By: Christopher Dunn
Did you ever wonder how the ubiquitous qwerty keyboard configuration came into being? For those not familiar with the term, Q-W-E-R-T-Y refers to the six alpha keys on the left side of the top lettered row of the standard keyboard. Coincidentally, these keys spell “QWERTY”, which, of course, has no specific meaning other than what has become a favorite reference to this specific keyboard layout. Over the years the term QWERTY has evolved into a shorthand descriptor of the most popular international keyboard layout of all time.
If you’re like most people, you undoubtedly assume that sometime in the distant past, a group of highly paid efficiency experts were corralled into a room and forced to come up with the most brilliant and efficient keyboard arrangement possible. Surely the individuals would have been charged with the task of developing a keyboard configuration for the ages – one that would promise to yield absolutely the fastest keystrokes with the minimum amount of stress.
Guess again. The qwerty keyboard design was actually a far less noble effort and has a much more insidious history than that.
A Short History of the Mechanical Typewriter
The mechanical typewriter certainly represented one of the most important inventions of its time. It played a key role in ushering in a new and unrivaled age of enlightenment and information sharing. Nevertheless, the invention of the manual mechanical typewriter in 1868 came with its own unique set of problems and challenges. Among the most notable of these problems related to the propensity of the mechanical character arms to frequently jam.
The earliest versions of the mechanical typewriter had characters which were mounted on metal arms. As the typewriter keys were depressed, the downward force of the typist’s fingers would cause the metal arms to swing forward and strike the back of an ink ribbon and impress the characters onto a sheet of paper which was inserted firmly into a mechanical roller.
The jamming problem was exacerbated when two or more keys were struck in rapid succession. Unfortunately, the fastest typists tended to get ahead of the swinging action of the arms causing frequent jams and resulting in errors that were difficult and time consuming to fix. In fact, the fastest typists ended up spending most of their time untangling metal swing arms and fixing errors resulting from mechanical mistypes. It just didn’t pay to type too rapidly.
Development of the QWERTY Solution
Consequently, the QWERTY keyboard arrangement was designed specifically to solve this jamming problem. The QWERTY keyboard was designed by Christopher Latham Sholes in the 1870’s – just a few short years after the first mechanical typewriters came off the production line. The final version of the Qwerty keyboard came about through a great deal of trial and error in an attempt to overcome what was the most pressing problem of the new typing device: the jamming problem. It was discovered that by arranging the keys in such a way as to reduce the possibility of typing keys in rapid succession, enough inefficiency could be created in the typing process to circumvent the problem of tangling the metal mechanical character arms. Problem solved. Unfortunately, the burden of inefficiency rested squarely on the shoulders of typists who suffered a tremendous loss of productivity, incurred measurable additional stress, and were plagued by serious physical maladies such as carpal tunnel syndrome.
QWERTY: The Most Inefficient Keyboard Layout Possible
1. The ten most frequently typed letters in English language literature are in order: E, T, A, O, I, N, S, H, R, and D. Of the eight home keys of a traditional QWERTY keyboard – that is, the keys where the fingers rest and spend most of their time – only three of the top ten letters are represented: A, S, and D. The other seven of the top ten most common letters require a reach up or down from the home keys to strike the key.
2. What is more, the three “common” letters (A,S, and D) that are found on the home row of keys are located to the far left side of the keyboard. That is to say, they must be typed by the middle, ring, and little (pinky) fingers of the LEFT hand. Most people are right handed. By forcing typists to type the most commonly encountered letters by either reaching or by using the least dexterous fingers of their weakest hand, the QWERTY keyboard all but guarantees the most painful, tedious and slow typing experience possible.
Hope for Change?
So why are we still clinging to a keyboard arrangement that is hopelessly outdated, completely irrelevant, and in every way counterproductive to speed and efficiency in an age of computers and high speed printers? Could it be the same reason the United States refuses to embrace the more efficient and intuitive metric system? Perhaps we are simply too entrenched and invested in an inferior system. Maybe we perceive that a change of this magnitude would be too costly or chaotic. Possibly we simply lack the foresight or the will to change. Whatever the reasons, it appears the QWERTY keyboard will be with us for the duration. As they say, it is hard to teach an old dog new tricks…