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The Origin of Computer Keyboards

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Everybody knows that the “Qwerty” keyboard was designed to slow down expert typists so they didn’t jam the keys. It turns out everybody might be wrong. One credible claim is that the Qwerty arrangement was created for the convenience of people transcribing American Morse code into English text. At least, that’s the way Tim Harford of the BBC tells it and he saddles Wisconsin printer Christopher Sholes with the blame.

Christopher Sholes, the man who gave us the Qwerty keyboard.

Christopher Sholes, the man who gave us the Qwerty keyboard.

The First Typewriter

The ink-stained Mr. Sholes has been called the father of the typewriter, but he was simply the first to improve the machine’s design to the point where it became a commercial success. So, another title sometimes bestowed upon Sholes is the “52nd inventor of the typewriter.”

A patent registered in Britain in 1714 describes a contraption that can be said to be an early typewriter. The typographer of William Austin Burt appeared in 1829 but it suffered from the disadvantage that, even when operated by its inventor, it was slower than handwriting.

Patents were filed in Europe and America for many creations but none worked well enough to attract manufacturers to start making them.

The Blickensdorfer typewriter of 1902 vintage was initially very popular because it was simpler and cheaper than competing machines.

The Blickensdorfer typewriter of 1902 vintage was initially very popular because it was simpler and cheaper than competing machines.

Then, in 1868, Christopher Soles walked into the offices of Porter’s Telegraph College in Chicago. He demonstrated his machine with the Qwerty keyboard and the world’s first typewriter sale was made. Of course, the machine had a Qwerty set up.

Tim Harford explains why the letters were arranged to make Morse Code transcription easier, “… the Z is next to the S and the E, because Z and SE are indistinguishable in American Morse code. The telegraph receiver would hover over those letters, waiting for context to make everything clear.”

“Unfortunately, no definitive explanation for the Qwerty keyboard has been found, and typewriter aficionados continue to debate the issue.”

New World Encyclopedia

Competing Keyboard Layouts

Remington, which was big in the sewing machine business, (guns too) was one of the first companies to start manufacturing typewriters. It and competitors soon adopted what has come to be known as the universal layout.

Soon, millions of typists had trained on the Qwerty keyboard. There was no way of changing to a more convenient arrangement, but that didn’t stop August Dvorak from trying.

The American professor of education created a design that takes his name; it places the most frequently used letters in the English language on the middle, or home, row. This means that the hands of touch typists hover over the keys that are used 70 percent of the time. With the Qwerty layout, the middle row only has 31 percent of the most frequently used letters.

With Dvorak, the most frequently used vowels are grouped together for the left hand and the most commonly used consonants are under the right hand. For left-handed people, the keys can be switched around. Because consonants and vowels often alternate in English, typing speed can be much faster using the Dvorak layout.

There have been a few spells when the Dvorak system looked likely to challenge Qwerty, but the cumbersome, old method remains king. The cost of retooling and retraining millions of users is just not seen as worth it.

Most software supports Dvorak but users have to re-label the keys on the existing boards or buy an overlay. It’s possible to buy Dvorak keyboards. A company called Matias markets them but says they represent only 0.1% of their sales.

Alternatives to Qwerty and Dvorak

Colemak is the newest entry into the competition, arriving in 2006 courtesy of one Shai Coleman. It is based on Qwerty but moves 17 keys so the most commonly used letters are on the home row under the strongest fingers. It’s easier for Qwerty-trained operators to switch to Colemak than Dvorak.

As with Dvorak, Colemak has its cohort of passionate users; but, it’s a very small cohort.

Then, there’s TNWMLC, described by the BBC as “pure typing torture.” All the vowels go on the bottom row and is the creation of genome scientist Martin Krzywinski, whose name is as difficult to pronounce as it is for a hunt and peck typist to coax out of a keyboard.

