QWERTY keyboards

3:54 pm General

Episode 2 in a series “Things that are the way they are because of constraints that no longer apply” (or: why we don’t change processes we have invested in that don’t make sense any more)

American or English computer users are familiar with the QWERTY keyboard layout – which takes its name from the layout of letters on the first row of the traditional us and en_gb keyboard layouts. There are other common layouts in other countries, mostly tweaks to this format like AZERTY (in France) or QWERTZ (in Germany). There are also non-QWERTY related keyboard layouts like Dvorak, designed to allow increased typing speed, but which have never really gained widespread adoption. But where does the QWERTY layout come from?

The layout was first introduced with the Remington no. 1 typewriter (AKA the Scholes and Glidden typewriter) in 1874. The typewriter had a set of typebars which would strike the page with a single character, and these were arranged around a circular “basket”. The page was then moved laterally by one letter-width, ready for the next keystrike. The first attempt laid out the keys in alphabetical order, in two rows, like a piano keyboard. Unfortunately, this mechanical system had some issues – if two typebars situated close together were struck in rapid succession, they would occasionally jam the mechanism. To avoid this issue, common bigrams were distributed around the circle, to minimise the risk of jams.

The keyboard layout was directly related to the layout of typebars around the basket, since the keyboard was purely mechanical – pushing a key activated a lever system to swing out the correct typebar. As a result, the keyboard layout the company settled on, after much trial and error, had the familiar QWERTY layout we use today. At this point, too much is invested in everything from touch-type lessons and sunk costs of the population who have already learned to type for any other keyboard format to become viable, even though the original constraint which led to this format obviously no longer applies.

Edit: A commenter pointed me to an article on The Atlantic called “The Lies You’ve Been Told About the QWERTY Keyboard” which suggests an alternate theory. The layout changed to better serve the earliest users of the new typewriter, morse code transcribing telegraph operators. A fascinating lesson in listening to your early users, for sure, but also perhaps a warning on imposing early-user requirements on later adopters?

2 Responses

  1. Mathieu Says:

    Actually it seems the typewriter thing is a myth: The Lies You’ve Been Told About the Origin of the QWERTY Keyboard

  2. Simon Says:

    I look at it this way – when the standard formed, there were good reasons why it was done in a particular way.

    Those reasons might not apply today, but equally, there aren’t any good reasons to change things – it works, and despite all the enthusiasm of Dvorak fans, nobody has come up with anything appreciably better. The same applies to other countries – every language comes with its own keyboard layout(s), but pretty much all of them are QWERTY variants, mostly moving around punctuation symbols according to their own needs.

    Even in countries like Japan that don’t use the Roman alphabet natively, none of them have felt any urge to innovate in this area – they’ve all decided that QWERTY was good enough for them.