How Keyboard Creators Came Up With The QWERTY Layout

Categories: Ergonomics, Typing Practice, Typing Tips and Tricks |

Ever wonder why the keys on your keyboard are structured they way they are? Why should “Q” be next to “W” and not beside “F”? Is there a specific reason why the letters “B”, “N” and “M” are on the last key row?

The QWERTY keyboard layout was meant to boost your typing speed by slowing it down. Let us explain.

The QWERTY keyboard doesn’t have a random layout, as it might initially seem. The developer of the QWERTY typewriter layout, Christopher Sholes, had in fact based the layout of his keyboard on one simple principle: how to make typists type more efficiently by avoiding typebar jamming.

The QWERTY keyboard was first introduced on typewriters, as you know. The problem with early mechanical typewriters was related to their underlying mechanism, where each key was connected to a typebar or metal arm. Each time the typist pressed on a key then a movement was initiated in which the letter bar would strike an ink-filled tape. Behind this tape was the paper on which the character pressed by the typist was printed.

The structure of the typewriter however, meant that the keys and arms were rather crowded, and if you were to press two adjacent keys at the same time or very rapidly one after the other, then the typebars would almost always jam. There was not enough space in between them, which caused jamming of the bars if a typist was super fast.

Christopher Sholes had the ingenious idea of making touch typing harder and slower, on the theory that this would fix the bar jamming issue. Instead of figuring a way to avoid jamming by placing the keys physically farther apart, he thought that by placing the most common letters in the English alphabet as far as possible from one another, this would significantly slow down the typist and avoid bar jamming. Bar jamming meant that the typist’s flow was often interrupted and with Shole’s layout, bar jamming was reduced and typing become faster and more efficient.

The QWERTY keyboard layout was sold to Remington by Sholes and Glidden and since then it’s been the dominant keyboard layout. Even other keyboard layouts like the Dvorak haven’t yet threatened QWERTY’s dominance.

The Remington No. 2 in 1878 became the typewriter model that catapulted the QWERTY keyboard layout into unprecedented popularity. It was the first typewriter to introduce the shift key, which allowed for typing both upper and lower case letters.

Alternatives to the QWERTY keyboard

The Dvorak layout was invented by August Dvorak. He thought that the QWERTY layout was neither ergonomic nor efficient in terms of touch typing speed. Several other keyboard layout exists, such as the Colemak, the Maltron, and the Half QWERTY for smartphones, but the QWERTY is still the unquestionable winner.

Have you ever tried an alternative keyboard layout?

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