by Chris Woodford. Last updated: August 16, 2021.
If I said "QWERTYUIOP", would you know
what I was talking about? Well, if you've ever used a typewriter, or
looked closely at your computer, you'll recognize this weird word as the top string of letters running
from left to right across the keyboard. The reason why virtually all
western keyboards are laid out in such a strangely haphazard way,
instead of in simple alphabetical order, is a historical one that's all
to do with how typewriters work. So how do they work? Let's lift the lid and look inside!
Photo: My first ever, portable, manual typewriter dating from about 1980. Note the keys running QWERTYUIOP. Virtually every
typewriter and computer keyboard ever made has used this strange sequence of keys.
What is a typewriter?
If you're under the age of 30, it's quite likely you've never even
seen a typewriter, let alone used one. Before personal computers
became popular in the 1980s, virtually
every office on the planet (and many homes) had one of these mechanical
letter-writing machines. It's called a typewriter because it lets you
write on the page with pieces of type: slugs
with raised letters on them, that make neat, printed marks on the
paper. The raised letters are molded in reverse so they print correctly
on the page (just like a toy printing kit or a potato print).
Manual and electric typewriters
Photo: A typical electric typewriter.
This model dates from the late 1990s.
The first typewriters (and most portable typewriters, like the
shown in our first few pictures) were completely mechanical. A
mechanical typewriter is a machine:
is operated by
finger power. The force of your fingers is what makes the ink appear on
the page. That's why mechanical typewriters often produce rather
erratic, uneven print quality—because it's hard to press keys with the
same force all the time. When electric,
semi-electric, and electronic
typewriters became popular in the mid-20th century, they automated many
of the things a typist previously had to do by hand.
Most electric typewriters do away with the system of levers and
typehammers. In some models, the type is mounted on the surface of a
rotating wheel called a golfball. Other
models use a daisywheel, which looks like a
small flower, with the type radiating out from the end like petals. The
keys on the keyboard are effectively electrical switches that make the
golfball or daisywheel rotate to the right position and then press the
ribbon against the page. Because the type is hammered under electrical
control, every letter hits the page
with equal force—so a big advantage of electric typewriters is their
much sharper, neater and more even print quality.
Photo: A daisywheel from an electric typewriter (small photo, inset right) is about as big as the palm of your hand. You can just about make out the raised letters, in reverse, in the close-up photo on the left. Each character is on a separate "petal" of the wheel. The upper- and lower-case versions of each letter are on separate petals too (unlike in a mechanical typewriter, where the upper- and lower-case letters are on
the same type hammer).
There's another big difference from manual typewriters too. In a
manual typewriter, the type hammer mechanism stays still while the
paper (wrapped around a rubber roller on the carriage known as the
platen) gradually moves to the
left. In an electric typewriter, the paper and the carriage stay still
while the golfball or daisywheel gradually move to the right. When you
reach the end of the line, you press the carriage
return key. The golfball or daisyweel whizzes back to the
extreme left position and the paper turns up a line.
If you have an inkjet or laser printer,
it gets its ink from a cartridge; inkjets use actual, liquid ink, while lasers use a kind of finely powered
solid ink called toner. What about typewriters? They use neither. Their "ink" is impregnated on a very long
spool of ribbon. As you type, an ingenious mechanism winds the ribbon from the spool on one side to the spool
on the other. Once all the spool has fed across, the tension in the spool trips a switch and the ribbon feeds
back in the opposite direction. Over time, the ribbon goes back and forth umpteen times. Each piece of
fabric is hit by the hammers over and over again, gradually losing its ink, so the words you type slowly
fade from black to gray. I used to use ribbons until they faded almost to invisibility, as you can see
clearly in the photo below. Once a ribbon is worn out, you buy a whole new spool. To make life far more
complicated than it needed to be, different models of typewriters came with different
types of ribbons ("groups"), so one that worked on a certain machine (maybe a "group 9") wouldn't work on another.
Photo: The ribbon mechanism in my typewriter. You can see that most of the ribbon is
over on the left and feeding through to the empty spool on the right. The ribbon threads through a sort
of gate mechanism in the center that keeps it in exactly the right place under the type hammers. Note the black-and-red
double-color ribbon on this machine. By pushing a lever on the keyboard, you make the ribbon rise up
higher when the type hammers come forward, so the hammers hit the lower, red section, making red letters
on the page. Everything about a typewriter is mechanically ingenious!
