by Rosemary Bailey
This article was originally published in the August 2013 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society
We all use it, probably most days, but how did the QWERTY keyboard come about? Used almost universally throughout the English speaking world, its development goes hand in hand with that of the typewriter. The inventers of what is generally felt to be the first typewriter were, among others, Samuel Willard Soule and Christopher Latham Sholes, with Sholes going on to patent the QWERTY keyboard.
Christopher Latham Sholes
Samuel Willard Soule (sometimes written as Soulé) was born Pompey, New York state on January 25th 1830. It is not know for sure who his parents were, but the Reverend G T Ridlon, in A Contribution to the History, Biography and Genealogy of the Families named Sole, Solly, Soule, Sowle and Soulis, names five siblings, Elisha, Marcus, Edwin B, John Benson and Mary Ellen. Ridlon also states that Samuel married Betsey Call Pelton in 1867 in Woodstock, Vermont. Samuel died in 1875, but it appears that his wife was still alive at the time Ridlon wrote his book in 1926 and was able to describe her memories of the first typewriter as resembling an old fashioned melodeon. Soule became a printer and inventor.
Unfortunately we don’t know anything about the family of Christopher Latham Sholes.
The first patent for a typewriter of sorts was Henry Miller in 1714. It was described as apparatus ‘for impressing or transcribing of letters singly or progressively one after another, so neat and exact as not to be distinguished from print, very useful in settlements and public records’. There were various subsequent patents for typing machines but it wasn’t until Carlos W Glidden (a lawyer and inventor) suggested to Christopher Latham Sholes (politician and newspaper editor) and Samuel Soule that the three of them should cooperate on a project to make a typewriting machine that anything that we would recognize today was developed. Prior to this, in 1866, Sholes and Soule had patented a number machine on November 13, 1866.
Working in the machine shop of C. F. Kleinsteuber in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with Matthias Schwalbach, a machinist, the three men produced their first typewriter in the summer 1867. It was described as looking like a cross between a small piano and a kitchen table. The typewriter had its letters on the end of rods called ‘typebars’ which hung in a circle. The roller which held the paper sat over this circle, and when a key was pressed, a typebar would pivot up to hit the paper from underneath. It was Samuel Soule who developed the circle with the pivoting type bars. The typewriter produced only capital letters and interestingly did not have the numbers 1 or 0 since it was felt the letters O and I could be used. The letters and numbers were arranged on the key board alphabetically and numerically respectively. This machine was patented by Sholes, Glidden and Soule in June 1868.
The men approached many people for financial backing and, without even seeing the typewriter, James Denesmore of Meadville, Pennsylvania agreed to pay all the expenses incurred so far in return for becoming a fourth partner in the business with Sholes, Glidden and Soule. Denesmore was less than impressed when he did see the machine and insisted that improvements were made. Eventually Glidden and Soule became disillusioned with the project and left, leaving Sholes and Denesmore in sole possession of the patent. The pair realized that stenographers (those who took shorthand) would be the main users of their machine and would be good judges of its suitability so they asked several to test the typewriters and made any improvements they suggested.
In early 1873 Sholes and Denesmore sold the patent to E Remington and Sons, later the Remington Arms Company. Sholes sold his half for $12,000, while Denesmore, by now a stronger believer in the machine, insisted on a royalty, which would eventually earn him $1.5 million. Although he left the project a court action in 1872 awarded Glidden a one-tenth interest in the 1868 invention.
Sholes continued to work on improvements to the typewriter including making changes to the keyboard. The original keyboard was prone to jams as keys close to each other were pressed. To avoid this Sholes placed keys commonly used sequentially (such as ‘th’ and ‘sh’) far apart on the keyboard. It is possible that the study of letter pairing frequency by Amos Denesmore, brother of James Denesmore, helped Sholes with developing his keyboard over the next five years. Another modification that helped prevent keys jamming was to have the keys arranged slightly offset from the one above. And so the QWERTY keyboard that we use today was developed.
For years, popular writers have accused Sholes of deliberately arranging his keyboard to slow down fast typists who would otherwise jam up his sluggish machine. In fact, his motives were just the opposite, he was trying to prevent jamming and so improve typing speed.
The 1878 QWERTY keyboard layout
The photo below is of a prototype manufactured as the 'Sholes & Glidden Type-Writer' by E Remington & Sons Co beginning 1874. This was the first typewriter to be a commercial success with about being 5000 made, was the first to use the QWERTY keyboard layout invented by Sholes, and the first to be called a typewriter.
A commemorative historical marker indicates the site of the machine shop where the typewriter was developed:
Approximately 300 feet northeast of here, C. Latham Sholes perfected the first practical typewriter in September 1869. Here he worked during the summer with Carlos Glidden, Samuel W. Soule, and Matthias Schwalbach in the machine shop of C. F. Kleinsteuber. During the next six years, money for the further development of the typewriter was advanced by James Denesmore, who later gained the controlling interest and sold it to E. Remington and Sons of Ilion, N.Y.