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Q-W-E-R-T-Why? The Truth Behind the Typewriter

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I’m typing this sentence on a keyboard familiar to all Americans—the QWERTY keyboard, so named because of the first six letters that appear on the top row. Like most people, I learned to type on this kind of keyboard, and after many years, my fingers find the right letters intuitively, their muscle memory strengthened by thousands of hours of practice. The QWERTY orientation is so ingrained in our consciousness that many of us have probably never even seen a keyboard oriented in a different way. For the smallest finger of the left hand not to rest on “a,” or for the index finger of the right hand not to land instinctively on “j,” seems … well, unnatural.


We accept this so unquestioningly that few people ever stop to ask why keyboards are laid out this way. Why QWERTY? Why not ABCDEF, or OSNTEK? You might assume that QWERTY was deemed the most logical arrangement, designed for maximum speed and efficiency, but you’d be absolutely, positively, and completely wrong.


A Step Forward, a Step Back
Writing machines designed for individual use had existed since the early eighteenth century, but in 1867, an American named Christopher Latham Sholes patented a new model that would eventually be the world’s first mass-produced and widely distributed typewriter. Typists embraced the new invention enthusiastically, and the original keyboard, which was laid out alphabetically, made it easy for them to reach high speeds using their primitive “hunt and peck” method of typing. However, typists quickly got too good for the machines, and fast typing caused the keybars to jam together constantly. Sholes’s solution was simple: he rearranged the keyboard so that the most commonly used letters were spread out and located inconveniently far apart from one another. Rather than enabling the typewriter to go faster, he forced the typists to be slower.


Look at your keyboard now—infrequently used letters occupy the most convenient and easy-to-reach areas, while the commonly used letters are relegated to the outer edges and rows. Sholes knew that the most used letters in American English were ETAOIN, so he simply pushed those to the periphery of the keyboard to slow everyone down. Even when typewriter technology eventually improved and slow typing was no longer necessary, manufacturers kept the QWERTY layout because it was, by then, the most familiar to the most consumers.


By the late 1870s, however, ten-finger typing was being taught and people were beginning to realize that QWERTY was unergonomic, unintuitive, and not optimal for attaining high speeds. Several popular letters, such as “a,” “e,” and “s,” are the responsibility of the left hand (Sholes also knew that most people, being right-handed, had a weaker left hand), while the dominant and agile right index finger gets minor letters like “j,” “y,” and “m.” Typists must constantly switch rows and reach across the keyboard to form the vast majority of words.


A Better Way?
QWERTY may be the most popular option, but it’s certainly not the only one. The Dvorak keyboard (invented in 1930) puts nine of the most commonly used letters in the home row, allowing the user to type three thousand words without reaching (compared with the fifty or so words that can be typed on the home row of a QWERTY keyboard). On a Colemak keyboard, the hands switch between rows sixteen times fewer than they do on a QWERTY board. Many new keyboard orientations have been developed, offering less jumping between rows, fewer diagonal reaches, less alteration between hands, and a more ergonomic and even distribution of the work between fingers. Some tests have shown that once typists are proficient on another keyboard system, they become more efficient and accurate and incur less hand strain and repetitive stress injuries.


But QWERTY is what the vast majority of people know, so it persists, and most people never even dream of switching. Especially since most typing now occurs on computer keyboards, the arguments for and against QWERTY aren’t even as relevant as they once were. QWERTY may have been a mistake, but it’s a mistake we’re probably stuck with. And when it comes right down to it, does anyone really care?  

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