Why QWERTY?

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You spend hours with it each day. Your fingertips know it intimately. But how familiar are you with your keyboard's history?

When was the typewriter invented?

The first recorded patent for a typewriting machine was filed by a British engineer, Henry Mill, in 1714. It seems that Mr. Mill was more of a thinker than a doer, though, as there’s no evidence that the machine was ever built. The real history of the modern (QWERTY) keyboard begins in 1867, when American newspaper editor and printer Christopher Sholes built the first actual Type-Writer – in fact, that was the patented name of the invention.

What was the state of the art writing implement before the typewriter?

The quill.

That’s only a slight exaggeration. Since Gutenberg’s 15th-century invention of the printing press, not much had changed in the field of writing and printing. A portable pen that contained its own ink supply was not perfected until later in the 19th century, so the quill was still the standard writing implement when Sholes introduced his machine. In fact, Union Officers during the Civil War were issued 12 quills per quarter as part of their stationery ration.

Who came up with the QWERTY layout?

Christopher Sholes was primarily responsible for QWERTY, but it took years of tinkering to arrive at the layout we know today. The first model that Sholes built mimicked a piano keyboard, with the letters placed alphabetically. By the time the machines began to be mass-produced in the 1870s, the QWERTY keyboard was almost identical to the one in front of you.

What is the connection between QWERTY and the Civil War?

Gun manufacturer E. Remington and Sons had made a fortune selling arms during the war, and the company was branching out into the mass production of peace-time inventions like the sewing machine. Remington bought the manufacturing rights for Sholes’ Type-Writer in 1873 and began mass producing the QWERTY machines the following year. Until 1881, Remingtons were the only typewriters commercially available, giving the QWERTY layout a head start on any would be competing layouts.

Is there any proof that QWERTY is the optimal keyboard arrangement?

Not a shred. In fact, all evidence points to QWERTY being terribly inefficient. The most accessible row of the keyboard is the second, or ‘home’ row. So it would make sense if the most commonly used letters in the English language were there, right? But that’s not how QWERTY rolls. About 70% of words in English can be typed with the letters DHIATENSOR, yet only 4 of those 10 letters fall on QWERTY’s home row. The letter A falls on the home row (the only vowel to do so), but it must be struck with what is for most typists the weakest finger — the left pinky.

So why did Sholes create such an awkward layout?

To slow down fast typists. Sounds ridiculous, right? But that's the consensus among historians. On earlier arrangements of the keys, ones where the most commonly used letters were more sensibly placed on the home row, typists could get on a real roll, even when using the hunt and peck method. The problem with that? With all the popular letters close together, the keys got jammed. The typist had to stop to un-jam them. What made that worse was that in the earliest models of the typewriter, the keys struck the back of the paper, so the typist was unable to see jams — and the resulting mistakes — until the page was removed from the machine. Slowing the typist down a bit by dispersing the most commonly used letters all over the keyboard was preferable to wasting even more time because of jammed keys.

Does the QWERTY keyboard favor right handed typists?

Nope. In fact, it heavily favors left-handed typists. A total of 300 English words can be typed by the right hand alone. By contrast, 3000 English words can be typed with the left. While that's good for left-handed people (10% of the population), it contributes to the inefficiency of QWERTY keyboard for the majority.

Was there ever an alternative keyboard arrangement?

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There have been several. The most successful has proven to be the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard (DSK). August Dvorak, cousin of the Czech composer Antonin Dvorak, was a professor of education in 1932 when he introduced his alternative to QWERTY. In 1914, Dvorak had been inspired by the work of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, a married couple who were pioneers in the field of workplace efficiency. After almost two decades of study and experimentation, Dvorak patented the DSK.

So why don’t we use the Dvorak keyboard, then?

Same reason we don’t use the metric system. We embrace its inefficiency and prefer it to the pain of switching to something better. By the time the DSK was introduced in 1932, several generations of typists had been using QWERTY. It was by far the most readily available layout, and the one that was taught in most typing schools. So even after technological advances solved the key jamming issue, we kept the relic of the problem – the QWERTY keyboard.

[NOTE: See the comment from Nancy below about the DSK vs. QWERTY argument.]

Just throwing this out there: Do Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt have anything to do with QWERTY?

Tangentially, yes. Remember the Gilbreths, the couple who inspired Dvorak to create his keyboard? Their family was the subject of the book Cheaper by the Dozen, a film version of which Martin and Hunt starred in decades later.

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June 9, 2011 - 10:02am
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