The QWERTY keyboard and its strange arrangement of keys stare at you every single day. But why are they the way they are? Why is ‘A’ under ‘Q’? Is there a logical reasoning for the setup you see in front of you? Most of us never ask this question, we just set our fingers in the “home position” and touch type without thinking. Well, at least that’s what I do.
I remember a high school class just dedicated to typing. We sat in front of archaic word processors and typed up document after document; it was the only way to learn. This went on for about an entire semester — mindless typing.
But there is much more to this random assortment of keys. Your simple keyboard has a rich, controversial, and strange history. It found its beginnings on mechanical typewriters built by a famous gun manufacturer. Some say the strange arrangement of keys is designed to make you type slower.
Even stranger, the universal keyboard you see everywhere isn’t the only configuration. There are other styles, which advocates claim are much quicker and easier to use. Then why don’t we use them? The answer involves human nature, technology, and marketing. You’ll get all this from a history lesson of your simple keyboard.
The mundane set of keys in front of you is anything but boring, it’s a reflection of humanity. Come join me in a typing lesson that’s not mindless.
The technology before the skill
Before we begin, I’d like to offer a disclaimer. At points in this article, you may be tempted to curse and scream at your keyboard. Please don’t. As Jimmy Stamp points out in his article in the Smithsonian Magazine, the keyboard arrangement was designed before touch typing ever came into existence. So, the machine came into existence, then the typist.
Our history of QWERTY begins with Christopher Latham Sholes in the 1860s, according to Stamp. The amateur inventor went about figuring out a way to improve the efficiency of the printing business. He linked up with Samuel W. Soulé, James Densmore, and Carlos Glidden, and acquired a patent for the Type-Writer in 1868.
This pre-typewriter only had twenty-eight keys and looked more like a piano. The keys were set in alphabetical order. They assumed this to be a logical setup — if you know the alphabet, you’ll know where the letters are. It wasn’t only logic that pushed this design though, the existing Hughes Phelps Printing Telegraph looked similar.
Koichi and Motoko Yasuoka in their scholarly article for Kyoto University explain that this first Type-Writer was sold to Porter’s Telegraph College in Chicago. The college needed numbers though, which were also transmitted in Morse code. So, Sholes added numbers and some punctuations in 1870, pushing it to thirty-eight keys. Now, the keyboard had four rows but looked different from the QWERTY keyboard you’re used to.
The keyboard crew then met with the American Telegraph Works in the same year. They agreed to buy the machine if some key adjustments were made. The Yasuokas’ article also notes Thomas Edison saw the early invention and panned it, saying:
“This typewriter proved a difficult thing to make commercial. The alignment of the letters was awful. One letter would be one-sixteenth of an inch above the others; and all the letters wanted to wander out of line.”
By 1872, the Type-Writer landed on the front cover of Scientific American magazine with its new forty-two key arrangement. The same year, the machine was demonstrated to the head of Western Union Telegraph. No matter how quickly they typed Morse messages, the Type-Writer kept up.
To meet demand, a newly forty-three-keyed Type-Writer was brought to arms manufacturer E. Remington & Sons. They signed an agreement to mass-produce the machine and the finished prototype added a few more keys. The unit worked well, but Sholes insisted “Y” be moved to the middle of the keyboard. It ended up next to “T”, giving us our basic QWERTY set up on the top line.
So, the basic typewriter and keyboard as we know it was based around the telegraph industry’s requirements. The scholarly paper notes shorthand writers also adopted the Type-Writer. The first eight finger typing school like we use today wasn’t introduced until 1882. So, the modern skill of typing was built around the existing key formation nearly ten years afterward.
The question of slowness
“To overcome the problem of invisible jamming, Sholes applied antiengineering principles with the goal of slowing down the typist and thus preventing the second bar from jamming the falling first bar. At that time, modern typing speeds were not yet a goal.” — Jared Diamond, Discovery Magazine
In Diamond’s article, he mentions the common conventional wisdom about the QWERTY keyboard: it’s designed to intentionally slow you down. He’s correct, the Type-Writer did have issues with jamming. The design was changed from piano-like for just that reason. He also points out the fact the machine worked on an “upstrike” design, which made jamming a more complicated problem.
