Fact of Fiction? The Legend of the QWERTY Keyboard (2023)

Fact of Fiction? The Legend of the QWERTY Keyboard (1)

What came first: the typist or the keyboard? The answer depends on the keyboard. A recent article in Smithsonian’s news blog, Smart News, described an innovative new keyboard system that proposes a more efficient alternative to the ubiquitous “universal” keyboard best known as QWERTY – named for the first six letters in the top row of keys. The new keyboard, known as KALQ, is designed specifically for thumb-typing on today’s smart phones and tablets. It’s an interesting and by all accounts commercially viable design that got me thinking about the rationale behind the QWERTY keyboard. Unlike KALQ, it couldn’t have been designed to accommodate a specific typing technique because, well, the idea of typing –touch typing, at least– hadn’t been invented yet. It turns out that there is a lot of myth and misinformation surrounding the development of QWERTY, but these various theories all seem to agree that the QWERTY layout was developed along with, and inextricably linked to, early typewriters.

In the 1860s, a politician, printer, newspaper man, and amateur inventor in Milwaukee by the name of Christopher Latham Sholes spent his free time developing various machines to make his businesses more efficient. One such invention was an early typewriter, which he developed with Samuel W. Soulé, James Densmore, and Carlos Glidden, and first patented in 1868. The earliest typewriter keyboard resembled a piano and was built with an alphabetical arrangement of 28 keys. The team surely assumed it would be the most efficient arrangement. After all, anyone who used the keyboard would know immediately where to find each letter; hunting would be reduced, pecking would be increased. Why change things? This is where the origin of QWERTY gets a little foggy.

Fact of Fiction? The Legend of the QWERTY Keyboard (2)

The popular theory states that Sholes had to redesign the keyboard in response to the mechanical failings of early typewriters, which were slightly different from the models most often seen in thrift stores and flea markets. The type bars connecting the key and the letter plate hung in a cycle beneath the paper. If a user quickly typed a succession of letters whose type bars were near each other, the delicate machinery would get jammed. So, it is said, Sholes redesigned the arrangement to separate the most common sequences of letters like “th” or “he”. In theory then, the QWERTY system should maximize the separation of common letter pairings. This theory could be easily debunked for the simple reason that “er” is the fourth most common letter pairing in the English language. However, one of the typewriter prototypes had a slightly different keyboard that was only changed at the last minute. If it had been put into production this article would have been about the QWE.TY keyboard:

Fact of Fiction? The Legend of the QWERTY Keyboard (3)

By 1873, the typewriter had 43 keys and a decidedly counter-intuitive arrangement of letters that supposedly helped ensure the expensive machines wouldn’t break down. Form follows function and the keyboard trains the typist. That same year, Sholes and his cohorts entered into a manufacturing agreement with gun-maker Remington, a well-equipped company familiar with producing precision machinery and, in the wake of the Cilvil War, no doubt looking to turn their swords into plowshares. However, right before their machine, dubbed the Sholes & Glidden, went into production, Sholes filed another patent, which included a new keyboard arrangement. Issued in 1878, U.S. Patent No. 207,559 (top image) marked the first documented appearance of the QWERTY layout. The deal with Remington proved to be an enormous success. By 1890, there were more than 100,000 QWERTY-based Remington produced typewriters in use across the country. The fate of the keyboard was decided in 1893 when the five largest typewriter manufacturers –Remington, Caligraph, Yost, Densmore, and Smith-Premier– merged to form the Union Typewriter Company and agreed to adopt QWERTY as the de facto standard that we know and love today.

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There’s a somewhat related theory that credits Remington’s pre-merger business tactics with the popularization of QWERTY. Remington didn’t just produce typewriters, they also provided training courses – for a small fee, of course. Typists who learned on their proprietary system would have to stay loyal to the brand, so companies that wanted to hire trained typists had to stock their desks with Remington typewriters. It’s a system that’s still works today, as illustrated by the devout following Apple built through the ecosystem created by iTunes, the iTunes store, and the iPod.

While it can’t be argued that deal with Remington helped popularize the QWERTY system, its development as a response to mechanical error, has been questioned by Kyoto University Researchers Koichi Yasuoka and Motoko Yasuoka. In a 2011 paper, the researchers tracked the evolution of the typewriter keyboard alongside a record of its early professional users. They conclude that the mechanics of the typewriter did not influence the keyboard design. Rather, the QWERTY system emerged as a result of how the first typewriters were being used. Early adopters and beta-testers included telegraph operators who needed to quickly transcribe messages. However, the operators found the alphabetical arrangement to be confusing and inefficient for translating morse code. The Kyoto paper suggests that the typewriter keyboard evolved over several years as a direct result of input provided by these telegraph operators. For example;

“The code represents Z as ‘· · · ·’ which is often confused with the digram SE, more frequently-used than Z. Sometimes Morse receivers in United States cannot determine whether Z or SE is applicable, especially in the first letter(s) of a word, before they receive following letters. Thus S ought to be placed near by both Z and E on the keyboard for Morse receivers to type them quickly (by the same reason C ought to be placed near by IE. But, in fact, C was more often confused with S).

