by Chris Woodford. Last updated: March 5, 2018.
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 of metal, 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).
What happens when you press a key?
Here's the typewriter with the top cover removed. The keyboard is at the front. The paper moves from right to left on the carriage at the back. In between, is a complex arrangement of levers and springs. A typewriter like this is completely mechanical: powered entirely by your fingertips, it has no electrical or electronic parts. There's not a microchip in sight!
So how do you use it? The basic idea is simple: you press a key (1) and a lever attached to it (2) swings another lever called a type hammer (3) up toward the paper. The type hammer has the slug of metal type on the end of it. Just as the type is about to hit the page, a spool of inked cloth called a ribbon (4) lifts up and sandwiches itself between the type and the paper (5), so the type makes a printed impression as it hits the page. When you release the key, a spring makes the type hammer fall back down to its original position. At the same time, the carriage (6) (the roller mechanism holding the paper) moves one space to the left, so when you hit the next key it doesn't obliterate the mark you've just made. The carriage continues to advance as you type, until you get to the right edge of the paper. Then a bell sounds and you have to press the carriage return lever (7). This turns the paper up and moves the carriage back to the start of the next line.
Photo: Two more views of the type hammers in a typewriter. Left: Looking down from the top of the machine with the keyboard on the left. Each hammer has two characters on it. Normally, the lower character (a lowercase letter, number, or symbol) strikes the page. if you press the shift key, the carriage tips up and back so the upper character (an uppercase letter or symbol) hits the paper instead. Notice the rows of levers that swing the type hammers toward the page when you press a key. Right: A close-up of the type hammers. On this photo, you can also just about see the springs that make the type hammers return to position when they're released (in between the silver-colored legs of the type hammers).
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 orange one shown in our first few pictures) were completely mechanical. A mechanical typewriter is a machine: everything 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.
Typing mistakes are one of the biggest problems with mechanical typewriters. If 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 Paper or 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 automatically 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 top.
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 typewriter. 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 voice recognition 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 typewriter.
Why do keyboards have that strange QWERTY layout?
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.
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 in a much more sensible fashion? If you've ever typed quickly on a mechanical 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!
Find out more
On this website
On other sites
- The Virtual Antique Typewriter Museum: A great site with marvelous photos and information about old typewriters.
- Typewriters: Science Museum UK. A good little history of typewriters with photos of some early models. [Archived via the Wayback Machine.]
- Finessing Typewriters for Nearly 40 Years, and Now Turning Over the Keys by Corey Kilgannon. The New York Times. December 27, 2013. On the retirement of Bino Gan, owner of Typewriters 'N Things, and one of New York City's best-known typewriter repair men.
- I Am TOM. I Like to TYPE. Hear That? by Tom Hanks. The New York Times. August 3, 2013. The movie star explains his love of manual typewriters.
- Five reasons to still use a typewriter by Gerry Holt, BBC News Magazine, 20 November 2012. Is it traditional, cool, practical, or retro to go back to typing?
- Click, Clack, Ding! Sigh ... by Jessica Bruder. The New York Times, March 30, 2011. Simplicity, freedom from online distraction, and a commitment to what you're writing—a few of the advantages the digital generation has discovered in analog typewriters.
- Why typewriters beat computers by Neil Hallows, BBC News, 30 May 2008. Why some people (including a number of famous writers) still prefer typewriters over computers.
- Digital world has feet on ground by Bill Thompson: BBC News, 18 November 2009. A thoughtful British technology commentator muses on the shift from typewriters to computers.
- The Typewriter Sketchbook by Paul Robert. Lulu, 2007. A great book about early typewriter history produced by The Virtual Typewriter Museum (see above).
- The Typewriter: An Illustrated History by Typewriter Topics. Dover, 2000. A short, illustrated guide to old typewriters.
- Antique Typewriters: From Creed to QWERTY by Michael Adler. Schiffer, 2007. An illustrated history with detailed information about old makes and models that will appeal to collectors and enthusiasts.
- The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting by Darren Wershler-Henry. Cornell University Press, 2007. Absolutely not a history of typewriters, but more a guide to how writing with typewriters became a part of our culture. Not a book to go to if you want to study the history of typing machines.
For the more technically minded among you, these three patents show how Christopher Latham Sholes' ideas evolved and improved during the 1880s and 1890s:
And here are some fascinating later patents:
- US Patent 681,957: Electric type Writer by George Ennis. Issued September 3, 1901. One of the first electrically controlled typing machines and the earliest I've found on the USPTO database. This machine predates the Blickensderfer, which Wikipedia writers have (wrongly) suggested was the first electric typewriter. The Ennis patent was originally filed on March 24, 1900.
