Thursday, February 17, 2011

Adieu to the inventor of QWERTY

On this day in 1890, Christopher Latham Sholes died and was laid to rest in Forest Home Cemetery, Milwaukee. "Who is he to me," you ask? He is the man you can thank for scrambling your keyboard out of alphabetical order. You probably unknowingly took his name in vain countless times in your typing classes. Although he did not invent the typewriter per se, he invented the first practical commercial application of it. (And the next time auto-correct "fixes" your text message for you, remember: there was a reason for that keyboard design)

"Seriously? Who invented this thing?"

Even after his death, Christopher continued to influence modern type. He died the year after his application for one last patent had been filed, and the executor of his estate, George B. Sholes (his son) finished the paperwork and declared to the Patent Office on Christopher's behalf:

"I, Christopher Latham Sholes, of Milwaukee, in the county of Milwaukee, and in the State of Wisconsin, have invented certain new and useful Improvements in Type-Writing Machines; ... and it consists in certain peculiarities of construction and combination of parts... By the construction of above described I provide a type-writer of practical character wherein there is a positive adjustment and action of the type bars and consequent perfect alignment of the printed characters, while at the same time the result of the work is always in sight of the operator."1

Try lugging this thing back and forth to the genealogy library.

At the time, the QWERTY arrangement was helpful. The typewriter had a very annoying habit of jamming when the user typed too fast. Sholes's invention was intended to spread the most commonly used letters apart. The first model they had invented was designed like a piano keyboard, complete with alternating ebony and ivory keys in two rows. This arrangement didn't work so well, and as inventors do, Sholes came up with a more useful method which would prevent the weights at the bottom of the keys from jamming. It was brilliant, and made typing much less frustrating at the time.

You can search for other clever inventors hiding in your family tree. searches include entries from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Patents, database 1790-1909. But if you don't have an subscription, you can also search the United States Patent and Trademark Office for free using their databases, some of which include full text as well as images of the invention which were supplied with the patent application. Google also has a specific search just for patents which is a little easier to use.

What fun things did your family invent?

1. “USPTO Patent Full-Text and Image Database,” digital images, United States Patent and Trademark Office ( : accessed 17 Feb 2011), George B. Sholes on behalf of Christopher Latham Sholes, Type-writing Machine, patent file no. 464,902 (1891); original file location not cited.

For further reading about Christopher Latham Sholes and the typewriter:

1 comment:

  1. This was a really interesting post. I never knew why the letters were aligned the way they are on typewriters. Of course now that we don't use typewriters the letters could be in alphabetical order, but wouldn't that cause an uproar among those who of us who use the qwerty system!?! I don't think I have any inventors but it won't hurt to take a look. Thanks for the links.