Clew's Brief History series offer a closer look into the origins, purpose, and use behind things in our everyday lives.
And our official announcement for Clew's shortcut to launch the search bar: Option-Space!
The average typing speed is around 41 words per minute and the record for the fastest is held by Barbara Blackburn who somehow managed 212 wpm during a test in 2005. She probably spent a lot of time practicing in front of a computer. The average person though, spends over 1,700 hours or roughly 2-months each year in front of a computer screen. Knowledge workers who are essentially one with their laptops, likely rack up many more hours. Even if you’re not a record-breaking typist, you probably touch your keyboard more often than your cat, partner, or kid. Hardly anyone spends much time thinking about this hunk of plastic, but the simple little thing has a long history.
Modern keyboards are commonly known to descend from typewriters, but less known is its connection to other old things like teleprinters and keypunches. Charles Krum developed the contemporary teleprinter around 1910. It was used to send and receive typed messages, making its keyboard a big deal for point-multipoint communication during the 20th century. Around the same time, Herman Hollerith developed a machine which would punch holes in stiff pieces of paper at locations instructed by the typer. What teleprinters did for communication, keypunches did for data entry and storage.
But back to the godfather of the keyboard, the first commercially successful typewriter was patented by Christopher Sholes in 1868. When a key was pressed, a metal hammer would strike an inked ribbon to mark a page. People typed so quickly though that they often jammed the keys. Ten years later, Sholes developed the QWERTY layout. Rather than placing the most commonly used letters in convenient locations, Sholes separated common pairs of letters to reduce jamming. The inefficient layout still remains, but certain countries make tweaks. In Germany for instance, the QWERTZ layout swaps the Y and Z keys.
Unlike the typewriter though, the keyboard had to input information into a computer, not onto a page. The first computer, ENIAC, used keypunch technology. The cards with punched holes would be fed to a card-reader that would analyze the data. The input/output technology got more sophisticated over time. The earliest electronic keyboards in the 1970’s used cheap and durable Reed switches. Gas filled the inside of an airtight glass tube which also contained two reeds separated by a small gap. Whenever a magnet came close to the glass body, the reeds would attract, touch, and close the circuit. In 1978, Key Tronic Corporation came out with capacitative-based switches. Under each key, static charges were stored in capacitors. When pressed, capacitors would touch capacitor pads and change the capacitance. It required a gentler push to register a keystroke. The company quickly became the largest independent manufacturer of keyboards.
A ton of detail and history culminated in the keyboard. Even the keycaps posed a design challenge. Engravings or paint fillings were out of the question because the keyboard had to survive millions of depressions and people’s darn hand-creams. More thought than you’d think went into shaping the keys and displaying the key legend. There continues to be innovations made to keyboards with some verging on sci-fi, like the one that uses laser projection.
Alongside improvements in technology, we’ve also found ways to save time with the world of keyboard shortcuts that continue to confuse most of us. One of the most famous is "ctrl+alt+del", which was created by David Bradley and unintentionally popularized by Bill Gates. Bradley was part of a team working to help IBM build a new personal computer. Whenever a programmer came across a bug, they had to manually restart the entire system. Understandably, people were pulling their hair out. That's when Bradley decided to create a shortcut to trigger a system reset. When the computer got to market, the keyboard shortcut remained, but silently in the background. That was until PCs all over the US crashed and showed users the “blue screen of death.” Word spread quickly that Bradley’s ctrl+alt+del would be the simple fix. When asked about it, Bradley admits he didn’t expect to be signing autographs at conferences for coming up with a three-stroke shortcut.
Although we don’t think we’ll make a dent on pop culture like Bradley, our team is excited to announce the shortcut that’ll launch Clew’s search bar: Option-Space.
Hopefully you've learned a bit about the origins of your keyboard with this "A Brief History" post. Rest assured, our team is working hard to save you time to spend away from this wonderful hunk of plastic. Because yeah, your cat deserves some extra petting.