The layout of the modern keyboard is a Milwaukee creation, and it helped to bring about a world-wide business revolution.
The arrangement of the digits on a keyboard has become something so ubiquitous to modern life that it is perhaps Milwaukee’s most notable contribution to the world. But the “QWERTY” style of keyboard, so known because of the letters that start in the top left of the arrangement, was an invention of necessity, a solution to a mechanical problem encountered by a group of Milwaukee inventors trying to perfect an idea that had been around for over 100 years.
The first mechanized typing machines dated back to the early 1700s. The first American patent was issued on a type machine in 1828. But no one had attempted to make these machines commercially viable. C. Latham Sholes arrived in Milwaukee in 1860 as a former newspaper editor ready to make his name in politics. He served as the city’s postmaster and later worked in the customs office. Like millions of other people of his time, Sholes’ work involved plenty of writing, all of which needed to be done long-hand. In the mid-1860s, he began tinkering with a device that would print numbers at the push of a button. Two other local inventors, Samuel Soule and Carlos Glidden, were impressed by his work and suggested a machine that could print letters as well.
They debuted their first working model in 1867 in their little machine shop on State Street. The device, mounted to a kitchen table, had piano-style keys and made its marks by pressing its “types” from underneath tissue-thin paper into an inked ribbon. For a group of prominent locals, Sholes typed (in all-caps as there were no lower case letters), “C. LATHAM SHOLES, SEPT. 1867.”
But the goal of Sholes was still to create a machine that could be marketed and sold. The trio developed more than 30 working models. By 1870, he declared that the machine was “as perfect in its mechanism as I know how to make it” and vowed to move on to other projects. But Sholes found himself unable to leave the “type writer” idea behind and continued to work on the machine, up to 16 hours per day. By this time, he had settled on a model with a “type basket,” in which the types were attached to the end of bars that swung up at the paper, striking an ink ribbon to make its mark. But the model had constant issues with the bars jamming. Sholes’ solution was both ingenious and counter-intuitive. He rearranged the letter buttons on the machine to place commonly used combinations, such as S and H, far away from each other, both to deliberately slow the typist and to ensure that their type bars would not bunch up. It worked.
In 1873, Sholes and company sold their patent to the Remington and Sons Company, a maker of firearms. Sholes was satisfied with the model, but thought it more of a fleeting novelty than the world-shifting device it became. “I fear the typewriter will have its brief day as a fad,” he later said, “and then be thrown aside.”
Sholes’ fear was, of course, quite unfounded. The device quickly revolutionized the business world and struck an unexpected blow to the idea that women did not belong in the workplace. Within a few years of the typewriter’s introduction, the first American typing schools for women opened and within a decade, more than 60,000 women in the U.S. were working as “female typewriters,” a professional that eventually become known as a “secretary.”
Sholes later spoke proudly of his role bringing about the professional female typist, who could make about $20 a week in the 1880s compared to $6 a week for shopgirls, and said that the most significant impact of his creation was to advance the economic independence of women. Sholes died in Milwaukee in 1890.