The History of the Modern Keyboard
Very similar to biological evolution, technology is not a straight line where everything is fixed and reasonable. Some features lay dormant for years before they become useful, while others remain long after. A modern keyboard is a mix of these things and a very fascinating device on its own.
Even the name sounds misleading when you look at a modern PC keyboard in that it is neither a board nor would you see any keys. Those names are remnants from the early days of keyboarding.
Even the modern keyboard that most of us use daily isn't optimized for current standards. The difference between the Dvorak and the QWERTY keyboard is a point of contention for many typists and one that doesn't look as if it will be resolved.
The modern keyboard is made for languages using the English alphabet and Latin letters. With globalization, there is a push to optimize modern keyboards that might end up changing the device forever.
The reason why buttons on the keyboard are named keys is due to the bending mechanism that forces the hammer on the piano to hit the string. The first time someone used the name keyboard it wasn’t for any sort of typing, but rather for musical instruments.
And because the first typing keyboards looked a lot like a piano, with all of the keys spread in alphabetical order, the name just stuck.
Even the first typewriters were made with piano mechanics in mind. Pressing the button would push a hammer that would print out the letter on paper. And because the mechanism wasn’t ever perfect, typing was a much harder job. You needed to hit every key really hard to make a mark.
Modern Keyboard Typewriters
Nearing the end of the 19th century, typing and long-distance correspondence became much more frequent than it was ever before. Because people wanted to see some sort of uniformity and legibility, typing became the preferred method.
Even before Sholes and Densmore patented the QWERTY keyboard, an average typist could type much faster than anyone would write by hand. That was, in fact, the main reason why such a layout was invented.
Because the mechanisms became better and people learned how to type very quickly, the hammers started to jam, after which the operator needed to un-jam them by hand.
The QWERTY layout was made to distribute the keys so that the most frequently used letters are generally far away from each other. That allowed for much faster typing without as much jamming.
The Shift Key and Caps Lock
While most people understand that buttons like Control, Alt, Backspace, as well as the optional Apple or Win key on some models is a product of computers. When you are typing on paper there is no magic button to remove your mistakes.
However, few understand that the shift key is quite similar. Even uppercase and lowercase letters are not as ancient as some would believe.
The fashion of writing smaller and larger letters is less than a millennia old, and it was only standardized in the 18th century for English. Even the first typewriters didn’t have a dedicated shift key but rather used only a huge caps lock mechanism to pull all keys upward.
With the introduction of the shift key, everything became more standardized and easier to manage. It allowed later typists to focus on proper grammar and presentation more than just speed.
QWERTY vs. Dvorak
In 1936, while the first computers were only in their early years, August Dvorak made a new ergonomic keyboard layout. By using such a layout, 70% of all typing would be done on the home row by pushing all of the most frequently used keys there.
But, there are several factors why this alternative didn’t garner wider support.
Primarily, the closeness of the frequent keys on a typewriter meant that it would jam more often. This significantly reduced how fast an average document would be typed out, even if the typing by itself would be faster.
Once personal computers were introduced, there were already schools and experienced typists who were used to the QWERTY layout. This meant that the objective benefits weren’t worth the time you would take to adapt.
Even today, when it is easy to change the keys and software, few people use this layout. After all - while typing on the Dvorak keyboard would theoretically be ~30% faster than on a regular model, the amount of muscle memory you would need to fight would be a major challenge.
Also, if you can already type quickly, you may be limited by your mind more than the speed of your fingers.
Other Speed Bottlenecks
For someone who has successfully learned blind typing and doesn’t need to look, the layout is not an issue. It might even be beneficial to use a keyboard that is worse on paper but provides consistent results.
When it comes to switches inside a modern keyboard, most people prefer mechanical keys than capacitive or linear. This is mostly because of the sound they create, giving you a good audible sign if you have pressed the button correctly.
For a typist, especially after a few years of practice, having confidence and retaining focus on the subject you are typing about is much more important than the keyboard you are using.
You’ll just want your device to be trustworthy and consistent. The rest can be adjusted yourself.
As the world is getting smaller with globalization, people around the world are starting to use the same products that have proven to be useful. Following the examples of history, commerce is a quick way for everyone to adopt practices that bring in money.
But when it comes to keyboards, that is not always easy.
The best example is the Chinese regular script, or zhenshu. Before software, these typewriters were massive. And in many cases, it was easier to write a letter by hand than to type it out.
But as software came to the picture, and especially when online messaging became common practice, the structure of writing changed.
Now most younger Chinese people read and write Roman characters due to SMS. As you write words in pinyin (Romanized transliteration) the predictive text will give you the letter in zhenshu.
The software allows any language to use the same QWERTY keyboard with slight alterations.
Will the Modern Keyboard Change?
Given time, everything will change.
Philosophy aside, it is unlikely that a modern keyboard will change significantly any time soon.
Arguably, even if we produce brilliant speech-to-text software, many would prefer to write their work in silence.
Many innovations are already here. Better layouts and predictive software are already available. But until they will make the job of the typist objectively easier, nobody will throw out their trusty mechanical keyboard.
For most of us today, a keyboard is something we take for granted. Even a new student starting to type their first essay will already be familiar with the layout of the keyboard because of their smartphone. And they won’t ask how a modern keyboard came to be.
But for those who dig deeper, there is a fascinating history of how we came to type on a row of switches that send impulses to our computer.
There needed to be thousands of years of language and writing. That was followed by faster correspondence and printing. Finally, we made software for us to have the keyboards we call normal today.