The Origins of QWERTY

How practical decisions made during the typewriter time impact the present.

Have you ever wondered why the letters on your keyboard are arranged the way they are? While it may seem entirely arbitrary today, it is due to a choice made during a bygone era, the typewriter era.

Basic QWERTY layout.

Englishman Henry Mill first conceptualized the typewriter in a 1714 patent for “an artificial machine or method for the impressing or transcribing of letters … so neat and exact as not to be distinguished from print.” However, Mill did not end up making a physical prototype.

Instead, Christopher Latham Sholes, an American inventor, and his team created the first successful typewriter in 1868. After looking at the design of a few preceding machines, he identified a common failure point: keys that were commonly pressed in succession – e.g. “th,” “he,” and “in” – jammed the mechanism. Consequently, Christopher came up with the QWERTY layout to protect the expensive apparatus’ longevity by spacing common key sequences. Mechanically, when a key is pressed on a typewriter, a leg attached to the key presses a letter onto paper. Every leg converges to the same location, so different letters all appear in the same spot. Thus, keys that are physically close to each other will have legs that are close to each other. As such, if nearby keys are pressed at the same time, their legs have a possibility of catching on one another. 

To produce his invention, Christopher partnered with Remington, the small arms manufacturer, to utilize their post-Civil War manufacturing power. The QWERTY typewriter became a success, and Remington sold 100,000 units by 1890. In 1893, the future of typing would become solidified after the five largest typewriter producers merged and made QWERTY the default layout due to its mechanical benefits. Other layouts were used on various typewriters but did not stick in the long term.

As typewriters progressed, the key configuration remained mostly unchanged. However, as computer technology developed and became essential, there was a reckoning to be had. What would the future of computer input look like?

At first, technicians manually programmed computers via paper punch cards, but the first digital keyboard came along not soon after. In 1956, MIT debuted the Whirlwind, a general-purpose computer with a direct digital input, or keyboard. While there was no longer the mechanical need to separate commonly used key pairs, as there were no more legs to catch on to each other, the QWERTY layout stuck due to its place as the status quo of typing layouts.

In the ‘80s and ’90s, when the personal computing revolution took place, QWERTY again was the layout of choice because of its prior ubiquity. The IBM Model M keyboard, one of the most iconic units ever produced, utilized the preeminent layout, continuing QWERTY’s inertia into the information age. Since then, not much has changed in the mainstream, as evidenced by the keyboard layout on the vast majority of devices.

IBM Model M keyboard.

However, it would be incorrect to say that QWERTY is the only, or even best, arrangement. The most common alternative is DVORAK, a layout created by August Dvorak in 1936 that centers around utilizing the home row – the middle and most accessible row – as much as possible. He claimed that his configuration used the home row in 70% of keystrokes instead of QWERTY’s 32%. Recently, another layout, COLEMAK, has been gaining traction. Created in 2006 by Shai Coleman, he attempted to optimize the QWERTY layout while minimizing the learning curve.

While both of these layouts have provable benefits over QWERTY, such as their users having a faster average typing speed and a lower likelihood of developing a repetitive strain injury, they will likely never be anywhere close to the dominant keyboard layout for one reason: QWERTY’s established dominance. When entire generations have been raised to be proficient with a certain standard, such as a specific keyboard layout, popularizing a new standard becomes an almost impossible task. As such, we should aim to get things right from the beginning, not rely on possible future improvements as a crutch. If an engineer at MIT or IBM decided that typing should be revolutionized along with the rest of the world, the old keyboard layout would have likely been done away with due to its features now being liabilities. QWERTY was created to solve the problem of key legs getting stuck on one another, not for optimizing the digital typing experience.  In its place, a keyboard layout ready for the future, not a vestige of a bygone time, should have been implemented when it was relatively easy to do so.

– Daniel Katz

Image Sources