- US Patent US2,247,275: Automatic motorized typewriter by Arthur Buckley. Issued June 24, 1941. An early example of a part-mechanical, part electrical, part-pneumatic typewriter.
- US Patent US2,684,745: Teletypewriter by Edwin Blodgett, IBM. Issued July 27, 1954. A forerunner of the fax machine that could send and receive messages between two different locations. This is a relatively late example.
- US Patent 2,919,002: Selection mechanism for a single printing element typewriter by Leon Palmer. Issued December 29, 1959. The main patent covering IBM's classic Selectric ("golfball") typewriter. Although electrically controlled, this machine was a work of mechanical genius: the golfball is controlled by an intricate pulley and tape mechanism.
Kenneth Foster, Jr., became a writer on death row. When he was nineteen, he drove three friends to two armed robberies in San Antonio, Texas; late that night, one of the friends shot and killed a man. Foster was in the car, approximately eighty feet away, but, under the Texas Law of Parties, he was convicted, in 1996, of capital murder. (Foster, like more than a third of the prisoners executed in Texas, is African-American.) He started writing a few years later, after he watched correctional officers forcibly remove a prisoner from his cell. “This man was gassed, wrestled down, cuffed and dragged to his fate,” he told me recently, in a letter. The prisoner was executed by lethal injection, and Foster began to grasp that, one day, the same thing would happen to him. He needed to share what he saw and felt. “I have written with everything from pen, typewriter, marker, to my own blood,” he explained. “I have written on tables, floors, on walls when I only had a crack of light, in the dark, under blinding lights.”
He bought his first typewriter, a Smith Corona, around 1999, and he began writing letter after letter in an effort to stop his execution, which was set for August 30, 2007. The state kept death-row prisoners in solitary confinement, or “seg,” and, alone in his cell, Foster began to think of his typewriter as a companion. He recalled:
Regardless that I’ve had countless of these cheap machines each one is “baby.” The receiver of my affection and attention. Without “her” I didn’t feel complete. With “her” I felt like I was on a DELL in an office somewhere in upper Manhattan. While guys spent time in these Seg cells calling out chess moves over the walkways or doing push-ups until their veins bulged from their temples, I was in my cell pecking away trying to create a different world for myself. Some kind of way I felt I could rewrite my future.
In Texas, before prisoners are put to death, the seven-member Board of Pardons and Paroles reviews their applications for clemency one last time. On August 30th, Foster saw his wife and grandfather, and, in a small act of protest against capital punishment, he refused to eat a final meal. Then his father arrived. “Six to one!” he shouted, ecstatic. The board had read Foster’s typewritten application and voted to recommend that his death sentence be commuted to life in prison. An hour later, Governor Rick Perry called off the execution.
Foster said that as soon as he was sent back to a prison cell, he resumed writing. In the years that followed, many prisons began to regulate typewriters. When Foster’s typewriter broke a few years ago, he discovered that the commissary stocked only clear-plastic machines made by Swintec. This model often broke, he said, but he depended on it. “Buttons stop working, centering goes off,” he told me. It costs two hundred and twenty-five dollars. “That’s a ludicrous price to pay for such junk, but for a person that produces as much material as myself it is absolutely necessary.”
Just across I-95 from New York City, in a light-industrial patch of Moonachie, New Jersey, a one-story building houses the headquarters of the Swintec Corporation, the nation’s sole supplier of clear typewriters. Eighty-five people used to work in the office; fewer than ten do today. Among them is Ed Michael, Swintec’s prison-sales manager. He joined the company in 1985. “We didn’t think about the prison market until the early two-thousands,” he told me. “We had no sense of the amount of business that was available.”
Swintec started out as a supplier of office devices like shredders and adding machines, but the rise of personal computing cut deeply into its profits. Then Swintec employees realized that PCs weren’t making it into prisons: few American prisons permit computers, and many require that electronics be constructed out of transparent plastic, to prevent inmates from hiding contraband inside. “It was a breakthrough,” Michael told me. At corrections conferences, guards confirmed that clear-plastic typewriters would reduce the need for tedious inspections. “It was good for them, good for us.”
More than two million people are incarcerated in the United States; they represent an immense and literally captive market. In total, states spend more than fifty billion dollars a year on their correctional systems, much of which goes to private companies in the form of contracts for construction, food, medical services, phone lines, and products sold to inmates. Swintec typewriters sell modestly, on the order of three thousand to five thousand machines per year, Michael said. Each costs roughly the same as a cheap laptop. But, unlike laptops, typewriters also consume a steady stream of supplies. One catalogue sent to prisons across the U.S. sells ribbons (eight dollars), correction tape (fourteen dollars for a six-pack), and printwheels (forty-nine dollars). The handful of inmates with whom I corresponded all told me that few people in prison can afford Swintec typewriters. In that catalogue, they’re the most expensive item for sale. (A clear-plastic television is as much as eighty dollars cheaper than the cheapest Swintec.) Wages for incarcerated people can generally be measured in cents per hour.
