Qwerty keyboard

Qwerty keyboard
Emritus Professor at Rochester Institute Frank Romano traces the history of the Qwerty keyboard that we use today

QWERTY describes the keyboard layout of English-language keyboards based on the 1874 typewriter. It takes its name from the first six characters of the keyboard’s top row of letters. The basic layout was designed by Christopher Latham Sholes for the Sholes-Glidden typewriter. It was said to be designed to minimise typebar clashes and remains in use on computer keyboards today. Because it was the first successful mechanical writing machine, its key layout became the standard.

Sholes was the 52nd person to invent the typewriter, but the only one to call it that. He struggled for six years to per­fect his invention, making many trial-and-error re-arrangements of the original machine’s alphabetical key arrangement to reduce typebar clashes.

In 1873 Sholes’ backer, James Densmore, sold manufacturing rights for the Sholes-Glidden ‘Type Writer’ to E Remington and Sons, and within a few months the keyboard layout was final­ised by Remington’s mechanics.

The Qwerty layout allows many more words to be keyed using only the left hand. In fact, thousands of English words can be keyed using only the left hand, while only a few hundred words can be typed using only the right hand. This is helpful for left-handed people. I contend that Sholes was left-handed and got revenge for every left-handed person who would ever live.

The Qwerty layout became popular with the success of the Remington No 2 of 1878, the first typewriter to include both upper and lowercase letters, via a shift key. The original model was all caps.

The keys are not on a standard grid and each column slants diagonally due to the mechanical linkages. Each key is attached to a lever, and hence the offset prevents the levers from running into each other and this staggered arrange­ment has been retained by computer keyboards.

Typists who learned on these mach-ines learned the habit of using the low­ercase letter L for the digit one, and the uppercase O for the zero. The exclama­tion point, which shares a key with the numeral 1 on modern keyboards, could be reproduced by using a three-stroke combination of an apostrophe, a back­space, and a period. The 0 key was added and standardised in its modern position early in the history of the type­writer, but the 1 and exclamation point were left off some typewriter keyboards until well into the 1970s.

The first machines typed only capital letters. The Remington No 2 offered both upper and lowercase by adding the familiar shift key. It is called a shift because it actually caused the carriage to shift in position for printing either of two letters on each typebar. Electronic keyboards no longer shift mechanically when the shift key is pressed, but its name remains.

Many alternative keyboards came and went. Professor August Dvorak set out to develop the ultimate typewriter keyboard once and for all. Dvorak’s home row uses all five vowels and the f ive most common consonants: AOEUIDHTNS. With the vowels on one side and consonants on the other, a rough typing rhythm would be estab­lished as each hand would tend to alter­nate. Another alternative was Lillian Malt’s Maltron keyboard in the 1960s.

Several alternatives to Qwerty have been developed over the years, claimed by their designers and users to be more efficient, intuitive, and ergonomic. Nevertheless, none has seen widespread adoption, due to the sheer dominance of available typewriter keyboards and training.

When Ottmar Mergenthaler was lay­ing out the keys for the Linotype he counted the pieces of type in a printer’s typecase. Thus he had a separate set of keys for caps and lowercase arranged by letter frequency use in the English lan­guage. He was the first to find Qwerty as a problem.

Thus, in a computer age, we type on an antiquated, illogical keyboard arrangement created by a failed Wisconsin newspaper publisher who was left handed. We are doomed to use this keyboard until voice recognition supplants keyboarding.


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