Typing mistakes are one of the biggest problems with mechanical
you hit the wrong key, it's already too late: you've made a permanent
mark on the page.
Similarly, if you change your mind about what you wanted to write, you
can't easily erase what you've written. There are three ways around
this difficulty. One is to use a special eraser to remove the type
marks. It works just like a pencil eraser, but it rubs ink away instead
of pencil. Another option is to use a correction fluid like Liquid
Tippex (effectively a quick-drying white paint that covers up your
mistakes). When electric typewriters appeared, they offered a much more
convenient, third option: many of them had an auto-correction feature.
This is a second ribbon, made of plastic and with white ink
imprinted onto it. If you hit the autocorrect button on an advanced
electric typewriter, the print mechanism moves back one space and
overtypes the last key you printed using the white ribbon. So if you
typed H by mistake and hit autocorrect, the machine would go back one
character, and type a white H on top of the black one—effectively
removing it from the page. You could then type a different character on
Electronic typewriters made typing mistakes a thing of the past.
They're effectively a halfway-house between typewriters and
computers: they look like typewriters, but they
have completely electric keyboards
and work like computers.
They often have a little LCD display screen and the letters
you type appear on there first. You can easily correct your mistakes on
the display before printing anything out. Some electronic typewriters
(like the popular Canon Starwriter series) have a large internal memory
and a screen big enough to show about eight or ten lines of text. You
can type several pages of text into the memory
and play around with the formatting, just as you can on a computer.
When you're finally satisfied with what you've written, you can print
out the text or save it on a floppy disk.
Photo: The Canon Starwriter: a typical electronic
This model dates from the mid-1990s.
There's no ribbon in this one. Behind the LCD display,
there's a modern inkjet printer.
Many more people have computers these days and hardly anyone uses
mechanical typewriters. Indeed, now
is so advanced, some people don't even use keyboards! But typewriters were
crucially important to the development of personal
computers. The whole idea of a personal computer (a machine into which
you type "input" and wait for written "output" to appear on the screen) is
essentially based on a typewriter. You sit at a keyboard and peck away,
one letter at a time. If you're using a word processor, what you see on
the screen—letters slowly appearing and moving toward the right of the
page as you type—is exactly what you would have seen on the paper in a
Why do keyboards have that strange QWERTY layout?
So, back to the mystery we started with: why are the keys on a
typewriter or computer keyboard arranged in such a strange way? Why not
a much more sensible fashion? If you've ever typed quickly on a
typewriter, you'll know the reason: the type hammers move up and down
so quickly that they can collide and jam together. Then you have to
reach into the guts of the machine to disentangle them, getting ink and
oil all over yourself in the process. To reduce the risk of that
happening, the designer of the first popular typewriter,
Christopher Latham Sholes (1819–1890), rearranged the keyboard so letters often-used were spaced widely apart. For example, if you type the word P-R-O-B-A-B-L-Y
very quickly, your fingers have to keep leaping from one side of the
keyboard to the other as you go from one key to the next. That gives
each type hammer time to fall back down and get out of the way of the
next hammer that's about to rise up, reducing the risk of a jam. Now
computer keyboards are entirely electronic, there's no reason at all to
keep the QWERTY keyboard layout. We keep it
because most people know it—and for no other reason. It's a charming
quirk of history—and long may it remain so!
Artwork: Modern typewriters are recognizably descended from the typewriter patented by Christopher Latham Sholes in 1896. You can see the keys at the front, the typehammers arranged in a circle underneath the carriage, and the spools of ribbon on the extreme left and right.
Artwork from US Patent 559,756: Type-writing machine by Christopher Latham Sholes courtesy of US Patent and Trademark Office.
That's just a patent sketch; in reality, early typewriters looked something like this (a cut-down model with only about 20 keys. Look closely and you can see pushing down on the crude keys would pull down on those thin wire levels, which flipped the type hammers up against the paper, normally wrapped around the cylinder on the top.
Photo: Model of an early typewriter (similar to the Latham Sholes
design). Photo by Harris & Ewing courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.