Today, computer keyboards have become, in a way, an essential part of any modern computer setup. They are widely used with both desktop computers and laptop computers. Computer Keyboard and the mouse have become one of the most common and important input devices for modern computers. You might be wondering when the computer keyboard was invented. To answer that question, we will have to discuss the rich history of computer keyboards and the multiple inventions preceding the computer keyboard that led to the modern-day computer keyboard that we use and love.
How Are Computer Keyboards Operated?
Usually, computer keyboards are used by pressing a “key.” Once a key is pressed, it closes an electrical circuit, and the computer keyboard sends a signal. This signal tells the computer which key was pressed, and so the pressed letter, number, or symbol is entered into the computer.
Although most of the keys on the computer keyboard are used to enter letters, numbers, and symbols, there are also special keys. These special keys are used to change the symbols or to give a special command to the computer. You can activate special commands by pressing a combination of keys. Special keys might be used differently by different operating systems. Different operating systems use different special keys.
Inventions That Made Modern Computer Keyboards Possible
Several inventions contributed to the invention of the modern-day computer keyboard. Let’s discuss four important inventions without which computer keyboards might not have been invented.
1. The Typewriter
Although there was a multitude of typing and writing devices created during the late 1700s and early 1800s, the first practical typewriter was created in 1868 by Christopher Sholes. Christopher Sholes patented and developed the first practical typewriter as well as the word “Type-Writer.” The QWERTY layout widely used today in computer keyboards was also introduced by Christopher Sholes. The Shift Key commonly found on modern computer keyboards was first introduced in 1878 on the Remington No. 2 that had a keyboard with a single Shift Key on its left side.
Franz Xaver Wagner invented the very first Underwood Typewriter and patented it in 1893. The Underwood typewriter is considered to be the first successful modern typewriter. One of the most important features that contributed to the Underwood typewriter’s success was that you could see the writing as you typed.
It was by the 1900s that typewriters manufactured by different manufacturers became much more alike. The next important milestone in the history of typewriters, and by extension in the history of computer keyboards, was the introduction of the Selectric typewriter by IBM in 1961. The Selectric typewriter deviated from the conventional typewriters using a typeball – a small ball that contained characters on its surface that would strike an ink ribbon in the typewriter. These typeballs were easy to remove to be cleaned or replaced.
Thomas Edison himself patented a typewriter in 1872, although a workable model was not introduced until the 1920s.
2. The Keypunch
Joseph Marie Jacquard invented the Jacquard Loom in the late 1700s. Herman Hollerith later expanded upon the Jacquard loom with his keypunch inventions during the late 1800s and the early 1900s. By the 1930s, keypunch devices had evolved to include keys used for numbers and text entry, much like normal typewriters.
3. The Telegraph and the Teleprinter
Pavel Schilling first invented the electrical telegraph in 1832. It allowed for the use of one single key to send messages in Morse code over a line. In 1846, a printing telegraph was patented by Royal Earl House. This printing telegraph utilized a total of 28 keys representing each letter in the alphabet. The printing telegraph made communication much easier.
The telegraphic typewriter was invented by Donald Murray by using an extended Baudot code. This telegraphic typewriter would be the direct ancestor of the teleprinter. Teleprinter was invented to send and receive messages without the need for operators trained to use Morse code.
The first Use of Teletype Machines with Computing Devices
A teletype machine was used to enter data into the first digital computer called ENIAC, although it was quite different from modern computer keyboards. The teletype machine was used to punch holes into punch cards which were then fed into a card reader. This way, data was entered into the computing device.
Later in 1948, the BINAC computer utilized an electromagnetically controlled teletype enabling data to be entered directly onto magnetic tape to feed in computer data and print results.
From Teletypes to Modern Computer Keyboards
Typewriters remained to be the main method of data entry from the early 1940s to the late 1960s, eventually becoming integrated into computer terminals. The introduction of VDTs was an important milestone in the history of computers as it allowed the user to see what they were typing on the display screen. The MULTICS computer developed in 1964 by Bell Labs and M.I.T used a Video Display Terminal (VDT).
The first computer terminal that was meant to replace the teleprinter was DataPoint 3300 by Computer Terminal Corporation. DataPoint 330 allowed the user to see what they typed on-screen and use the arrow key to move the cursor. Keyboards began to look and work more like the computer keyboards we all use today throughout the early 1970s. These keyboards were either electric typewriters converted to work as keyboards or heavy mechanical keyboards. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, almost all computers used VDTs and electronic keyboards.
The Model M keyboard developed by IBM in 1986 resembled computer keyboards used today. The Model M keyboard introduced the 101-key keyboard layout that is used today, and like the computer keyboards used today, it had a row of function keys across the top. Many changes have been made to the computer keyboards since the Model M was released. One of the most important changes has been the use of membranes instead of mechanical switches. Membranes are easier to manufacture and are less noisy, and much thinner.
As is apparent, the computer keyboard was not a single invention, but it was a sort of a process that began with the invention of the typewriter and eventually resulted in the modern computer keyboard that we all use today.