Upstrike means the keys which hit the paper sat below it. If a jam occurred, the typist couldn’t see it. Moreover, one couldn’t even see what they were typing at all. How’s that for engineering? Obviously, this sounds like no modern dream machine. However, was it actually designed to slow you down?
Koichi and Motoko Yasuoka argue that’s nonsense. Since the Type-Writer was designed to capture Morse Code messages, it would have to write them as quickly as they were sent. In fact, the demo done for the head of Western Union won Sholes and crew the business due to the Type-Writer’s speed. Designing a purposely slow machine makes no sense.
Moreover, touch typing wasn’t designed when Sholes and Remington were going back and forth on the design of the QWERTY style keyboard. The Type-Writer team was more interested in the telegraph industry. Typing speeds that could cause regular jamming didn’t exactly exist yet.
Diamond also mentions another piece of conventional wisdom. T,Y,P,E,W,R,I,T,E,R are all on the top row as a sales gimmick. Salesman were quickly able to peck out “Typewriter” when doing demos.
The Yasuokas find no evidence of this in their research. It also appears to be a strange gimmick, because most of the machines were aimed at telegraph operators initially. The best “gimmick” would be to demonstrate how quickly the machine could type down telegraph messages.
So, is your QWERTY keyboard secretly designed poorly to slow you down on purpose? Likely not. Sholes and his crew didn’t just randomly throw keys around; there was a good deal of thought involved.
“In a normal workday a good typist’s fingers cover up to 20 miles on a QWERTY keyboard, but only one mile on a Dvorak keyboard. QWERTY typists achieve barely half the speed of Dvorak typists, who hold most world records for typing speed. QWERTY typists make about twice the errors that Dvorak typists make…To reach a speed of 40 words per minute, the person would need 56 hours of training on a QWERTY keyboard…but only 18 hours on a Dvorak keyboard.” — Jared Diamond, Discovery Magazine
Diamond also delves into the creation of the Dvorak keyboard. William Dealey went to an industrial efficiency seminar in 1914 and watched slow-motion footage of QWERTY typists. He saw numerous issues that could be improved and explained this to his brother-in-law August Dvorak. The two spent nearly twenty years redesigning the keyboard.
By 1932, the Dvorak keyboard was created. Diamond explains within two years Dvorak typists were beating QWERTY typists in speed contests. A study in the 1930s in the Tacoma school district showed children picked up typing on the Dvorak keyboard within a third of the time.
In another instance during World War II, the navy couldn’t find enough trained typists. As a result, they tried out the Dvorak keyboard. They found the typists using the new board made almost seventy percent fewer errors and typed almost seventy-five percent quicker. The navy agreed to order thousands of them, but it was shot down by the Treasury department.
Why? Mainly because QWERTY dominated the typing landscape. The Type-Writer was the most largely available machine for a good time and their largest competitor Underwood also used QWERTY according to Diamond. Furthermore, most touch-typing schools used that style keyboard.
While Dvorak’s keyboard may function better according to its fans, the existing infrastructure was built around QWERTY.
Sometimes good enough beats better
So, basically your current keyboard stinks, but it’s good enough. It’s not a satisfying conclusion, is it? But it’s a surprisingly regular one. We all have this idea that if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat down your door. However, many times a good enough mousetrap will do.
The Dvorak may very well be better, but who wants to learn how to type all over again? The QWERTY may be archaic, but it gets the job done. Moreover, there are countless examples where old and adequate beats better.
The Game Boy dominated the handheld game market in the 1990s with technology designed in the 70s. The designer, Gunpei Yokoi, came up with a strategy called “lateral thinking with withered technology”. It was based around using old and outdated tech in new ways and became Nintendo’s general business strategy.
Famously, VHS defeated the better Beta for the videocassette tape industry. One of IBM’s growth industries nowadays is mainframes — talk about archaic. In addition, the U.S. Air Force was also thinking about bringing back World War II era prop-driven fighters for close ground support because they made less friendly fire mistakes.
QWERTY is just another version of this. It’s an idea wrapped up in a strangely set up keyboard. Hopefully, as we look at our lowly set of keys every day, we’ll be reminded the world may not need a great new invention. It may need one that’s just good enough.