In this scenario, the typist came before the keyboard. The Kyoto paper also cites the Morse lineage to further debunk the theory that Sholes wanted to protect his machine from jamming by rearranged the keys with the specific intent to slow down typists:

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“The speed of Morse receiver should be equal to the Morse sender, of course. If Sholes really arranged the keyboard to slow down the operator, the operator became unable to catch up the Morse sender. We don’t believe that Sholes had such a nonsense intention during his development of Type-Writer.”

Regardless of how he developed it, Sholes himself wasn’t convinced that QWERTY was the best system. Although he sold his designs to Remington early on, he continued to invent improvements and alternatives to the typewriter for the rest of his life, including several keyboard layouts that he determined to be more efficient, such as the following patent, filed by Sholes in 1889, a year before he died, and issued posthumously:

Fact of Fiction? The Legend of the QWERTY Keyboard (4)

But the biggest rivals to ever challenge QWERTY is the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard, developed by Dr. August Dvorak in the 1930s.

Fact of Fiction? The Legend of the QWERTY Keyboard (5)

Dvorak users reported faster and more accurate typing, in part because the system dramatically increases the number of words that can be typed using the “home” row of keys where your fingers naturally rest – also known as the keys you type when you’re just trying fill space. asjdfkal; sdfjkl; asdfjkl; asdfjkl; dkadsf. asdfjklasdfjk. More recent research has debunked any claims that Dvorak is more efficient, but it hardly matters. Even in 1930 it was already too late for a new system to gain a foothold. While Dvorak certainly has its champions, it never gained enough of a following to overthrow King QWERTY. After all, the world learned to type using Remington’s keyboard.

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When the first generation of computer keyboards emerged, there was no longer any technical reason to use the system – computers didn’t get jammed. But of course, there’s the minor fact that millions of people learned to type on the QWERTY keyboards. It had become truly ubiquitous in countries that used the Latin alphabet. Not only that, but way back in 1910, the system had been adopted by Teletype, a company that would go on to produce electronic typewriters and computer terminals widely used around the world, thereby ensuring QWERTY’s place as the new technological standard.

Fact of Fiction? The Legend of the QWERTY Keyboard (6)

When a design depends on a previous innovation too entrenched in the cultural zeitgeist to change, it’s known as a path dependency. And this why the new KALQ proposal is so interesting. It attempts to break from the tyranny of Christopher Latham Sholes, whose QWERTY system makes even less sense on the virtual keyboards of tablets and smartphones than it does on a computer keyboards. Is the new KALQ system any different? In some ways, the answer is obviously yes. It has been designed around a very specific, very modern behavior – typing with thumbs. Like the telegraph operator QWERTY theory, the user is determining the structure of the keyboard. But it could still be argued that the KALQ system, or any similar system that may be developed in the future, is also a product of path dependency. Because no matter how the letters are arranged, they basic notion of individually separated letters distributed across a grid dates back to Sholes and co. tinkering away in their Milwaukee workshops. But it’s just not necessary in a tablet. If you gave an iPad to someone who had never used a keyboard and told them to develop a writing system, chances are they would eventually invent a faster, more intuitive system. Perhaps a gesture based system based on shorthand? Or some sort of swipe-to-type system? This is not to say that such a system would be better, it’s merely an observation that our most bleeding edge communication technology still dates back more than 150 years to some guys tinkering in their garage. Truly, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Fact of Fiction? The Legend of the QWERTY Keyboard (7)

Jimmy Stamp | | READ MORE

Jimmy Stamp is a writer/researcher and recovering architect who writes for Smithsonian.com as a contributing writer for design.

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FAQs

What is interesting fact about keyboard? ›

Before 1872, all the typewriters used to have alphabetically ordered keyboards. People, back then, used to type so fast that the keys jammed frequently. To slow things down, along came the savior of keyboards, Christopher Sholes. He invented the Qwerty layout to minimize the adjacent keystrokes.

What was the reason for the QWERTY keyboard? ›

The QWERTY arrangement was intended to reduce the jamming of typebars as they moved to strike ink on paper. Separating certain letters from each other on the keyboard reduced the amount of jamming.

