Why Are the Keys On a QWERTY Keyboard Laid Out As They Are?


Why are the keys on a QWERTY keyboard laid out as they are?

C Stuart Hardwick:

What is commonly called QWERTY (more properly, the Sholes layout) was designed by Christopher Lathan Sholes, then modified through a series of business relationships. Sholes's original keyboard was alphabetical and modeled after a printing telegraph machine. The alphabetical layout was easy to learn, but not easy to type on.

For one thing, all practical typing machines of the day relied on mechanical levers, and adjacent letters could jam if struck with rapidity. There has long been a myth that Sholes designed the QWERTY layout to slow typists down in order to prevent this. Nothing could be further from the truth, but Sholes’s first customers were telegraphers. Over several years, he adapted the piano-like alphabetical keyboard into
a four-row keyboard designed to aid telegraphers in their transcription duties.

This new layout mostly spread out commonly struck keys, but also placed easily confused telegraph semaphores together. This layout was sufficient to permit telegraph transcription to keep up with transmissions and created a growing market.

During this time, Sholes teamed up with several other inventors to form a typewriter company with assignment of all related patents. An association with Remington led to increased sales, at which time another company acquired the shift platen patent that permits a typewriter to type in mixed case, and they seem to have made a few essentially random changes in order to avoid the original typewriter company patents.

So that’s it then, right? QWERTY is crap?

Well, no. QWERTY was based mostly on the needs of telegraphers in transcribing Morse code, and Morse had been scientifically designed to make transmission of English language messages as efficient as possible. The result is that the QWERTY arrangement is pretty good—efficiency-wise.

In the 1930s, John Dvorak used modern time-motion study techniques to design his own keyboard, and around it had grown up a whole cult following and mythology. But the fact is, it’s much ado about nothing. Careful scientific studies in the 1950s, '70s, and '80s have shown that choice between the Sholes and Dvorak layout makes no material difference in typing speed. Practice and effort are what yields rapid typing, and studies of professional typists have shown that however well we may perform on timed trials, few typists ever exceed 35 words per minute in their daily work.

So relax. Take an online typing course, practice a little, and relax.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

Could an Astronaut Steal a Rocket and Lift Off, Without Mission Control?


C Stuart Hardwick:

Not with any rocket that has ever thus far carried a person into orbit from Earth, no. Large rockets are complex, their launch facilities are complex, their trajectories are complex, and the production of their propellants is complex.

Let me give you one simple example:

  • Let’s say astro-Sally is the last woman on Earth, and is fully qualified to fly the Saturn-V.
  • Further, let’s say the Rapture (which as I understand it, is some sort of hip-hop induced global catastrophe that liquefies all the people) has left a Saturn-V sitting on the pad, raring to go.
  • Further, let’s grant that, given enough time, astro-Sally can locate sufficient documentation to operate the several dozen controls needed to pump the first stage propellant tanks full of kerosene.
  • Now what? Oxidizer, right? Wrong. First, she has to attend to the batteries, oxygen, hydrogen, and helium pressurant tanks in her spacecraft, otherwise it’s going to be a short, final flight. And she’ll need to fill the hypergolics for the spacecraft propulsion and maneuvering systems. If she screws that up, the rocket will explode with her crawling on it. If she gets a single drop of either of these on her skin or in her lungs, she’ll die.
  • But okay, maybe all the hypergolics were already loaded (not safe, but possible) and assume she manages to get the LOX, H2, and HE tanks ready without going Hindenburg all over the Cape.
  • And…let’s just say Hermione Granger comes back from the Rapture to work that obscure spell, propellantus preparum.
  • All set, right? Well, no. See, before any large rocket can lift off, the water quench system must be in operation. Lift off without it, and the sound pressure generated by the engines will bounce off the pad, cave in the first stage, and cause 36 stories of rocket to go “boom.”
  • So she searches the blockhouse and figures out how to turn on the water quench system, then hops in the director’s Tesla (why not?) and speeds out to the pad, jumps in the lift, starts up the gantry—and the water quench system runs out of water ... Where’d she think that water comes from? Fairies? No, it comes from a water tower—loaded with an ample supply for a couple of launch attempts. Then it must be refilled.

Now imagine how much harder this would all be with the FBI on your tail.

Can a rocket be built that’s simple enough and automated enough to be susceptible to theft? Sure. Have we done so? Nope. The Soyuz is probably the closest—being highly derived from an ICBM designed to be “easy” to launch, but even it’s really not very close.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

What Causes Red Tides?

William West/AFP/Getty Images
William West/AFP/Getty Images

Every once in a while, the ocean turns the color of blood and scores of dead fish rise to the surface. The phenomenon might look like a biblical plague, but the source is far more mundane. It's just algae.

Red tides occur when there’s a sudden population boom among specific kinds of algae, which in enormous quantities become visible to the naked eye. They occur all over the world. In the Gulf of Mexico, the culprit behind red tides washing onto coastlines from Texas to Florida is usually a type of microscopic algae called Karenia brevis. It produces toxic chemicals that can cause symptoms ranging from sneezing and eye irritation to disorientation, vomiting, and breathing difficulties. It's often fatal for fish, shellfish, turtles, and other wildlife.

The water appears red because of the particular depth at which the algae live. Light waves don’t penetrate seawater evenly, and certain wavelengths travel farther than others. The algae that cause red tides grow at depths that absorb green and blue frequencies of light and reflect red ones.

Not all algal blooms are red; some are blue, green, brown, or even purple. Nor do all algae harm humans or animals. Why and how certain species of algae multiply like crazy and wipe out entire swaths of marine life is still a scientific mystery.

The worst red tide on record occurred in 1946, when a mass of algae stretching for 150 miles along the Florida coastline killed more than 50 million fish, along with hundreds of dolphins and sea turtles. Tourists shied away from the beaches as the bodies of dead sea creatures washed ashore. Smaller incidents are more common, but just as costly. In the past decade alone, fishing and tourism industries in the United States have had an estimated $1 billion in losses due to red tides—and the cost is expected to rise.

Editor's note: This story, which originally ran in 2015, was updated in August 2018.