Monthly Archives: December 2012

The Dirt on QWERTY, Part 2: The typists’ ball

Onwards in the torrid tale that is how QWERTY came to be the unrelenting standard in keyboards, we come to an important juncture in history – the development of the electric typewriter.typerIt was Thomas Edison who laid the groundwork for the electric typewriter in 1870, although it was not to be in widespread use until nearly a century later. The electric typewriter was developed by various companies over several decades and by 1958 IBM was deriving 8% of its revenue from the sale of electric typewriters.

Having a ball

The electric typewriter dispensed with the type levers, replacing them with a new innovation called the typeball.

Type levers or Typebars, as they were known, became a relic of the past. The typeball, which superseded them, was introduced by IBM in 1961 with its Selectric line of electric typewriters. Such models were to dominate the market for 2 decades. The typeball was a more elegant system comprising a metal sphere embossed with characters.

The electric typewriter and its typeball, had banished all possibility of jamming levers forever. Hoorah! Yet before punters could fix themselves a celebratory drink, they had to ask themselves the sobering question: why then is the strange QWERTY system being continued?

The back story, as we learned in The Dirt on QWERTY, Part 1, is that the QWERTY system was developed to solve a mechanical problem – jamming levers – the failing of the original typewriter and its alphabetic layout.

So despite the fact that the typeball replaced the lever system and there was no longer a mechanical problem, why on earth was the QWERTY system continued? Ponder that, dear ever-quizzical reader.

The typing pool party

At this stage in history almost all typewriter users were trained professionals. Generations of typists had endured painful and rigorous training in the QWERTY system. No business man would contemplate retraining his “girls” to acquire skills in a more effective and efficient system, because such a move would incur a short-term loss in productivity.


No-one in business was prepared to drain their typing pool, and so it was dear disillusioned reader, that QWERTY stayed afloat.

The tale continues in the next thrilling episode of The Dirt on QWERTY, in Part 3: In silico, but still silly.

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


Filed under History, Innovation, Usability