From the top left hand corner of the keyboard, the first six letters are almost invariably QWERTY. Why is that, and how did the QWERTY keyboard become so popular?
In 1868, an American Mechanical Engineer, Christopher Latham Sholes, produced a type-writer that had letters arranged in alphabetical order; unfortunately, among the design problems was the fact that if a typist worked too quickly, keys would jam together and slow the typist down (for those unfamiliar with the mechanical type-writer, it has arms, called keybars, with letters on the end. The keybars were raised to strike the printing surface when the corresponding key was pressed. The keybars became tangled if a typist hit two adjacent keys in quick succession). Sholes, with the assistance of his friends Carlos Glidden and Samuel W. Soulé (and probably educator Amos Densmore, who studied letter-pair frequency), redesigned the type-writer with the current QWERTY layout that survives today (it is a common misconception that the QWERTY design was meant to slow down typists so the ‘jams’ would not occur; rather, it was an attempt to prevent jams and accelerate a typist’s speed).
Sholes was not an efficient businessman, or marketer, and sold the rights to the invention to James Densmore, a banker (and brother of Amos Densmore). James Densmore partnered with Philo Remington (of rifle manufacturing fame) to market and manufacture the type-writer. In 1877, the very first Sholes & Glidden Typewriter was available to the market, but it took engineers at Remington a few years to create a design that appealed to the masses; after the engineer’s tweeks, sales increased dramatically.
There were competitors, with different layout configurations, but Remington had an ace up their sleeve…
They had an ace typist, Frank McGurrin, probably the first touch typist. He won several crucial typing contests, which were commonplace competitions in the late 1880s. In particular, McGurrin won a prestigious Cincinnati typing contest in 1888. The New York Times declared that the victory made it clear that the Remington machine was superior. And so the age of the QWERTY keyboard began…
Since then, there has been opposition to the QWERTY design, most notably due to the research of Frank Gilbreth, which eventually led to August Dvorak’s design. In the 1920s, Gilbreth, an Industrial Engineer, carried out time and motion studies and declared that alternate design layouts could not only increase speed, but reduce errors and fatigue. In the 1930s, Dvorak (along with colleagues at the University of Washington) designed a new keyboard layout, based on Gilbreth’s research; and, in 1936, the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard was patented, and Dvorak claimed it provided a scientifically proven, enhanced performance over the QWERTY design. Dvorak’s scientific methods have been seriously questioned, but he managed to convince the US Navy to order thousands of typewriters; regrettably (for Dvorak), the Treasury Department refused to complete the transaction (there was a Navy study that demonstrated the superiority of the Dvorak machine, but the experimental set-up and statistical analysis was unsound; furthermore, it was later revealed (by Sholes biographer, Arthur Foulke) that the author of the report was none other than Lieutenant Commander August Dvorak).
There have been some studies that indicate that Dvorak’s design may increase typing speed, but the layout hasn’t gained much momentum in the modern world.
The ubiquity of the QWERTY keyboard, and the infrastructure surrounding the design (instruction infrastructure (instructors, facilities, books, software…), touch-typists already trained, manufacturing facility set-up, etcetera) dictate that the QWERTY keyboard will survive, unchallenged, until keyboards are replaced with an alternate technology (voice recognition, gesture recognition and motion sensing technology, or others (thought recognition?)).
Long live QWERTY!
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