechanical typewriter became the next big thing. And from there the rest is, almost, history.

IBM and the 83 keys
In the end it would take IBM to popularise the QWERTY layout – first in its ‘electric typewriters’ which, no doubt, took the business world by storm (how exciting!) and later in its first personal computer, the IBM 5150 (aka the IBM PC), in 1981. Actually, Apple’s personal computers were around before this with the majority of the QWERTY keys, but it’s IBM’s layout – and extra keys – that later became the de-facto. Indeed this is where some of the more esoteric keys on your keyboard began.

click to view full size image

IBM’s keyboards had other distinguishing features too – they were built to last, with the buckling-spring mechanism made famous in the Model M keyboard in 1984. Each key was rated to be reliable for over 100 million keystrokes. Times change, eh?

While the first PC keyboard had just 83 keys and some improvements to layout, the addition of cursor keys, and the breaking out of function keys gave us the mainstream 102-keyboard we know today. These are hard to find now, however, as the 104-key keyboard has become standard. What are those two extra keys? The annoying ‘Windows’ keys, courtesy of Microsoft, that you always end up hitting mid-game right as you’re about to frag someone...

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This feature appeared in the August, 2008 issue of Atomic Magazine

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