The Maltron keyboard looks like some sort of evil challenge concocted by a demented scientist. This creation features three separated keyboards with letters on either side and numerals in the middle. It looks as though the typist would need the skills of a mighty Wurlitzer player to achieve anything approaching a couple of dozen words a minute.

Of course, not everybody speaks or types in English. So, minor variations of Qwerty have appeared. German-speaking users have a Qwertz keyboard and Russians use a Jcuken layout to accommodate the language’s 32 letter keys. However, it’s certain Russian trolls use the Qwerty board when disrupting democratic elections via social media.

Azerty is the arrangement used by French-speaking typists. However, a spokesperson for the French Culture Ministry in a typically Gallic huff noted “It is almost impossible to write in French correctly with a keyboard marketed in France.” It’s characters such as é, à, è and ç that are causing the problem. So, the search is on for a new French keyboard arrangement.

Meanwhile, Kalq is yelling for attention. This is an set up suggested for smart phone users who type with their thumbs.

A whole new battle for market dominance appears to be starting up.

Bonus Factoids

  • One theory about why the Qwerty board was adopted was to help typewriter salesmen. They could dazzle potential customers by pounding out the word “typewriter” at amazing speed using only the keys of the top row and without having to learn how to touch type.
  • Many users of the Dvorak layout report their Repetitive Strain pains go away or become less severe after switching from Qwerty.

“Qwerty is a pile of garbage from the 1800s and you shouldn’t use it. It’s bad for your hands … It’s also like wearing a pair of running shoes made of concrete.”

Alec Longstreth, cartoonist and Dvorak zealot

  • Those old codgers who learned on manual typewriters often used a lower-case letter L to substitute for the number 1 and an upper-case O for zero. This caused all sorts of issues when the ancient fingers were introduced to computer keyboards, especially when accounting was done electronically.
  • In the 1970s, there was a bar in Pittsburgh called The Office that had telephone booths into which was piped the sound of typewriters going clackety-clack. Husbands could call their wives from the booths to say they were working late. Of course, the women would never catch on to that.
  • Barbara Blackburn was once clocked at a typing speed of 212 words per minute. Of course, she failed typing class in high school.

Sources

  • “How Did the Qwerty Keyboard Become so Popular?” Tim Harford, BBC, April 24, 2019.
  • “The Dvorak Keyboard – What, Why and ‘Really’?” Hans Fangohr, University of Southampton, October 31, 2016.
  • “Typewriter.” New World Encyclopedia, December 24, 2015.
  • “Why We Can’t Give up this Odd Way of Typing.” Tim McDonald, BBC, May 25, 2018.
  • “Fact of Fiction? The Legend of the QWERTY Keyboard.” Jimmy Stamp, Smithsonian.com, May 3, 2013.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Miebakagh57 on May 15, 2019:

If I see a laptop with those odd keys like a,e,c, with dots below or above, I'll buy one. That will help me type in my local Ijaw Wakirikebese language.

Actually, I wrote a paper on the history of the commuper key board on assignment by my professor during my Masters program in information technology. i was the moderator. However, the laptop I used got a problem and I am unable to retrieve the article again. All comments seem significant to me.Thank you all.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on May 15, 2019:

I learned to type in high school, but I never knew a thing about the history of the typewriter. I guess that ages me a bit as I got a typewriter for my high school graduation.

I can see that other languages cause problems. This was an interesting article.

Liz Westwood from UK on May 15, 2019:

I had linked the computer keyboard to the old typewriters (of which I think we still have one in the loft), but I had never thought further than that, until I read your interesting article.

Dr Mark from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on May 14, 2019:

Hey, my keyboard has this "ç" key here that I hardly ever use. I wonder if I could sell it to some Quebecois on Ebay?

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on May 14, 2019:

Hello, Rupert, this is very challenging. Actually, like the French letters, such issues still exist in other languages. Thanks for sharing.

Ellison Hartley from Maryland, USA on May 14, 2019:

Interesting! I never knew any of this!

Alexander James Guckenberger from Maryland, United States of America on May 14, 2019:

They've been around for a minute.