While the first keyboard as we know it appeared around 1970 the evolution of the keyboard began much earlier. It is possible to trace the first notions of the keyboard as far back as 1714.
1714 marks the introduction of the first writing device by a man named Henry Miller. In 1714 he submitted a patent for a “machine for transcribing letters” it resembled what many know as a typewriter but in its earliest form. On the sides, it had the numbers 2 to 9 as well as brackets, %, “, #, $, &, /. As well as these symbols it had two keys for every alphabetical character with one in capitals and one in small print. Finally, besides the alphabet, it had a . a , and a ‘. Of course, it also had a space bar. There was no 1 or 0 on the first typewriter, likely because o and l could have been used in their place. This keyboard may have been the first to use the QWERTY system, so designed because it aimed to slow down typists as if they typed any faster the keys could jam.
The first official ‘Type-Writer’ was patented and introduced to the market in 1868. In 1878 a huge SHIFT in evolution took place as the shift key was introduced. However, all of these typewriters were used by small numbers of people. It was not until the introduction of the Underwood typewriter in 1939 that adoption took off with 5 million Underwoods being sold.
When IBM introduced its Selectric typewriter in 1961 it had become a mass-market product. The early typewriters had many issues but the Selectric solved many with an innovation called a typeball that allowed faster typing and easier cleaning.
When the digital computer was introduced the typeface disappeared as it was far too complex. The first digital computer instead had card readers. A machine would punch holes in a card that could be read by the computer. In 1969 the DataPoint 3300 was introduced that allowed typed text and had a cursor (that could be moved with arrows, no mouse just yet).
Keyboards started to evolve from this point and in 1981 IBM released the Model F which could be seen as the first modern standard of a keyboard. It had the function keys we are used to having on the top of the keyboard on the side, but this was corrected by the time the Model M came to pass in 1986.
By modern standards, the Model M is still a good keyboard. It has the majority of keys that modern keyboards have with only a few small differences (the windows key for example).
There has been many new iterations to the keyboard since then with the board itself getting smaller and smaller in size to allow faster typing. Underneath the keyboard, the standard keys have been replaced with a membrane that allows a smaller size of key and less noise.
There have been many attempted changes since the introduction of the first keyboard but many have been unsuccessful. It is amazing to see that the QWERTY keyboard still survives today despite its inefficiencies. In 1936, August Dvorak decided to develop a keyboard layout that was more efficient and he succeeded. One of the key issues of the QWERTY is that the line that your fingers rest on is one that you don’t use often, with only 32% of keys pressed coming from that row. Dvorak created a key that favored the home row with 70% of keys coming from the main row and it also favored the right hand (as most people are right-handed). While Dvorak’s invention should have taken over, it never took off. It is yet another story of a superior model that never got the required adoption in time.