December 14, 2020

History of Keyboards - Everything you Need to Know

The modern computer keyboard traces its roots from the typewriter machine, which was in vogue up to the early 2000s. The typewriter was invented by Christopher Lathan Sholes, who patented the invention in 1868.

Following this, the Remington Company started the first mass production drive of typewriters in 1877. Since then, the typewriter has been an ever-present commodity in the history of technology. It has gradually morphed into the modern keyboard after the invention of the personal computer. 

QWERTY : The Beginning 

The qwerty key setup was the first and most basic layout form chosen by the typewriter's early pioneers. According to numerous sources, the qwerty system represented the best possibilities of overcoming the limitations of technology that existed back then. Of course, the qwerty setup was adapted for mobile phone keyboards later on, and the system was introduced by Blackberry first for mobiles. 

The Early Days : Teletypewriters and Keypunchers 

The next landmark moment in the history of the modern keyboard came with the invention of the teletype machine, which is also known as the teleprinter. This technology was first discovered in the mid-1800s - and a host of inventors made efforts to improve it further as the years went by.

However, under the pioneering drive by an individual called Charles Krum, the teleprinter became a widely used product. Then, following this, the 1930s were the next important decade for the advancement of keyboard technology. Notable efforts were made to try and merge typewriters’ input functions with the telegraph’s communications technology.

These ideas were then used as the groundwork for developing the first adding machines or early calculators. These were extremely successful commercially and by 1931, IBM, the pioneering technology company of the time, managed to sell over 1 million units. 

Another offshoot of the typewriter-telegraph merger was the invention of keypunchers. They were punch card systems, which were combined with typewriter technology. The keypunch devices would later go onto serve as the basis of some of the earliest computers, including the Eniac computer that was made in 1946.

Then in 1948, we had another computer known as the Binac, which used an electro-mechanically controlled typewriter to input data directly onto magnetic tape, which then allowed it to feed in computerized data and print the subsequent results. The discovery and widespread emergence of the electric typewriter was another landmark moment in the history of technology, that sought further to entrench the marriage between the typewriter and the computer. 

Video Display Terminals (VDT)

In 1964, thanks to a collaboration between MIT, Bell Laboratories and General Electric, the world got its first taste of a time-sharing, multi-user computer system that was known as Multics. It resulted in the establishment of a new interface called the video display terminal (VDT), which managed to adapt the technology used by televisions to bring images to the computer screen.

Thanks to this system, for the first time in history, computer users were actually able to see the characters they were typing on to the screen. This was considered revolutionary at the time, as it resulted in much better convenience while editing texts. Apart from this, it also made computers feel a lot more responsive and easily programmable for the common user. 

Electronic Impulse and the Early Handheld Devices 

The early computer keyboards, despite all of their revolutionary potential, did suffer from some drawbacks. There were simply too many electro-magnetic steps that had to be carried out for the user to be able to see their input on the computer screen.

This transmission of data took more time than was deemed to be convenient. This was changed, thanks to the VDT technology, which significantly reduced the time it took for the input on the keyboard to reach the screen. By the early 1980’s, all of the keyboards would use electric impulses to transmit data at very high speeds. 

The 1990's was also the time when the first handheld mobile devices were being made for commercial usage. The HP95LX was one of the first of its kind in mobile devices, that was released by the well known brand Hewlett Packard in 1991.

This device did have a qwerty type keyboard, which could be used to enter data. However, it was virtually impossible to use, as the size of the device was so small. These early mobile phones were often classed as Personal Data Assistant (PDA) devices. 

The Challenge of the Digital Pen 

Gradually, as the PDAs got more and more sophisticated, with web access, email usage, data editing possibilities, spreadsheets etc., the concept of pen input was first introduced.

However, these quickly faded out of popularity, as they were often difficult to handle and did not produce the level of razor sharp, perfectly readable text that was possible to achieve with the keyboard. Even ambitious ventures, such as Apple’s Newton Project in the mid 1990s, were insufficient to popularize the concept of PDAs, despite huge investments in research and development. 

Keyboards : Today and Tomorrow 

Since then and until now, keyboards have become more and more irreplaceable in popular commercial usage, as no alternative technology is able to achieve the same level of accuracy and speed of data capture. There were also transformations in keyboard types, as we moved from mechanical keyboards of the early days, to membrane keyboards, which sought to remove that organic feel.

The next change was moving towards soft keyboards, which had visual display responsive to touch screen technology. These are yet to become mainstream however, and it's interesting to note that mechanical keyboards have now regained a major part of their lost popularity - especially due to gamers. We now have keyboards with LED lighting effects as well, that are increasingly popular among gamers and casual users. 

Keyboards have also been challenged by voice recognition and other such technologies, which are yet to dethrone it from its perch. Despite the ease of access of voice inputs and the capacity to type with your own voice, the charm of typing on a keyboard remains to be eternal for many.

It will be interesting to note, where the future takes us in terms of the usage and changes in modern keyboards. This is especially so, as we move ahead towards higher digitization levels, and away from the old school mechanized input processes. 

Jake Norman

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