Food & Culture

Here's Why We Still Use the QWERTY Keyboard

If you're reading this, then you've probably used a keyboard of some form in the last several minutes. These typing interfaces give us control over much of our daily lives, but have you ever stopped and wondered why they look the way they do? The story of how the modern keyboard came to be involves Morse code, marketing, and a little bit of luck.

Querying QWERTY

Modern computers and keyboards use the QWERTY layout, named for the letters in the top left-hand corner. This design isn't necessarily the most efficient ... and if you think back to when you learned how to type, you probably recognize it isn't the most intuitive either.

Back in the 1860s, a man named Christopher Latham Sholes was busy developing ways to make offices more efficient. Notably, he spent his time developing all different kinds of typewriters and key layouts to improve how people wrote and communicated. Working with others in the field, he patented the first typewriter in 1867. Previous to this invention, there were other machines used for writing, but none were standard.

Sholes's design resembled a piano interface where the letters were laid out alphabetically. Such a design may seem intuitive, but users had trouble finding the keys when they needed them.

After working continuously to come up with new designs, in 1873, Sholes landed on one that had a similar layout to the modern QWERTY, but with a few keys switched. It would've been known as the QWE.TY, and had a layout like this:

Popular legend suggests that Sholes landed on this design based on the need to reduce key jamming in these early typewriters. It was thought that he laid out the keys in a way that allowed common letter sequences to be typed in rapid succession without a mechanical jam in the typewriter arms.

However, researchers at Kyoto University suggested that this popular legend is all bunk in a 2011 paper. They argue, rather, that the QWERTY system emerged from testing with telegraph operators. These operators suggested that the letters "S," "Z," and "E" be placed close together because the Morse codes for "Z" and "SE" were similar and often confused. This would allow the operator to prepare to type the appropriate letter just with the placement of a finger. This same methodology, the paper argues, was used to place various other letters across the keyboard. Currently, this theory seems to be the closest to the truth of how the QWERTY design came to be, but historians still aren't exactly sure.

In any case, Sholes finally landed on the QWERTY design by switching around some letters from his original QWE.TY layout, as noted by his 1878 patent.

A Branding Boon

Right after Sholes and his partner Carlos Glidden patented the QWERTY design and decided to start production, they entered a manufacturing agreement with the gun-maker Remington. This deal was a major success, and by 1890, 100,000 QWERTY keyboards were in use across the US. The public began adopting the design, not because it was necessarily the best or most efficient, but because it was what was being made and sold.

Remington was also one of the first companies to offer classes and certifications for typists — all on their keyboards. For companies across the U.S., this meant that if you wanted a properly trained typist, you had to have Remington machines with the QWERTY key layout in your office. This was clever marketing used to ensure brand loyalty and mass adoption of their machines.

The fate of the QWERTY keyboard was finally cemented in history when in 1893, Remington, Smith-Premier, Densmore, Yost, and Caligraph — all major typewriter manufacturers — merged. When they did, they adopted QWERTY as standard.

What's Popular is Not Always Right

While the QWERTY keyboard design stuck mostly because it was thought to be the best (or at least marketed that way), its own designer didn't really believe in it. Sholes continued developing new typewriter designs for the rest of his life. The next biggest competitor to the QWERTY layout was something called the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard, developed in the 1930s by Dr. August Dvorak. This design was argued to allow faster and more accurate typing because it arranged more common letters on the home row, allowing for less finger movement. However, recent research suggests that this isn't actually the case. None of that matters, though, because as you probably know, the Dvorak layout was never adopted. Even by the time of its invention between World Wars, it was too late for QWERTY to be overthrown.

As keyboards moved from mechanical to digital in the 20th century, there wasn't necessarily a reason to keep the QWERTY layout. After all, there aren't any telegraph operators using typewriters, and we don't need to worry about jammed machines. However, people dislike change — so the QWERTY keyboard stuck around.

Looking back through time, we've been left with the QWERTY keyboard layout because it was conceived at just the precise time to be produced for the mass market. After production, some clever marketing from Remington got the public and professionals locked into the design, and the rest is history.

Could you imagine life without text messaging? You're not alone, but you would have been a few decades ago. Tom McBride and Ron Nief explore what various American generations couldn't live without in "The Mindset Lists of American History: From Typewriters to Text Messages, What Ten Generations of Americans Think Is Normal." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Who Invented the QWERTY Keyboard?

Written by Trevor English June 29, 2018

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