MadSci Network: Computer Science

Re: who made the first computer keyboard?

Date: Tue Oct 10 10:37:21 2000
Posted By: David Ehnebuske, Sr. Technical Staff Member, Software, IBM Corporation
Area of science: Computer Science
ID: 970066227.Cs


You asked about who made the first computer keyboard. Like many "who made the first" questions, different people will come up with different answers, mostly because it depends on how they define things. In this case the answer depends on exactly what a "computer keyboard" is.

The computer that many people think of as being the first computer in today's sense of the word was a huge thing called "ENIAC" which stood for "Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer". (See picture at right.) It was built at the University of Pennsylvania Moore School of Electrical Engineering from 1943-1946. The university built it under the supervision of the Ordinance Department of the US Army as a part of the war effort during World War II. But did it have a "computer keyboard"? Well, sort of.

Data for the ENIAC came into it in the form of punched cards, commonly called "IBM cards". These were made of thick paper, a little thinner than a 3x5 index card and a little smaller than a regular-sized business envelope (about 3 1/4 by 7 1/2 inches). Data was recorded on them by using a machine called a keypunch that punched holes in them. Keypunches had a keyboard that looked and acted very much like a computer keyboard. But instead of each key press going directly into ENIAC, it caused a pattern of holes -- usually only one or two -- to be punched in the card. By typing on the keypunch's keyboard you made a pattern of holes that represented the keystrokes you'd made. You could get 80 keystrokes to the card, at most. Each card represented one line of typing. Once you punched a bunch of cards in this way, you took the whole deck to a machine, called the "IBM card reader" that was directly connected to ENIAC. The card reader would read the pattern of holes punched on the cards to get the information you'd punched on them.

So, is a keypunch a computer keyboard? I guess it depends on how you look at it. In a way it was, but it was connected to the computer through a deck of cards, not a bundle of wires. Other early computers used a different sort of connected-by-paper computer key board. These machines used paper tape, long (hundreds of feet) tape made of paper a little stiffer than good typing paper, about an inch and a quarter wide. Like the punched cards, paper tape recorded information in patterns of holes in the paper. In this case, each time you pressed a key on a machine with a keyboard -- called a teletype -- the machine punched a pattern of holes across the width of the tape. The holes represented the key you pressed. Just like the deck of cards, once you'd finished punching the data into the tape, you'd take the tape to a paper tape reader that was directly connected to the computer, where it would be read. The University of Manchester Mark I, completed in 1949 and shown at the left, was an early example of a computer that used paper tape.

Today we think of a computer keyboard as being directly connected to a computer so that what we type goes directly into the computer. By this definition neither keypunches nor teletypes were really computer keyboards.   Using this definition, the first keyboard that I have been able to track down is the "unityper", a part of  the UNIVAC I computer which was built by Remington Rand and delivered to the US Census in 1951. (See picture at the right.) Whether this was really, really the first seems doubtful. It seems likely to me that before the UNIVAC I, someone had figured out how to directly attach a teletype to a computer somewhere, but I've been unable to find anything specific. So, let's go with the unityper on the UNIVAC I.

By the way the pictures in this answer are delivered to you by The Computer Museum's website, a fabulous place to look for historical stuff about computer history. If you have questions about early computers, the Computer Museum will probably have something on it.

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