Slow down to speed up

Look at the keyboard of any standard typewriter or computer. Q,W,E,R,T and Y are the first six letters, followed by other alphabets in what appears to be a random order. Who decided on this arrangement of the letters? And why?

The first practical typewriter was patented in the United States in 1868 by Christopher Latham Sholes. It had a movable carriage, a lever for turning paper from line to line, and a keyboard on which the letters were arranged in alphabetical order.

But Sholes had a problem. On his first model, the “ABC” key arrangement caused the keys to jam when the typist worked quickly. Sholes didn’t know how to keep the keys from ‘sticking’, so his solution was to keep the typist from typing too fast.

Using a study of letter-pair frequency prepared by educator Amos Densmore, Sholes devised a new arrangement, the “QWERTY” arrangement that typists use even today. The QWERTY keyboard itself was determined by the existing mechanical linkages of the typebars inside the machine to the keys on the outside. QWERTY’s effect, by reducing the annoying clashes of typebars and sticking of keys, was to speed up typing rather than slow it down.

Though Sholes claimed that the new arrangement was scientific and would add speed and efficiency, his solution did not eliminate the problem completely, but it was greatly reduced. The only efficiency it added was to slow the typist down, since almost any word in the English language required the typist’s fingers to cover more distance on the keyboard.

The keyboard arrangement was considered important enough to be included on Sholes’ patent granted in 1878, some years after the machine was into production. The advantages of the typewriter, however, outweighed the disadvantages of the keyboard. Typists memorised the crazy letter arrangement, and the typewriter became a huge success.

The QWERTY keyboard continues as its legacy in the modern-day computers.

Christopher Latham Sholes(1819-1890) was an American inventor who invented the QWERTYkeyboard, and along with Frank Haven Hall, Samuel W. Soule, Carlos Gladden and John Pratt, has been contended as one of the inventors of the first typewriter in the United States. He was also a newspaper publisher and Wisconsin politician.

The QWERTY design, created for the Sholes and Glidden typewriter and sold to Remington in 1873, became popular with the success of the Remington No. 2 of 1878, and remains in use on electronic keyboards due to inertia, the difficulty of learning a layout that differs from the currently entrenched standard, the network effect of a standard layout, and the claim by some that alternatives fail to provide very significant advantages.

Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
– Bertrand Russell