QWERTY - something consistent across the years

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The National Museum of Computing contains many computers from across the decades and using a wide variety of technology. But there is something you will see over and over again as your browse our collection and it is the QWERTY keyboard, used to communicate with many of our computers.

As our intrepid volunteers move from one machine to another, facing the technological challenges of each decade of computing; they can at least be thankful that the keyboards did not change much even if everything else did. Often not at centre stage of any exhibit, the humble keyboard probably does get the most wear and tear of any part of the computer and is the way we ‘touch’ these machines and cajole them into doing our bidding.

We have seen a few attempts to change the layout. Most keyboards will have the ‘extra’ keys to offer access to various functions and capabilities of the computer, but QWERTY is almost always there to reassure our uncertain fingers that all isn’t too different. A splash of colour sometimes, a change of shape to the keys; different symbols, a move from left to right; but it really has not changed much.

The pictures are of a few keyboards you can find around TNMOC, but there are more to see here; about 40 that I snapped as I wandered around the Museum one day. It is curious to think how many fingers have busily ‘picked’ at the keys; how many letters composed, accounts completed, emails sent, programs written, files named and errors corrected.

Those of us that are perhaps a little older first met QWERTY with mechanical typewriters, but our younger visitors can be seen using the same layout all these years later. I guess we should acknowledge the work of Christoper Latham Sholes who in 1873 in Milwaukee, US first laid out the familiar design of QWERTY that we see today. He was of course interested in the early typewriters invented over a hundred years ago but still influencing the design of our interface with computers today.

I wonder when we will see the demise of the keyboard and what will replace it? Some future gazing for you then as you enjoy our collection of technological heritage.

Perhaps you would like a little homework? Well there are two ‘tales’ you might like investigate in connection with QWERTY. Firstly, was this layout really designed to slow the typist down to avoid mechanical typewriters from jamming? Secondly, you have probably noticed you can type the word TYPEWRITER using just the keys from the top line of the QWERTY layout, but was this designed on purpose to enable salesman to easily demonstrate the early new typewriters?

As you press the keys on your own computer, don’t forget the place of the computer keyboard in the history of computing and how much of your own life is recorded as presses on those small plastic keys.

If you have a ‘different’ keyboard and want to donate it to our Museum, then click donate here and tell us what you have. The Museum is happy to consider donations of computers, peripherals, documents and books. Send us the details and we can let you know if we think we can accommodate your offer.

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