Where Did the QWERTY Keyboard Come From?

From laptops to iPhones, the first successful typewriter’s keyboard layout lives on

an black antique typewriter
Sholes and Glidden gussied up an early model with floral ornaments, in imitation of sewing machines. Alamy

In 1866, Christopher Latham Sholes, a Wisconsin newspaper publisher and former state senator, co-invented an automated machine to number coupons and tickets—a task previously done by hand. When Sholes unveiled his device to a fellow inventor, Carlos Glidden, Glidden had an idea, exclaiming: “Why can’t you make a machine that will print letters as well as figures?” Sholes shared Glidden’s enthusiasm, as did S.W. Soule, a Milwaukee printer, so the three of them set up shop on State Street by the Milwaukee River and began work on what would become the world’s first commercially successful “Type Writer”—though Soule didn’t stick around for long.

Sholes and Glidden’s first prototype had a semi-sequential keyboard layout, with all letters uppercase and the capital “I” doing double duty as a “1”:

3 5 7 9 N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

2 4 6 8 . A B C D E F G H I J K L M

There’s some dispute over how and why Sholes and Glidden arrived at the QWERTY layout. Some historians have argued that it solved a jamming problem by spacing out the most common letters in English; others, particularly more recent historians, hold that it was designed specifically to help telegraphists avoid common errors when transcribing Morse code. Regardless, after around 30 test models, Sholes and Glidden settled on QWERTY—and changed the world.

The Sholes and Glidden typewriter came to market in 1874, manufactured by E. Remington & Sons, which was then expanding its offerings after a lucrative spell manufacturing firearms for the Union. Sold as the “Remington No. 1,” it became the first commercially successful typewriter and influenced nearly every subsequent successful design. Now, even non-publishers could exchange chicken-scratch penmanship and sloppy inkwells for precise, easy-to-read type, speeding business, legal, medical and personal communications.

Throughout all subsequent revolutions—IBM’s Selectric typewriter, introduced in 1961; the first personal computers in the 1970s; the first keyed Blackberry in 1999; the market dominance of touchscreen phones and tablets in the early 2010s—QWERTY has remained key, even if the keys are no longer hooked to swinging typebars. Our children learn to type this way because their ancestors did, going back 150 years and counting.

In 1925, the columnist Marian Tallman counseled a reader seeking a good, affordable typewriter. “You want to make sure [it’s] of standard make,” she responded. “Look and see if the upper row of letters begins with QWERTY. If so, you are all right.”

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This article is a selection from the September/October 2023 issue of Smithsonian magazine

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