Monthly Archives: February 2013

The Dirt on QWERTY, Part 3: In silico*, but still silly

Dear reader, you will remember that in Part 2 of our story, how the electric typewriter with its innovative typball superseded its predecessor and its typebars. Electric typewriters operated with mechanical parts powered by electricity, which made them faster and more efficient than their ancestors. The electric boogaloo was fun, but by the 80’s, the kids doin a brand new dance.


Electric to Electronic

As technology advanced, electric typewriters were superseded by electronic typewriters. In 1981, Xerox Corporation introduced the first electronic typewriters to the market. These devices took a giant leap away from the mechanical paradigm. Electronic typewriters incorporated vastly new technologies, comprising of microprocessors, integrated circuits, and small LCD displays.

The ability to preview and edit copy before printing was a step forward, although only a few lines were visible at one time. Notably, these devices did not have advanced faculties in terms of memory, as computers do today.

The electronic typewriter sported another key innovation – the daisy wheel – advancement on the typeball. The daisy wheel was essentially a plastic disc with embossed characters, the key advantage being the low cost of production. The downside however, was its lack of durability.

Xerox_Roman_PS_Daisywheel_-_mono The devil you know

Despite the great technological evolution that had occurred, the text input system was not improved upon. Derr.

It was still the case at this time that most people who used the devices were professional typists who had invested in rigorous training in the QWERTY system. Re-training would have been an economically unfeasible proposition for businesses, hence typewriter manufacturers stuck with the devil they knew.

As the evolution of typing technology continued however, a new trend was emerging – typewriters were increasingly being adopted by the common person, moving them beyond the domain of the professional typist. Typewriters were being purchased for home use and training in QWERTY was not required for users to plonk away and create documents to their satisfaction.

AA. Ernest with Brother typewriter

The validity of the QWERTY system as the standard for keyboards was on ever shaky ground: the mechanical justification was long gone, and now, the ‘industry standard’ argument was losing ground too.

So, what happens next? Find out in the next thrilling episode as The Dirt on QWERTY saga continues: Part 4: Revolution and that old chestnut.

* in silico \in-SIL-ih-koh\
adverb or adjective
: in or on a computer : done or produced by using computer software or simulation

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