Some Myths About the QWERTY Keyboard, Part I

Ever wonder why nearly all computer keyboards have a layout with QWERTY starting the top letter row? Here are a few myths and facts on the subject.

Just about anyone who’s ever typed recognizes QWERTY: it’s the “word” for the first six letters on the top letter row of a keyboard, pronounced pretty much as it sounds. That makes it unique and unmistakable. But if you’re like Your Humble Writer, you may wonder why the keyboard isn’t in alphabetical order instead.

What’s so special about QWERTY?

It turns out to be a relic of the old days, though not for the reasons you may have heard before. Some of the associated myths seem to make sense… and as usual, some are just plain dumb. But let’s take a look, shall we?

Myth #1 (the Big One): The QWERTY layout was originally intended to slow typists down.

You may scratch your head and wonder how that makes any sense, given that your words appear instantly on the computer screen, with no fuss and bother. But if you’re older than, say, 30, you may remember using actual typewriters. Even, heaven forbid, manual typewriters.

For a century, all typewriters included a rack of reversed type on the end of little hammers, all arranged in a horizontal arc. The hammers connected to individual keys. With manual typewriters (all that existed for 75+ years) you had to hit each key really hard.

This made the hammer spring up, hit an ink-soaked ribbon, and press the ink onto a sheet of paper. Viola, a nice, typeset character. Hence “typewriting,” a term invented in a Scientific American article well before C.L. Sholes invented the first typewriter in 1874.

Put enough typewritten characters together, and you had a letter or a book. Bonus fact: Mark Twain was the first writer to turn in a typewritten novel, though scholars argue over whether it was Tom Sawyer or Life on the Mississippi.

Moving Right Along

As anyone who’s used an old typewriter knows, when you type too fast you jam up the bars, and then you have to reach in and untangle them. The faster you type, the more likely you’ll jam up. So it makes sense to think that the inventor, deliberately arranged things to slow down typists.

The truth is actually quite the opposite. From the very beginning, Sholes arranged his keys to be less likely to jam, based on frequency of use — in other words, to speed up typing.

This worked well enough for the Sholes layout to become the standard keyboard that everyone copied… and due to cultural inertia, it’s still the layout most often used today.

Barely Started…

That’s one myth down: the granddaddy of them all. Since this one took a bit more space to lay to rest than most, let’s save the next few QWERTY myths for Part II.