What is the history of QWERTY? ›

The QWERTY layout was devised and created in the early 1870s by Christopher Latham Sholes, a newspaper editor and printer who lived in Kenosha, Wisconsin. In October 1867, Sholes filed a patent application for his early writing machine he developed with the assistance of his friends Carlos Glidden and Samuel W.

What is main importance of keyboard? ›

A computer keyboard is an input device used to enter characters and functions into the computer system by pressing buttons, or keys. It is the primary device used to enter text. A keyboard typically contains keys for individual letters, numbers and special characters, as well as keys for specific functions.

Why do keyboards have 88 keys? ›

So, why do pianos have 88 keys? Pianos have 88 keys because composers wanted to expand the range of their music. Adding more piano keys removed the limits on what kind of music could be performed on the instrument. 88 keys have been the standard since Steinway built theirs in the 1880s.

What is the QWERTY keyboard also called? ›

The QWERTY keyboard is also known as the Sholes keyboard.

What does QWERTY mean in texting? ›

/ (ˈkwɜːtɪ) / noun. the standard English language typewriter keyboard layout with the characters q, w, e, r, t, and y positioned on the top row of alphabetic characters at the left side of the keyboard. Slang. Emoji.

How old is QWERTY? ›

The QWERTY layout is attributed to an American inventor named Christopher Latham Sholes, and it made its debut in its earliest form on July 1, 1874 -- 142 years ago today.

Who invented the word QWERTY? ›

Most English language keyboards have a QWERTY layout. And QWERTY isn't an acronym or neologism. The name is simply the first six characters in the top far left row of letters. A Milwaukee newspaper editor and printer named Christopher Sholes invented the QWERTY layout.

What are the 3 types of keyboards QWERTY? ›

The main difference between these three keyboards is the position of the Q, W, Z and A keys. The QWERTY keyboard is prevalent in the Americas and in several regions of Europe. The QWERTZ keyboard, also called Swiss keyboard, is used in German-speaking countries, while in France and Belgium, AZERTY is the norm.

What are the 7 special keys in keyboard? ›

These shortcuts are particularly useful in text processing and file management activities.
  • Ctrl-S - save.
  • Ctrl-O - open.
  • Ctrl-N - new.
  • Ctrl-C - copy.
  • Ctrl-V - paste.
  • Ctrl-X - cut.
  • Ctrl-Z - undo.
  • Ctrl-A - select all.

What are the 5 main functions of keyboard? ›

The keys on your keyboard can be divided into several groups based on function:
  • Typing (alphanumeric) keys. These keys include the same letter, number, punctuation, and symbol keys found on a traditional typewriter.
  • Control keys. ...
  • Function keys. ...
  • Navigation keys. ...
  • Numeric keypad.

What is the history of keyboard? ›

The history of the modern computer keyboard begins with a direct inheritance from the invention of the typewriter. It was Christopher Latham Sholes who, in 1868, patented the first practical modern typewriter. Soon after, in 1877, the Remington Company began mass marketing the first typewriters.

Why keyboard is 60%? ›

The big benefit of 60% keyboards is its diminutive width, leaving more room for the mouse and generally creating a better ergonomic posture for gaming. Because of its narrower width, gamers are more easily able to position their keyboard in the most comfortable position for them.

Why is keyboard 75%? ›

The 75% Layout

75% keyboards are TKL builds but with all the keys packed into a smaller body, allowing for a more compact build and less typing travel time. One problem with some compact keyboards is the need to sacrifice some of the functionality to fit into the small keyboard, such as removing important keys.

How many keys is 80%? ›

80% | 87-key Keyboard | Tenkeyless Keyboard (TKL)

The 80% layout of the keyboard is also called the Tenkeyless (TKL) keyboard because the numeric keypad was removed.

How many keys are on the QWERTY? ›

National variants. The U.S. IBM PC keyboard has 104 keys, while the PC keyboards for most other countries have 105 keys.

What are the 4 types of keyboard? ›

Types of Keyboards for Computers: How to Choose the Right One
  • QWERTY Keyboards.
  • Wired Keyboards.
  • Numeric Keypads.
  • Ergonomic Keyboards.
  • Wireless Keyboards.
  • USB Keyboards.
  • Bluetooth Keyboards.
  • Magic Keyboards.
14 Jul 2022

Why is QWERTY not ABCD? ›

The reason dates back to the time of manual typewriters. When first invented , they had keys arranged in an alphabetical order, but people typed so fast that the mechanical character arms got tangled up. So the keys were randomly positioned to actually slow down typing and prevent key jams.

