Inventor Highlight: Christopher Latham Sholes

Friday, May 29th, 2015

Christopher Latham Sholes- U.S. Patent # 207,559 issued August 27, 1878

Nowadays, as everything we do is on a keyboard and purists bemoan the lost art of handwriting, it is hard to believe that once upon a time there was no easy way to type. Keys were placed in a haphazard arrangement that frequently caused the early versions of what we now call typewriters to jam. The other difficulty was that letters were placed next to one another making it extremely challenging to type with any proficiency, as they were arranged in alphabetical order. This made for innumerable keys jams, and since combinations like “ST” and “ED” often became the end of the line, the author then spent the next ten minutes trying to separate the two letter bars from one another.

Enter an enterprising newspaper editor named Christopher Sholes of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Interestingly enough, Sholes had initially filed and received a patent for a new device called a “typewriter” in 1867. However, the design of this tool was far from perfect. As mentioned, the original keyboard layout had the characters in alphabetical order. So, Sholes began tinkering with various layouts of the Latin alphabet, aiming to find a combination of letters that allowed for both speed of typing, as well as avoiding the frequent jams of the initial design.

He did this using a study of letter-pair frequency prepared by educator Amos Densmore, brother of James Densmore, who was Sholes' chief financial backer. The QWERTY keyboard itself was determined by the existing mechanical linkages of the typebars inside the machine to the keys on the outside. Sholes' solution did not eliminate the problem completely, but it was greatly reduced.

The keyboard arrangement was considered important enough to be included on Sholes' patent granted in 1878, some years after the machine was into production. The QWERTY's effect, by reducing those annoying jams, was to speed up typing. The new arrangement was the "QWERTY" arrangement that everyone on computers, smartphones and even those few purists who insist on old-fashioned typewriters, use today. Of course, Sholes claimed that the new arrangement was scientific and would add speed and efficiency.

Initially, there was a great uproar, as many people had become accustomed to using the unwieldy alphabetical configuration. However, the advantages of the new design outweighed the disadvantages of having to learn a new layout. Typists memorized the illogical, if practical, letter arrangement, and the typewriter became a huge success. So, during this Inventors Month, the Innovation Alliance is proud to salute Christopher Latham Sholes, for his thoughtful consideration that there is ALWAYS a better way. And, of course, we’re proud to mention, if perhaps unnecessarily, that this salute to Mr. Sholes was written on a QWERTY keyboard.