The Origin of the QWERTY Keyboard

The first typewriter was introduced to the United States in 1868 by Christopher Latham Sholes. His first attempt to build a typing device consisted of a crude and sluggish machine that was far from perfect. The design used letters and characters on the ends of rods which were called typebars. When a key was struck, the typebar would swing up and hit the ink-coated tape which would transfer the image onto paper.

The original design of the keyboard positioned keys in alphabetical order in two rows. Makes sense, right? Well, this arrangement caused the typebars of the most commonly used combination letters of the alphabet (ie. TH and ST) to be positioned close together, so when the keys were hit right after the other with a speed faster than a snail, the keys would jam.

The attempt to solve this malfunction resulted in a rearrangement of keys. In 1868, in collaboration with educator Amos Densmore, Sholes arranged the letters on the keyboard for better spacing between popular keys used in combination. The results was that this initially made it difficult for people to find the letters they needed to type efficiently.

However, someone who mastered this new key arrangement would actually be able to type faster because the keys wouldn’t jam. This was the beginning of the QWERTY keyboard, which first appeared in 1872.

The first typewriter machine found its way on the market in 1874 through Remington & Sons. The device was called the Remington No. 1. You’re probably thinking it sold out in minutes since it was the latest and greatest technological device to be mass-produced. The truth is, most people ignored it. Sure, the machine still had some quirks and Sholes had yet to figure out ideal customers for his invention, but in the late 1870s, the idea of “mechanical writing” was just plain strange for most people.

The accepted norm was to write letters in legible longhand and many people found mechanical writing uncouth or even offensive. Sholes figured his device would appeal to clergyman and men of letters first and then he’d branch out to the general public; he didn’t even consider its use in business. All of these factors probably played a part in the typewriter’s initial lack of sales.

Four years later, after slight modifications to the arrangement of the keyboard were made, Remington & Sons produced the new Remington No. 2 model. The Remington No. 2 included the arrangement of keys we use today along with the ability to type both capital and lowercase letters by using the shift key. The shift key received its name because it caused the carriage to shift position in order to type either a lowercase or capital letter which were on the same typebar. Although the shift key we use on our keyboards today does not cause the machine to shift mechanically, the name stuck.

As the typewriter rose in popularity, people stopped complaining about the weird arrangement of keys and started memorizing the keyboard and learning how to type efficiently. Although other alternate keyboards tried to break onto the market, most people decided to stay with the QWERTY board, and none of the other type-writing machines proved successful.

One prominent attempt at a replacement keyboard occurred in the early 1930s when Professor August Dvorak of Washington State University set out to develop a more user-friendly keyboard. He ultimately redesigned the keyboard so all of the vowels and the five most commonly used consonants were arranged on the home row (AOEUIDHTNS).

Although the design required a typist to frequently alternate hands to type most words, with the Dvorak keyboard, a person could type approximately 400 of the English language’s most common words just by using the keys of the home row, compared to 100 words on the QWERTY keyboard. In addition, using the Dvorak keyboard, a typist’s fingers would not have to travel as far as they did on Sholes’ keyboard to type the majority of words.

Dvorak set out to prove his machine superior to Sholes’, but his keyboard never caught on. Many of the studies used to test the effectiveness of his keyboard were flawed or were deemed a conflict of interest since Dvorak conducted them himself.

A U.S. General Services Administration study in 1953 of Dvorak’s keyboard determined it didn’t matter which keyboard was used. Experienced typists in either keyboard typed at approximately the same speed, with variance based more on their individual skill rather than either keyboard design being superior to the other in a larger samplesize or words.

This ultimately killed the Dvorak keyboard as the majority of people didn’t want to commit the time or resources it would take to be trained on a new keyboard. Thus, the QWERTY keyboard persevered through today and seemingly will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

As Dr. Dvorak said, “Changing the keyboard format is like proposing to reverse the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule, discard every moral principle, and ridicule motherhood.”

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