Monthly Archives: September 2012

The Dirt on QWERTY, Part 1: The typewriter goes wronger

Today, the ubiquitous QWERTY system is recognized as the standard for keyboards and touchscreen keypads, but why is this so?wtf1 While literally billions of us use the system, few ask the question “why QWERTY?” – and fewer still can answer.

Is it ‘just the way it is’? Was QWERTY designed to make typing faster, as is oft the reason put forward? Hardly. In fact, the QWERTY system was designed to make typing SLOWER. That’s right, dear reader, QWERTY was not designed for your typing convenience.

Now let us take a brief jaunt into the murky past to get to the bottom of the QWERTY conundrum…

Where it all began

The first typewriter was patented by a fellow by the name of Christopher Sholes in 1867. The letters were arranged in a common sense intuitive order – good old ALPHABETICAL order.

qwert These mechanical devices required buttons to be pressed which would activate levers that in turn would press metal heads to paper, thus imprinting the characters.

A brilliant invention, yet a design flaw became quickly apparent. When users typed too fast, the levers were inclined to jam, requiring typists to continually untangle a mess of jammed levers. Such a vexation was this for typists, that the device needed to be redesigned.

typewriter_jam In 1870 the original layout was slightly reconfigured. The vowels were raised to a separate level, as were the numbers, leaving two rows of consonants. . In terms of the jamming issue, the layout proved superior to its alphabetic predecessor, but not by a lot.

Then, in 1873, the design was completely recombobulated. The QWERTY keyboard, as we know it today, was developed by E. Remington and Sons, based on the design previously patented by Sholes. The QWERTY design effectively reduced the jamming problems by separating the commonly used letters thus separately the levers.

The QWERTY layout also allowed salesmen to impress buyers by demonstrating typing the word “TYPEWRITER” on just the top row. How cute.

Whilst the QWERTY configuration was a marvellous triumph over a mechanical problem, the side-effects were dull, dull, dull. Firstly, typing speed was slowed down, and secondly, the illogical array of letters made learning to type something of a nightmare. Here’s a poorly rendered graphic to illustrate my point:

TypingNightmare

2012 – QWERTY? WTF?

Leaping forward in time to the present day, you may notice that there ain’t too many levers on your touchscreen devices.

So, dear astute and curious reader, would this not beg the question “why are we still using QWERTY?”?

IMGP0527 So why ARE we still using QWERTY? Find out why as the story continues in The Dirt on QWERTY, Part 2: The typists’ ball.

Pandora Karavan

The Dirt on QWERTY, part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7, part 8.

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Filed under History, Innovation, Usability