Any English-speaker who’s attempted to use an alphabetical keyboard will know just how accustomed we have become to the seemingly nonsensical QWERTY keyboard layout. But there’s still some debate as to why this design came into existence, and why, roughly 150 years after its inception, we have not adopted a more efficient alternative.
The QWERTY (pronounced KWEHR-tee) layout’s name refers to the positioning of the first six letters on most Latin-based alphabet keyboards. The design was first patented in 1878 by Christopher Latham Sholes and is still considered the standard keyboard layout today.
Although we are now all pretty familiar with the QWERTY layout, and would struggle to type without it, the letters don’t appear to follow any clear order. There is, however, some method to the madness.
The history of QWERTY
The first practical typewriter was invented by Sholes in 1867 replacing the larger, more cumbersome Typographer. Beginning with the then-titled Type-Writer, Sholes and colleagues would go on to produce a number of keyboard formats starting with a 28-key, alphabetical iteration, eventually developing into the QWERTY format on the Sholes & Glidden Type-Writer in 1874. The machine was then put into production through their partnership with gun manufacturer Remington.
However, this wasn’t the final development of the format. In 1886, new company Wyckoff, Seamans & Benedict (WS&B) released the Remington Standard Type-Writer No. 2 which, to avoid Sholes’s patenting limitations, changed the design to feature M next to N and C exchanged for X. This is the QWERTY format keyboard we use today.
With Remington becoming the sole producer of QWERTY format machines the layout was a resounding success, with more than 100,000 QWERTY-based Remington typewriters in use across the US by 1890.
In 1893, the Union Typewriter Company was formed by WS&B and Charles Newell Fowler. The company was a shareholder in five of the leading typewriter companies and together formed the Typewriter Trust. With the five companies all adopting the QWERTY format, this layout became the standard.
Theories around the function of QWERTY
As legend would have it, the reason QWERTY follows this precise order is to slow down the process of writing on a typewriter.
Typewriters work by pressing a key which forces a steel type to hit a ribbon of ink before transferring that ink stamp onto the paper. The issue with this complex mechanism is that if more than one letter is hit in quick succession then the steel types get jammed.
The supposed idea for the QWERTY layout was an attempt to prevent the keys from jamming by separating common letter pairings.
On QWERTY keyboards, TH, ON, AN, CH, and IE all sit a good space apart, minimising the chances of the keys getting stuck by slowing down the typing process. There are, however, two keys that break this rule – E and R is the second most common character combination, and they’re famously right next to each other in the QWERTY layout.
The slowing of the operator theory is, however, speculatory, and the true origins of the QWERTY keyboard are still debated. A 2011 paper aiming to disprove the use of the QWERTY format to slow down typing details the prehistory of the design.
The paper claims the formatting of the keyboard was actually created accidentally while trying to make typing faster and more efficient for those translating from Morse code.
“The code represents Z as ‘· · · ·’ which is often confused with the digram SE, more frequently-used than Z. Sometimes Morse receivers in United States cannot determine whether Z or SE is applicable, especially in the first letter(s) of a word, before they receive following letters. Thus S ought to be placed near by both Z and E on the keyboard for Morse receivers to type them quickly,” the paper details.
In direct opposition to the common belief, the Morse code idea suggests its function was to speed up typing by placing similar Morse-coded letters next to each other, increasing typing reaction time once the writer works out the Morse character. The Morse receiver needs to be as fast at typing as the Morse sender, so it would be counterintuitive to intentionally slow typing down.
Another parallel theory surrounding the design suggests that it was Remington’s involvement with production that standardized the format. Remington worked as both a manufacturer of the QWERTY keyboard typewriters, as well as providing training courses on how to use them.
The theory goes that by training typists on the QWERTY system, all companies that used typists trained by Remington would have to stock Remington brand typewriters, thus creating a self-sustaining system.
Keyboard layout alternatives
Whatever the events were that led to the conception of the QWERTY layout, the design is no longer optimized for modern-day typing habits. Even Sholes himself continued to propose more efficient alternative layouts for the rest of his life, filing his final patent in 1889, one year before he died.
One of QWERTY’s most significant rivalries was with August Dvorak, a professor at the University of Minnesota, who proposed his own variation intent on increasing words per minute (WPM) titled the Dvorak keyboard.
Developed in the 1930’s and approved in 1982 by the American National Standards Institute, the Dvorak keyboard groups the most-used consonants on the right of the “home row” and the vowels on the left and is designed to be used in a back-and-forth motion between the left and right hands, evenly distributing the workload between hands.
Additionally, Dvorak invented two more keyboards designed for those with just one hand (one keyboard for left and one for right). These reportedly allowed people to type efficiently with a single hand, up to speeds of 50 WPM.
There is, however, still some debate surrounding the efficiency of the Dvorak keyboard, which is exacerbated by the fact that generally people become familiar with the QWERTY layout from a young age.
In a 2019 piece by The Verge, writer Jon Porter details his experience using a Dvorak keyboard over a 10-year period. Porter states that to use the Dvorak keyboard, you are forced to learn how to touch type, which is of course more efficient than not touch typing on a QWERTY keyboard.
Porter also points out the increased security of using a widely unfamiliar keyboard layout, as anyone watching your keystrokes would not instantly be able to work out what was written.
Similarly, the more recent addition of the Colemak keyboard claims to have improved on both the QWERTY and the Dvorak system and is now the third most popular keyboard layout. But, overall, there isn’t any resounding evidence that suggests either the Dvorak or Colemak layout is significantly more efficient than QWERTY.
However, now, in the age of touchscreens, a method was developed by researchers at the University of St Andrews in 2013 which is optimized to be used with the thumbs. Called KALQ (referring to the letters on the bottom right of the keyboard), the layout splits the keys into 16 on the left and 12 on the right, with commonly used letters together and letter pairs on opposite sides.
The researchers who devised the layout found that after training test participants for 10 hours, they were able to reach 37 WPM, whereas QWERTY users average around 20 WPM.
While the system claims to allow tablet users to type 34 percent faster than QWERTY users, as it’s optimized for touchscreen use, it’s unlikely to replace the QWERTY system for physical computer keyboards.
So, now, as the war of the keyboards takes a more futuristic turn, are we soon going to see the end of the legendary QWERTY, or are we all too set in our ways to bother?