History of Computer Keyboards – The QWERTY Keyboard

History of Computer Keyboards

This History of Computer Keyboards?

computer keyboard

The term QWERTY goes back a long way in the history of computer keyboards, but what is it exactly? If you’re unsure then why not take a quick glance at your computer’s keyboard and you’ll see exactly what I mean. QWERTY is the first six letters on your keyboard, starting at the top row and reading from left to right.

You might be surprised to learn that this strange configuration, as well as that of the other twenty letters on your keyboard was actually arranged in this way to make typing as difficult as it possibly could be. But why would anyone want to do this? Surely they would do the opposite and make it as easy as possible, right? Wrong. Let’s find out the reason why.

The First Beginnings of the Computer Keyboard

The history of computer keyboards begins indirectly with world’s first ever commercially successful typing machine, which was invented by a man called Christopher Latham Scholes during 1873.

In this first design, the keys on the keyboard were arranged in alphabetical order. However, there was a fundamental problem that soon arose with this design. So successful was it that many people, who had become very adept at typing with great speed, came to find that the keys would often become jammed when they were typing too quickly, causing all sorts of problems.

Scholes thought for a long time for ways of overcoming the problem, making alterations to the design of the keys, but nothing seemed to stop them from getting stuck. Finally though, the solution came to him. If he couldn’t stop the keyboard from jamming, then he would simply act to slow the person typing down. To do this, Scholes hit upon the idea of placing the most often used keys away from each other, as far apart as possible. Thence, the modern keyboard known as QWERTY was born.

Conceiving the QWERTY Idea

QWERTY has since been adapted to the modern computer keyboard that we know today. The history of computer keyboards was first thought about in the 1960’s, when a couple called Bob and Joan Crozier found that there was a pressing need to apply computerized technology to many kinds of business. At this time of course, the small personal computer that we take for granted was not available, though there were much larger mainframe computers in operation. The product that the Crozier’s produced featured keyboard switches, showing that they were well aware of the potential advances in computer and keyboard technology.

The First Computer Keyboards

Moving on to the 1970’s, and the first ever computer keyboards arrived on the scene. In the early part of this decade, keyboards for large mainframe computers were manufactured to order on occasion. At this time in the history of computer keyboards, they had to be put together one switch at a time, with each one being soldered onto a backboard. It was quite a rough process, and these early keyboards were often made with no keyboard cover or cabinet.

However, by the middle of the decade, the Imsai and the Altair, the world’s first ever small personal computers came available. Known as S100 computer systems, they were assembled individually from scratch, piece by piece. These computers had no Hard Drive or Floppy Disc Drive with which to save data on. The programming code used to run the computers had to be entered manually by using the keyboard switches on the front panel of the computer, which was quite a laborious task! Meanwhile, the display was in the shape of a black and white monitor. All very primitive stuff.

There was not even a proper keyboard for these computers, and instead users had to buy a converted IBM electric typewriter, or else convert another kind of electric typewriter by themselves. Once you had this, you also had to look for a data entry keyboard, and if you couldn’t find one then you had to build your own!

It wasn’t until the late seventies that standardized computer keyboards finally became available, thanks to far-sighted companies like Apple, Radio Shack and Commodore.

The Modern Keyboard

By the time the 1980’s had arrived, the history of computer keyboards had entered the modern era at last. IBM released its very first personal computer in the early 80’s and equipped it with their famous model M keyboard. Still in high demand even today, due to their high quality and the unique mechanical feel, the model M keyboard was an instant success and performed very well, becoming hugely popular. However, it did have one or two flaws, such as the ‘Enter’ and ‘Shift’ keys being too small to use easily. This problem was addressed at least, with IBM designing special keytop expanders that could be fitted onto the keyboard, enlarging the keys.

There was not much choice in color during this period, with virtually all keyboards being either beige or grey. It wasn’t until the late 1980’s that black colored keyboards finally came out.
Initially, there were only a small number of keyboard manufacturers, and so the production of molds needed to supply extra keys for printing on, even though it was expensive, was not a problem.

However, as the 1980’s progressed, more and more keyboard manufacturers entered the fast-expanding market in earnest, and so the creation of these expensive molds was no longer practical.

This was why, in 1985, IBM developed Touchdown Keytop Overlays, which could apply adhesive onto the top of keys, thus changing the legends on them. From now on, the cost of producing keytops was reduced significantly forever, and this solution is still used today. You may probably know them as ‘Keyboard Stickers’.

The Present Day – Will Computer Keyboards Survive?

The biggest development in the 1990’s was the introduction of Membrane Switches, which began to replace individual mechanical keys. With the introduction of the new laptop computer in this decade, Membrane Switches increased in popularity at an incredible rate, and there were other developments in keyboards due to laptops, and especially the advent of the internet, which fuelled demand for more changes such as extra function and navigation keys.

The last decade, the first one in the 21st Century, has seen even more advancements such as the introduction of ergonomic keyboards that attempt to lessen repetitive strain injuries associated with too much typing. However, the biggest developments of the last decade have moved away from the traditional keyboard. Perhaps, the history of computer keyboards is finally coming to a close. Modern ideas such as the use of voice recognition and touch screen computers may well bring about the demise of the keyboard that has served us so well for almost 150 years.


As you can see there is a lot to learn about the History of Computer Keyboards. I hope these articles on the keyboard will prove useful to your understanding of the keyboard and your understanding of the entire computer.


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