What does LOL mean in typing? ›

Lol is an acronym of laugh out loud. It can be used as an interjection and a verb. Lol is one of the most common slang terms in electronic communications. Even though it means laugh out loud, lol is mostly used to indicate smiling or slight amusement.

What does F's mean? ›

It usually means “for sure” over text, on Instagram, and on TikTok as well. In this context, FS is used to agree with someone, confirm information, or emphasize something. As a note, “FS,” “Fs,” and “fs” all typically mean the same thing.

What does btw mean in typing? ›

By the way

Is QWERTY the fastest? ›

Colemak users have recorded typing speeds of over 150 words per minute, some even 200, whereas most QWERTY typists manage to cross 100 words per minute speeds. The other benefits include lesser finger and wrist pain, since your fingers don't move much between key strokes, or up and down the keyboard.

How was QWERTY chosen? ›

The fate of the keyboard was decided in 1893 when the five largest typewriter manufacturers –Remington, Caligraph, Yost, Densmore, and Smith-Premier– merged to form the Union Typewriter Company and agreed to adopt QWERTY as the de facto standard that we know and love today.

What does Asdfghjkl mean? ›

Interjection. asdfghjkl. (Internet slang) Expresses a moment of incoherence due to emotion on the part of the speaker.

What's the fastest keyboard? ›

The Razer Huntsman V2 is the fastest keyboard in 2022. This keyboard allows for an incredibly fast gaming experience with super responsive optical switches. The response time for this keyboard is a fraction of a millisecond.

Is QWERTY the best layout? ›

QWERTY was the first typing layout invented in the 1870s to complement the typewriter. It works very well with the typewriter, however, it's a less efficient layout for modern-day keyboards compared to the Dvorak and Colemak layouts.

Is QWERTY the only keyboard? ›

QWERTY — so-called because the letters at the top-left corner of the keyboard begin with QWERTY — is the most common keyboard layout. But some people think alternative keyboard layouts like Dvorak and Colemak are faster and more efficient.

What are the 5 uses of keyboard? ›

Loved by our community
  • key board is used for typing message for communication.
  • keyboard is used for recepticle for anger and frustration techniques.
  • key board is used for Seating, most notably for those of the feline persuasion.
  • keyboard is used for entering text.
  • keyboard is used to operate some devices.
16 Jun 2019

What are 3 advantages of learning to keyboard? ›

6 Benefits of touch typing skills
  • Save time. Perhaps the most obvious benefit of learning to touch type is that it saves an individual (and their company) considerable amounts of time. ...
  • Better for your overall health. ...
  • Decrease fatigue. ...
  • Increased speed of text production. ...
  • Accuracy. ...
  • Increases workplace productivity.
21 Jul 2022

What is the most important part of a keyboard? ›

Keyboard switches are perhaps the most important parts of a keyboard because they determine the sound and feel of the keyboard while typing (in addition to the feel of the keycaps).

Who invented to keyboard? ›

Christopher Latham Sholes
C. Latham Sholes
RelativesCharles Sholes (brother)
OccupationPrinter, inventor, legislator
Known for"The Father of the typewriter," inventor of the QWERTY keyboard
Signature
24 more rows

How do I write on my HP laptop? ›

So, assuming you have the an @ above the 2, go to: start > settings > time & language > region & language > click on the language under languages > options > add a keyboard > add the keyboard that you want (Guessing US QWERTY in your case) > select that keyboard as your default.

Is typing good for your brain? ›

Because it's a mental activity that engages most parts of your brain, touch typing helps activate new memory muscles and build more active and strong cognitive connections that in turn will enhance your overall brain capacity and function.

What is the most used key? ›

The third most popular is... the "backspace" key. The second most popular is... the letter "e". The number one most popular is... the space bar.

What are the 3 types of keys in keyboard? ›

Alphabetical, numeric, and punctuation keys are used in the same fashion as a typewriter keyboard to enter their respective symbol into a word processing program, text editor, data spreadsheet, or other program. Many of these keys will produce different symbols when modifier keys or shift keys are pressed.

Which is the longest key on the keyboard? ›

Spacebar is the longest key on the keyboard.

What is the first keyboard name? ›

The QWERTY layout is attributed to an American inventor named Christopher Latham Sholes, and it made its debut in its earliest form on July 1, 1874 -- 142 years ago today.

How many keys are on a keyboard? ›

Answer: 104 buttons or keys.

How did they decide the order of letters on a keyboard? ›

Why is the QWERTY keyboard arranged the way it is? Sholes' early prototype had an issue where the bars used to collide with each other. So he arranged the keys in a pattern where the most commonly used letters were spread apart.

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