The history of the keyboard is filled with battles, controversies and lasers
Oct 2, 2023

The history of the keyboard is filled with battles, controversies and lasers

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In his book “Shift Happens,” Marcin Wichary explains the innovations that turned the typewriter of 1873 into the keyboards of today.

How many hours a day do you spend at a computer typing? Or staring at your smartphone screen tapping out emails, text messages or search queries?

The common thread among those activities is, of course, the humble keyboard. It’s the unsung hero of our tech lives. The thing almost every great modern book or screenplay or even Instagram caption was first written on.

And yet, very few people are writing about it.  

Designer and writer Marcin Wichary sought to change that with his new book “Shift Happens.” In it, he chronicles the sometimes contentious history of the keyboard.

Marketplace’s Lily Jamali spoke to Wichary about his research, beginning with the very first typewriters.

Marcin Wichary: Many different countries in Europe claim they had the first typewriter. They’re all kind of correct in a way because they had typewriters, but some of them were never built, some of them only manufactured one copy, some of them manufactured more copies, but just their typewriters didn’t work very well, and they didn’t really amount to anything. And so the argument cannot really be settled, but many people say that around 150 years ago right now, in September 1873, you could buy a qwerty typewriter for the first time. You could pay not an insignificant amount of money for a device that didn’t work that well, but did work. You can trace the history of pretty much every keyboard since to this moment in time. Qwerty basically conquered every keyboard that stood in its way. People even argued it created bureaucracy in some way. They say the qwerty keyboard and the elevator created bureaucracy. So, there’s these longer-lasting effects to this particular typewriter with this particular layout getting on the market.

Lily Jamali: What do you mean the typewriter created bureaucracy?

Wichary: Well, so before typewriters existed, offices were pretty new and not working very well. Records were kind of kept haphazardly, if at all. Typewriters allowed typing to be much, much faster, allowed rewriting, allowed multiple copies eventually to arrive. Typewriter keyboards led to punch cards and eventually the internet and stuff like that. So in the Western world, in Europe and in America, you can see a very big change the moment you start seeing typewriters and elevators. You start just the emergence of offices as an entity the way that we understand them today. Whether that makes you happy or not is a whole different story, but the typewriter ended up being this very affordable and universal device to enter data and to process data.

Four black and white photos of women working in typewriters.
A spread from “Shift Happens” of women working in data entry. (Courtesy Marcin Wichary)

Jamali: Let’s talk about the evolution of the keyboard. How does the keyboard that we use on our computers every day compare to the very first ones from the late 1800s?

Wichary: What’s sort of terrifying and beautiful and perplexing is that it’s almost exactly the same in some ways, and very, very different other ways. The funny thing I like to imagine is if you grabbed the guys who worked on the first typewriter, and you set them in front of a computer today, they would know what to do with it, which is kind of amazing. They would know that there are letters you press and the letters, compose words and paragraphs, etc. So, in some ways, the qwerty layout is almost exactly the same as it was 150 years ago.

Jamali: Why are there two shift keys? I’m dying to know.

Wichary: It’s funny you should mention this. My book is actually called “Shift Happens” because the arrival of shift was sort of the first battleground. The first typewriters just didn’t have lowercase, so different typewriter manufacturers ended up approaching this in different ways. Some would have one shift. And the reason it’s called shift is because it was actually shifting the type bars up and down. Some typewriter manufacturers had three shifts; some typewriter manufacturers had zero. They actually said, “We’re going to have lowercase keys above uppercase keys, and you’re just going to have a lot more keys.”

They were fighting with each other, and it was really fun to watch. It’s really fun to see their advertising because they were using this flowery language of the 19th century, where they were talking about, like, “How can you trust a key that does nothing?” Or, you know, “How could you know if you’re getting an uppercase or lowercase if you don’t see it on a key?” They were arguing about things like wasted key presses or the typewriters that had three shifts were like, “Our typewriter is small, and you can figure it out.” So, they battled, right?

There were all sorts of solutions on the market. And what happened was there was a typewriter called Underwood that chose to take one shift and put it on both sides of the bottom row. But also, that typewriter had a lot of other things that worked really well, and it became maybe the first typewriter hit. And it helped popularize this idea of just having one shift that goes on both sides. The more people used it, the more people got used to it. We don’t really have proof that two shifts or zero shifts were actually worse in any scientific or mathematical way.

A book shows the Underwood keyboard, the first to use two shift keys on either side of the keyboard.
The Underwood keyboard, the first to use two shift keys on either side of the keyboard. (Courtesy Marcin Wichary)

Jamali: As you’ve been researching this topic, is there a particular moment in the keyboards history that really surprised you?

Wichary: The biggest discovery for me was the history of backspace. It’s not a key that we think much about today probably. But it’s hard to remember that, for most of the time typewriters existed, backspace wasn’t as easy, right? You couldn’t simply erase something that you type on paper. That’s not how the world works. That’s not how atoms work. So, there was this cottage industry of inventors that tried to help achieve what we take for granted today, which is a complete erasure of a letter from paper. So there were special kinds of rubbers, like versions of a pencil eraser, there were liquids, there were tapes, there were chemical solutions, there were all sorts of things. Even one of the co-inventors of the laser proposed to build in lasers into typewriters for the sole purpose of just zapping things from the page. He had a prototype, it worked, not really well, but it worked. You could erase the ink because it was black and it absorbed the energy more, and the paper would be mostly untouched. Eventually what happened was with computers, you basically get backspace for free. It’s almost the opposite now, right? With computers, if you’re not careful, you lose all of what you wrote instantly. So, backspace is almost just like a side effect of that.

Jamali: You spent a lot of time researching the history of the keyboard. Has it shaped how you think about the future of this technology?

Wichary: I struggle with this. Many people predicted the end of keyboards many, many times. People were hoping that voice would replace keyboards, and it did to some extent. Imagine you could be typing to Siri, but you typically talk to Siri, or Alexa, or whatever. People sometimes dictate texts or even books by voice, but you know, the vocal muscles can get tired, and they’re actually less equipped to handle strain than your fingers. So, I think keyboards will be with us for a while. They happen to be this kind of wonderful link between your brain and the outside world that can operate for hours on end and without mistakes. It doesn’t even occupy that much of your brain. You can think and type, you can talk and type, you can do other things and type, and you can do it very quickly and efficiently. And it actually doesn’t take that much time to learn to type fast enough. And so, I think keyboards will be with us for a while. From what I understand, the only really big threat for keyboards, quote-unquote, is any sort of neural connection, anything that goes directly to your brain. Whether we’re close to that or not, I’m not sure.

More on this

Back in February, Marcin Wichary launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund “Shift Happens” with a goal of raising $150,000. The campaign surpassed that amount in minutes, and a month later, he’d raised more than $700,000 to produce the book.

Now, a few thousand copies of the completed book — though really, it’s more like a set of books — will be delivered to folks who backed the Kickstarter campaign, just in time for the 150th anniversary of the keyboard.

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The team

Daisy Palacios Senior Producer
Daniel Shin Producer
Jesús Alvarado Associate Producer
Rosie Hughes Assistant Producer