Some Myths About the QWERTY Keyboard, Part II

Most modern English keyboards use the classic QWERTY configuration. Ever wonder why?

Just about everyone who uses an English-language keyboard recognizes QWERTY. It’s the “word” formed by the first six letters on the top letter row. Exceptions to this configuration do exist, but they’re rare.

You may think you know why… but chances are, you don’t. In Part I of this article, we took on the granddaddy QWERTY myth of them all, the claim that the configuration was invented to slow typists down. The truth is exactly the opposite.

Let’s look at a few other myths.

Myth #2: It was shameless self-promotion.

According to Pennsylvania legend, QWERTY made it easier for keyboard manufacturer James Daugherty to type his name, since the ERTY was bunched together. Nobody has much to say about the “Daugh-” part of his name, which is scattered all over the keyboard.

He didn’t invent the configuration anyway, as we know for a fact. What Daugherty deserves to be remembered for is that he introduced the earliest practical typewriter–one where you could actually see what you were typing!–in 1893.

Myth #3: It was a marketing ploy.

Ever noticed that you can type the word “typewriter” just by using the keys on the first letter row? Some suspect that’s no coincidence — that early salesmen used it to show how easy it was to learn to type. But apparently, it’s coincidence; certainly we have no evidence otherwise.

As pointed out in Part I, back when typewriters used ranks of little hammers to deliver the keystrokes, the QWERTY configuration was the least likely to jam. Otherwise, the simple fact of the matter is that it just happened to be first, and there’s never been any real need to change it.

So… how about one more myth — or at least a nice controversy?

Myth #4: The Dvorak configuration is superior and easier to use than QWERTY.

We have mixed reviews on this one. The fastest typist in the world, one Barbara Blackburn, uses Dvorak. But in most studies, the Dvorak keyboard doesn’t increase typing speed by more than 5%. On the other hand, the inventor was a good marketer, and he loudly proclaimed that it was superior to QWERTY.

His supporters still do.

If you don’t know what the heck I’m talking about: in 1936, Dr. August Dvorak patented what he called a simplified keyboard, supposedly with all the most commonly-used keys on the home (middle) letter row, which Dvorak claimed increased touch-typing speed for various reasons.

Want to try the Dvorak configuration yourself? Modern computers let you reconfigure your keyboard values, and you can purchase keyboards with Dvorak layouts. But if your typing speed doesn’t notably increase with practice, don’t say we didn’t warn you about this particular QWERTY controversy!