“We don’t feel that our machine is overpriced,” Michael told me, citing the costs of developing special features like spell-check and cut-and-paste. He wouldn’t say how much Swintec spends to manufacture its machines, which are shipped in from factories in Indonesia and Japan, but he did say that the company profits when prisons specifically approve their devices. “A lot of states will mandate that their inmates can only buy those types of machines,” he said. That’s one reason that a typewriter company can survive in the era of smartphones.
I asked Tom Furrier, a typewriter repairman in Arlington, Massachusetts, what he thought of the price of Swintec machines, which he occasionally sells and repairs. “It might as well be a thousand dollars, to some people,” he said. “But I don’t think the cost is outrageous, by any means.” Hundreds of old-fashioned typewriters sit on shelves in Furrier’s shop. I asked him why prisoners couldn’t use refurbished machines like that. “You could almost fashion anything out of these pieces,” he told me, pointing to the steel lever arms of an Underwood. “It would be lethal, I’m sure. Almost any part in this machine.”
John J. Lennon, who is serving twenty-eight years to life for a 2001 murder, used a Swintec typewriter to become a journalist in prison. When I visited him recently, at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, in Ossining, New York, he told me that he traded his first typewriter to another prisoner for drugs. But eventually he joined a writer’s workshop run by a Hamilton College professor, Doran Larson, and a Swintec helped him write about his life: the man he killed; a stabbing he survived; the mother who had, through everything, continued to support him.
Lennon’s cell has no chair, so, until recently, he would sit on an upturned bucket next to the bed, upon which he would place the typewriter. Lately, on account of back pain, he sits on the bed and rests his typewriter on his lap. “You’ll hear my typewriter going all day,” he said. Lennon’s Swintec allows him to save a maximum of seven thousand characters. “You have to get the first four pages solid, delete, then start the next four,” he told me. During periods when his typewriter is broken, he writes letters by hand, in a neat cursive scrawl. A few years ago, he asked a fellow-prisoner to tattoo a typewriter on his arm.
In 2013, Lennon wrote an essay arguing that gun-control laws could have stopped him from buying the assault rifle that he had used for murder. “Despite the Xanax dulling my emotions, my heart pounded when I picked up the M-16,” he typed. “A surge of power rushed through me when I felt the trigger.” He mailed the piece to a few magazines; The Atlantic published it on its Web site. “It’s a high when you get something published,” he told me. During our conversation, he started one sentence with, “When I’m out, maybe working for a magazine.” Around us, parents played Scrabble with their incarcerated sons, and children drank soda with their incarcerated fathers. “Hopefully my third act is a little sexier than my second,” he said.
Others have achieved what Lennon aspires to. In 2003, Daniel Genis, a Russian-American in his early twenties, was arrested for a string of robberies in Manhattan. In prison he wrote “Narcotica,” a novel about drug addiction, on a Swintec, and since his release he has written about incarceration for Vice and the Daily Beast. But such stories are rare. During my visit to Swintec headquarters, Ed Michael told me about Stanley (Tookie) Williams, III, a gang member who killed four people in Southern California. Michael seemed moved by the fact that, while on death row in California, Williams used a Swintec to write books for children. I asked what happened to him. “They finalized his sentence,” Michael said. “They did it. Yeah. So he’s not there anymore.”
Nearly ten years have passed since Kenneth Foster, Jr., was spared from execution. “I look at it as I’m halfway through my life,” he told me. “I’ve now spent more time in prison than I did a free man.” He’s housed in a maximum-security prison in Beaumont, Texas, where all of his possessions fit in two cubic feet. Alongside the Bible, the Quran, a seven-language dictionary, and Black’s Law Dictionary, he keeps his typewriter. Recently, Foster told me that his unit had been placed on lockdown because of a stabbing in the prison. The phones were shut off, and he didn’t have time to buy stamps before the commissary closed. He found himself, once again, turning to the typewriter for companionship.
He hopes that, if he types enough sentences, he can change the one sentence that matters most: he is eligible for parole in August, 2036. Writing gives shape to the weeks and months in front of him. Sometimes Foster writes letters to his daughter, who was recently released from federal prison herself. At one point, I asked whether writing gives him solace. “I wouldn’t say that ‘solace’ is the right word,” he said. “I guess writing has made me feel that I have a fighting chance.”