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QWERTY - History, Evolution, and Why Is It the Way It Is?

How did the QWERTY keyboard layout become so popular?

A keyboard is a very common gadget used by billions of people on an daily basis. As you type, you may have often wondered why the keyboard layout is the way it is. There are even theories on the internet that suggest that the QWERTY layout has a secret hidden purpose, or that it was designed to ensure that people work at a certain rate. 

However, in reality, the reason for the QWERTY layout on keyboards has an interesting and somewhat controversial history. There are, in fact, several logical explanations for the way it was designed.

Who Invented the QWERTY Keyboard Design? 

QWERTY - History, Evolution, and Why Is It the Way It Is?
Source: Markus Gjengaar/Unsplash

The QWERTY keyboard was introduced by American inventor and newspaper publisher, Christopher Latham Sholes. Sholes developed a number of devices to make his businesses more efficient. One such invention was an early typewriter, developed along with with Samuel W. Soulé, James Densmore, and Carlos Glidden, and first patented in 1868

This early typewriter used a keyboard that resembled a piano and had 28 keys arranged alphabetically. The idea was that this was the most efficient arrangement because users would know immediately where to find each letter.

- 3 5 7 9 N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

  2 4 6 8 . A B C D E F G H I J K L M

The first piano-based keyboard layout developed by Sholes.

Sholes received a patent for this typewriter in 1868, but he kept tinkering with the keyboard layout to find the most efficient way to organize the keys. 

QWERTY - History, Evolution, and Why Is It the Way It Is?
Christopher Latham Sholes Source: fineartamerica

In the prototype, he arranged all the typing letters in four rows. Numbers from 0 to 9 were placed in the top row followed by vowels and punctuation marks in the second row. The rest of the alphabet was placed in the remaining two rows, with each row containing 10 letters.

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2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 -

A E I . ? Y U O ,

B C D F G H J K L M

Z X W V T S R Q P N

Keyboard layout in Sholes' 1968 prototype.

In 1873, Sholes and his investors agrees to sell the production rights to the prototype to gun-maker Remington, which, following the Civil War, had branched out into appliance manufacturing. The Remington company made several modifications in the original design, including rearranging the keyboard to a  somewhat familiar layout.

2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 - ,

Q W E . T Y I U O P

Z S D F G H J K L M

A X & C V B N ? ; R

The keyboard layout of Remington’s Sholes&Glidden Keyboard.

Just before this version went into production, the layout changed again, to the now-common QWERTY layout, apparently at the insistence of Sholes, who patented the QWERTY arrangement in 1878. The Sholes & Glidden typewriter with the QWERTY keyboard (renamed the Remington No. 1 Type Writer) went into production in 1874. 

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In 1878, Remington introduced a new model of the type writer, the No. 2. This typewriter would become the model T of typewriters, selling 100,000 units by 1890. It was also the first typewriter to come equipped with a shift key. Due to the absence of a shift key, the Remington No. 1 model only had uppercase letters, but the shift key allowed the Remington No. 2, to use each key as both upper case and lower case. The typewriter also allowed users to access the underside of the platen, a black rubber roller inside the typewriter carriage that was used to prevent damage to keys. 

QWERTY - History, Evolution, and Why Is It the Way It Is?
Remington 2 Source: Machines of Loving Grace 

In addition to typewriters, Remington also sold typing courses, in which it taught people how to type using its machines. Companies who wanted to hire trained typists also had to purchase the Remington machines they were familiar with — a system that ensured a continued market for the typewriters. 

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In 1893, the five largest typewriter manufacturers — Remington, Caligraph, Yost, Densmore, and Smith-Premier — merged to form the Union Typewriter Company. They agreed that the QWERTY would be used as the standard for keyboards, sealing the fate of the QWERTY keyboard. 

Why the QWERTY keyboard was Invented?

Earlier typewriters used to have keys arranged in alphabetical order, but this arrangement created several problems that led inventors and typewriter manufacturers to look for an efficient alternative keyboard layout. Here are some contenders. 

  • According to one theory, the alphabetically-arranged keyboards allowed users to type at great speed, but when they pressed two closely located keys too quickly, the levers associated with the respective keys would become jammed. Therefore, a new layout was required that would reduce the key jamming. According to this theory, the QWERTY keyboard was designed to solve this problem with its planned arrangement of letters in different rows. This theory, however, has been largely debunked.
  • The QWERTY keyboard places keys that are commonly used in pairs close together, such as T and H or E and R, etc.  Thus, the QWERTY style turned out to be a more convenient typing model for users and they more easily became accustomed to it due to its user-friendly design.  
  • A study conducted by researchers at Kyoto University in 2011, suggests the QWERTY typewriter keyboard layout was actually developed from inputs provided by telegraph operators, who would have been the largest users of keyboards at the time. The researchers concluded that the operators found the earlier alphabetical arrangement of the keyboard confusing and inefficient for translating morse code. For example, Morse code represents Z as ‘· · · ·’ which is often confused with 'SE'. The Morse receivers often could not determine whether to use Z or SE until they received the following letters. Thus, to make it easier for the operators, S ought to be placed close to both Z and E on the keyboard for Morse receivers to type them quickly. 

QWERTY vs Dvorak Keyboard

The biggest challenge to QWERTY has been the Dvorak keyboards. 

Also known as the American simplified keyboard, the Dvorak keyboard was designed by Dr. August Dvorak and Dr. William Dealey in 1936. The purpose behind this invention was to develop a more efficient system and faster typing speeds.

QWERTY - History, Evolution, and Why Is It the Way It Is?
Dvorak Keyboard Layout Source: Wikimedia

Dvorak and his supporters have argued that this non-qwerty keyboard layout is able to increase typing speed and accuracy by 74% and 68% respectively. Dvorak stated that the paired letters in his keyboard were placed in such a manner that typists could locate them faster. Dvorak also claimed that the unusual letter combinations in QWERTY layout were responsible for the frequently occurring typing errors

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However, despite the arguments made by Dr. Dvorak, his keyboard invention failed to replace the QWERTY keyboard pattern. In fact, his claims that the Dvorak layout is faster have also received a lot of criticism. Also, by the time Dvorak came into existence people had already become familiar with QWERTY and regular users were unwilling to learn a new typing system.

Instead, most typistists would prefer to improve their typing accuracy by practicing on the QWERTY keyboard, which they were already familiar with, rather than learning a new system and trying to convince their employers to purchase all new typewriters. 

Interesting facts about the QWERTY and keyboards

  • Stella Pajunas is the fastest typist in the world, she set a record by typing at an impressive speed of 216 words per minute (wpm) on a QWERTY keyboard. Surprisingly, Stella broke the record of Barbara Blackburn who used a Dvorak keyboard in 1946 to achieve a typing speed of 212 wpm.
  • Ultimate Typing Championship is an event conducted each year by leading mechanical keyboard manufacturer, Das Keyboards. The purpose of this event is to find the fastest typists in the world through a rigorous typing competition, the winner also receives prize money of $5000.
  • There is a QWERTY keyboard monument built in Yekaterinburg, Russia. This monument is a popular place to make wishes, so if someone wishes to reset their life, they jump on key-shaped stones labeled as Ctrl, Alt and Delete. 
  • One study found that a keyboard, if not cleaned regularly, can become a source of serious contamination. They found that keyboards may harbor more germs than are found on the average toilet seat.     

The QWERTY keyboard layout is one invention created in an earlier time, and for a different machine, but still relevant today. From old, heavy manual typewriters, to modern-day touchscreen keyboards, QWERTY has been successfully able to maintain its relevance. 

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