The Legend of QWERTY
QWERTY - do these random letters look familiar to you? Probably so; it is the pattern on our keyboards, so well-known to us today, that we use it daily without even having to glance at it.
In 1868, a politician, newspaperman, and an amateur inventor in Milwaukee, named Christopher Latham Sholes, created one of the earliest typewriter keyboards. It resembled a piano and had 42 keys (26 alphabets, the numbers 2 to 9, along with some punctuations), and was called the “QWERTY keyboard” after the first six letters.
Funnily enough, the layout was actually created to slow the typists. In the olden typewriters, when a key was struck, a linkage would swing the character onto a tape coated with ink, and then the impression of the character was transferred on the paper. When adjacent linkages were struck one after the other, it would increase the risk of jamming. Sholes came up with different layouts to resolve this and created a design where he separated the most commonly used letter combinations like “st”, “he”,” th” etc.
However, this system arranged the letters ‘e’ and ‘r’ beside each other even though “er” and “re” were the fourth-most and sixth-most common letter pairings in the English language respectively. Contradictory to the QWERTY layout, the DVORAK layout tried to minimize the distance between the keys, with a prime motive to help type faster. Many argue that this was a better layout.
So why do we still see QWERTY everywhere? When humans shifted to computers and laptops, this arrangement was no longer a necessity. With our brains working in an inexplicable manner - developing, improvising, studying, and grasping every new bit of information that comes our way - memorizing a keyboard layout with letters arranged in a specific order would not be a problematic task. One who frequently uses the keyboard would know where each letter was without hunting for it, and this skill improved with the advent of touch typing.
Sholes created another keyboard layout called XPMCHR around the 1890s, just before he died. This proves that he himself wasn’t satisfied with the QWERTY arrangement. It’s been almost 150 years since the invention, and a lot of other faster and advanced arrangements were developed after it, but yet QWERTY prevails. Why?
Surprisingly, the answer to that lies in market demand. In early 1873, Sholes approached Remington, owner of a typewriter manufacturing company, who decided to buy the patent for the QWERTY layout from him. The company started selling typewriters with Sholes’ arrangement. During the 1890s, the economic depression forced many companies to merge into trusts that allowed them to fix prices and control markets. The same happened with typewriters when some of the biggest manufacturers came together to form the Union Typewriter Company. Since the biggest share manufacturer in the trust was Remingtons, the trust decided to produce typewriters with the QWERTY arrangement.
To add to this, typists of the time were required to learn to type on the most common keyboard layout. Women would typically get jobs in positions handling communications, and it was essential to attend classes where they would teach the QWERTY layout.
Today, QWERTY is the basis of several functions on our laptops. For instance, shortcuts to copy, paste, undo etc are achieved easily, and games that have controls using letters A, S, W, D also require this layout. Although you can change your keyboard software into a DVORAK layout, it is seen as an unconventional arrangement and might be very hard to work with for your peers.
It’s surprising to think that in this technologically advancing world, where every invention can be improved to its next best variant, the original QWERTY layout has survived 150 years with only some minor tweaks. Humans are hardwired to resist change, and it would be quite impossible for such a universally accepted system to change overnight, even if there was a much better version replacing it. For now, we can type away on our phones and laptops with each key’s address engraved in our minds.
Shreya Manoj & Sreelakshmi Ranjith