Monday, March 21, 2016

How QWERTY came to be

If you've ever wondered how the modern keyboard layout was standardized, wonder no longer.

There are very few things that are surrounded with as much hearsay and rumor as the origins of the QWERTY layout of typewriters and keyboards. The reason behind the QWERTY layout isn’t as simple as ‘so the bars for each letter don’t collide with each other.’ That’s nonsense – it would make far more sense to improve the mechanism before changing the arrangement of the keyboard around.

That’s not the only fallacious argument for the creation of QWERTY. It’s also been called a marketing ploy; Stephen Jay Gould popularized the idea of the QWERTY keyboard being as it is so a salesman could peck out TYPE WRITER on the top row. This also makes little sense. Why would the top row and not the home row be so privileged as to contain all the letters the make up the name of the machine. For that matter, wouldn’t a sales pitch be more impressive if TYPE WRITER were typed with one hand?

This doesn’t mean there’s not a method behind the madness of QWERTY – it’s just not as simple as jammed typewriter mechanisms or appeasing the wishes of salesmen in the 1870s.

There's more at the link.  The article describes how early typewriters evolved into their modern equivalents, and how their keyboards evolved with them.

I was told during my typing training (on Telex machines in the South African military) that the reason for the QWERTY layout was to prevent the letter bars of typewriters from jamming when the most common combinations of keys were pressed in rapid succession.  That's apparently not true, but it was certainly a widespread 'folk tale' for a very long time.  (On the other hand, knowing how to touch-type has stood me in very good stead over the years since then.  I type at about 100 words per minute, which makes my writing time much more productive.)



SiGraybeard said...

Darn - I heard that one about keeping letters from jamming, too.

The other one I heard was that it was done to deliberately slow down typists; sort of the same thing because slowing down typists kept the early typewriters from jamming.

As for touch typing, I can and do, but I kind of learned it by accident. I had been messing around on computer keyboards for about a decade using the "hunt and peck" method, when I kind of suddenly realized that I knew where every key was and all I had to do was just not look at the keyboard.

Anonymous said...

Ditto on the teletype training though I only made it to 60 wpm. Then a job cutting reperf tapes 8 hours a day triggered a wonderful case of carpal tunnel. In 1977 in the military before the syndrome was recognized.

Quartermaster said...

As I recall, The QWERTY keyboard was standardized before the teletype machine was invented. I never got all that fast, but still had the bars jam each other from time to time.

The teletypes I used required so much force that I never got all that fast with them. I was able to do much better with an IBM Selectric as well as the keyboards of computer terminals and current computers.