It wasn’t always like this
If you are reading this post, you are likely one of millions upon millions of people who use the QWERTY keyboard. In fact, many of you are probably resting your fingers on the electronic equivalent of that keyboard as you read. The question is—how did we end up with this keyboard design, and why do we stick with it all these years later?
The QWERTY keyboard is the result of a late 19th century collaboration between Christopher Sholes, a Milwaukee newspaper editor and printer, his friend Carlos Glidden, and financial backer James Densmore. Sholes was determined to invent a typewriting machine that would dominate what was, at the time, a nascent market.
In 1867, Sholes, Glidden, and Samuel W. Soule filed a patent application for an early writing machine featuring two rows of alphabetic characters. It took more than five years of trial-and-error work to refine the design enough for the machine to be appealing to a manufacturer but, in 1873, with a keyboard layout as shown below, Densmore was able to sell manufacturing rights for the Sholes & Glidden Type-Writer to E. Remington and Sons.
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
Sholes’ final design prevented many typebar jams because the keyboard was arranged so the most frequently used letter pairs (e.g., “th” and “sh”) were not adjacent to one another in the typebar setup.
Although Remington modified the original design by swapping the locations of the “R” and the period, the manufactured product was still essentially Sholes’ QWERTY layout. The first Type-Writers were marketed in 1874, but there wasn’t much interest in the product until 1878 when Remington added a shift key, enabling typing of both upper and lower case letters. Over time, other changes were made to the design of the traditional typewriter keyboard, including the addition of the numerals “1” and “0” (formerly typed using lower case “l” and upper case “O” respectively) and punctuation marks such as the exclamation point (which was originally created in a three-stroke sequence of apostrophe, backspace, and a period). The digital age brought more changes which were eventually standardized to include the addition of escape and function keys as well as a separate numeric keypad and cursor section (a combination of Insert, Home, Page Up, Page Down, etc., and arrow keys).
Despite criticism that the QWERTY design is awkward and unnecessarily slow, attempts to introduce other designs have, for the most part, been unsuccessful. Competing designs face a dual challenge: first, to prove their superiority compared to the QWERTY keyboard, and second, to overcome the market dominance the QWERTY design enjoys. The most well-known alternative is the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard which arranges the vowels and the five most used consonants on the home row. With the Dvorak design a typist can type some 400 common English words without moving from the home row; only 100 or so of those words can be completed on the home row of a QWERTY keyboard.
Though it’s unlikely the QWERTY keyboard will be replaced anytime soon, the wide variety of keyboard designs in use on mobile devices (cell phones, tablets, etc.) proves that people can fairly easily adapt to different layouts. So, who knows, you might one day do your typing on something other than your familiar QWERTY keyboard!
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Posted for Jenny Matlock’s Alphabe-Thursday study of the letter “Q.” For Round 5 of this long-running meme, I am focusing on colloquialisms and idioms—words and phrases that are unique to a region or have meanings that aren’t necessarily discernible from the combined meanings of the individual words. I hope you’ve enjoyed this week’s exploration as much as I have.