History of The Mechanical Keyboard

by Nilabha Mukherjea

Our communication through the Internet is only possible through the Keyboard. This begs the question of where and how this format of the Keyboard, the QWERTY format, came into existence and how other formats did not survive through the test of time?

The QWERTY layout, attributed to an American inventor named Christopher Latham Sholes, made its debut in its earliest form on July 1st, 1874.

The Qwerty Keyboard

When typewriters were first invented, the keys were arranged in alphabetical order. However, that led to numerous complications. When users typed at a greater speed, the mechanical character arms would tangle up and become unresponsive.

As a viable solution, the keys were randomly positioned to actually slow down typing and prevent such key jams. The QWERTY format was made so the user can type using keys from the top row of the keyboard, and random arrangement slowly became the standard.

The original key layout, with the second half of the alphabet in order on the top row and the first half in order on the bottom row, led to a few complications. The keys were mounted on metal arms, which would jam if the keys were pressed in too rapid succession.

Sholes' solution was separating commonly used letter pairings, such as "ST," to avoid these jams, effectively allowing the typist to type faster, rather than slower.

He went through several design iterations, attempting to bring the typewriter to market. When he sold the design to Remington in 1873, the QWERTY layout looked like this:

‘2’ ‘3’ ‘4’ ‘5’ ‘6’ ‘7’ ‘8’ ‘9’ ‘-‘ ‘,’ ‘Q’ ‘W’ ‘E’ ‘.’ ‘T’ ‘Y’ ‘I’ ‘U’ ‘O’ ‘P’ ‘Z’ ‘S’ ‘D’ ‘F’ ‘G’ ‘H’ ‘J’ ‘K’ ‘L’ ‘M’ ‘A’ ‘X’ ‘&’ ‘C’ ‘V’ ‘B’ ‘N’ ‘?’ ‘;’ ‘R’

Remington Typewriter

The first Remington typewriter sold poorly; as it could only type in upper-case letters and was expensive at $125 per unit. The updated Remington 2 typewriter, introduced in 1878, changed this. Bringing marketing expertise to bear, the new Remington Standard Typewriter Company was able to bring the typewriter to commercial success.

Remington made several adjustments and launched the Sholes and Glidden typewriter on July 1, 1874. Its keyboard layout was almost the same QWERTY keyboard layout we use today, with a few minor differences: 1 and 0 were left out to help shave down production costs, on the basis that these numerals could be produced using other keys, such as a capital I and a capital O. Remington also swapped the R and ‘.’ keys.

The 0 was added fairly early on, but some keyboards well into the 1970s were still missing a 1.

The Dvorak Format

Dvorak is a keyboard layout for the English language patented in 1936 by August Dvorak and his brother-in-law, William Dealey as a faster and more ergonomic alternative to the QWERTY.

August Dvorak was an educational psychologist and professor of education at the University of Washington Seattle and William Dealey was a professor of education at the then North Texas State Teachers’ College in Denton, Texas.

Dvorak and Dealey's objective was to scientifically design a keyboard to decrease typing errors, speed up typing, and lessen typist fatigue. They engaged in extensive research while designing their keyboard format. In 1914 and 1915, Dealey attended seminars on the science of motion and later reviewed slow-motion films of typists with Dvorak.

Dvorak proponents claim that it requires less finger motion and as a result reduces errors, increases typing speed, reduces repetitive strain injuries and is simply more comfortable than QWERTY. Over the decades, symbol keys were shifted around the keyboard resulting in variations of the Dvorak design.

In 1982, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) implemented a standard for the Dvorak layout known as “ANSI X4.22-1983”. This standard gave the Dvorak layout official recognition as an alternative to the QWERTY keyboard.

The layout standardized by the ANSI differs from the original or "classic" layout devised and promulgated by Dvorak. Indeed, the layout promulgated publicly by Dvorak differed slightly from the layout for which Dvorak & Dealey applied for a patent in 1932 – most notably in the placement of Z.

Today's are significantly different:

The numeric keys of the classic Dvorak layout are ordered: 7 5 3 1 9 0 2 4 6 8

In the original Dvorak layout, the question mark key [?] is in the leftmost position of the upper row, while the slash key [/] is in the rightmost position of the upper row.

The Dvorak layout has the following symbols share keys (the second symbol being recognized when the SHIFT key is pressed):

  • colon [:] and question mark [?]

  • ampersand [&] and slash [/].

Several modifications were designed by the team directed by Dvorak or by ANSI. These variations have been collected or individually termed the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard, the American Simplified Keyboard, or simply the Simplified Keyboard, but they all have come to be known commonly as the Dvorak keyboard or Dvorak layout.

The work of Dvorak paved the way for other optimized keyboard layouts for English such as Colemak, but also for other languages such as the German Neo and the French BÉPO.

Other Formats

In 1893, George Blickensderfer had developed a keyboard layout for the Blickensderfer typewriter model 5 that used the letters DHIATENSOR for the home row. He had determined that 85% of English words contained these letters.

The Dvorak keyboard uses the same letters in its home row, apart from replacing R with U, and even keeps the consonants in the same order, but moves the vowels to the left: AOEUIDHTNS.

In the 1930s, the Tacoma, Washington, school district ran an experimental program in typing designed by Dvorak to determine whether to hold Dvorak layout classes. The experiment put 2,700 high school students through Dvorak typing classes and found that students learned Dvorak in one-third the time it took to learn QWERTY.


There are some QWERTY layouts that use largely the same base as Sholes’ original keyboard adapted by Remington but switch a few keys. AZERTY, used in French-speaking countries across Europe and Africa, is one such version.

In English-speaking western countries using the QWERTY layout, the numbers row on the top of the keyboard are used predominantly as numbers, but in France, the idea is reversed: as it is primarily the accent row, holding down shift and hitting a key will give you a number.


Used predominantly in central Europe, QWERTZ is another slight tweak on the tried-and-tested QWERTY layout. QWERTZ is not necessarily one single layout: country-by-country variations exist that are tailored to better match the needs of that area’s particular linguistic nuances.

  • Colemak

The Colemak keyboard layout is meant to appease those who are uncomfortable with QWERTY but don’t feel like adopting a whole new layout. Instead, it makes 17 changes to the key layout and also does away with the Caps Lock key. It's replaced with a second backspace key, to aid users, who tend to make more errors while typing.

  • Maltron

The Maltron keyboard may, at first, seem utterly daunting. Rather than a single rectangular grouping of letter-based keys, Maltron produces two straight sets of letters, both of which flank a number pad in the middle.

The left-hand square of letters has the unusual combination of ANISF as its home row, while the right-hand square’s home row is set out in the DTHOR combination.


For some countries—and some languages—QWERTY just won’t cut it. Russian, for example, uses the Cyrillic alphabet, which is wholly different from the Latin-based English alphabet.

Since 1917, when Russia reformed its alphabet to remove some letters, JCUKEN has been the default layout for Russian keyboards.

And there you have it. The various formats, the history, and the people behind the format of a keyboard that we all use from across the globe to post on social media, to play video games but more importantly to communicate the language that makes us who we are.

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