Effectivetyping solutions Smithsonian: the Case against QWERTY!


From Caesar to Sholes

Every typing student has asked, "Why do my arms ache? Why is typing class so slow? Why do I make mistakes? Why is the keyboard layout like this? Why doesn't it follow the alphabetical order?" Here is the story.

The alphabetical order was established by Julius Caesar in the first century B.C. for military and political uses. With a fixed order for letters, Caesar could send coded messages to his commanders or to Rome, with little fear of discovery if his messengers were captured. For each letter, his code substituted the third letter over from that letter. For example, he had a D for an A, an E for a B, and F for a C, and so forth. This order of substitutions had nothing to do with the frequency of letters in Latin, much less in English, which was not invented yet.

With the invention of movable type, Europe had an information explosion. The printer Gutenberg, in the fifteenth century, invented the printing press and sold Bibles for a fraction of the price of hand copying. He also became aware of letter-frequency, as he used many more letter Es in German, than any other letter. By the Eighteenth century, when the newspaper was invented, editors were well aware of letter-frequency, because type trays had big squares for the most used letters, and small squares for the seldom used letters.

During this time, events started moving toward other methods of printing. It is reputed that in 1711 James Ranson made the first printing machine with rods, strings and an inked ribbon. (Century of the Typewriter, by Wilfred A. Beeching, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1974, pp. 14 to 47) In 1829, William Burt patented a 'typographer' that used ink pads; but he did not continue development of the machine.

The Italians, famous for electrical discoveries and music, also pursued typing. Giuseppe Ravizza, of Novara, designed a type machine, but it drew little attention. By 1858, at an Exhibition in Jurda, he won a silver medal for the 'Cembalo Scrivano' - a writing harpsichord. In 1867, Ravizza added a bell at the end of the line of type which would signal the typist to change lines before continuing typing. An early sound card! Ravizza also made the first practical use of a moving inked ribbon, instead of using carbon paper, a feature still used today in dot matrix, daisy wheel, ball, and hammer printers. Ravizza was not satisfied with his designs, and his machines did not go into production. By 1883, he applied for a patent for the "visible writer", but he had been beaten by the Remington Model 2.

After the American civil war, Christopher Lathom Sholes, a Wisconsin typesetter, and Carlos Glidden invented the first commercially produced typewriter, with three rows of capital letters and numbers. The first model, displayed in 1867, was named "type-writer." James Densmore, a newspaperman, caught Sholes' vision, and became their financial backer; he invested $600, for a 25% share ($600 was more than several years wages at that time).

Sholes offered Western Union the type-writer patent for $50,000, but Western Union turned it down, perhaps because the machine still had limitations (the keys would jam, the ribbon was messy, and the movable bar would fall off). In improving his design, Sholes considered how the keyboard should be organized. Ravizza's design had followed the piano keyboard. Instead of following that strategy, Sholes started to arrange the keys alphabetically, using a three and four row keyboard arrangement. In trying to solve the key jamming problem of the keyboard layout, he used the suggestion of his brother-in-law to move the most frequently used keys (E, T, R, I, O, and N) away from the home row. That change increased the amount that the fingers would flex and extend, and it increased the amount the fingers would have to travel to perform their work. This would, in turn, greatly slow the typists' fingers and thus reduce the key jamming problem. The QWERTY keyboard was born! This keyboard layout is called QWERTY, because that is the word spelled by the first six letters on the third or upper letter row.

In 1873, the Remington Company bought Sholes' patent for the 'type-writer' and began shipping it in 1874. By 1878, the typewriter included both capital and small letters. In 1877, a contest was held between a typist using a 2-row caligraph, and one using a 4-row Remington keyboard. The contest ended with victory for the 4-row keyboard. Frank McGurren, a court stenographer from Salt Lake City, won $500. Because of this contest, other manufacturers followed Remington, and people began switching from the piano-style keyboard to the familiar 4-row QWERTY keyboard.


The Fateful Decision

In 1905, an international conference of typewriter manufacturers and teachers was held. The future of print communications was decided at this meeting. The QWERTY layout was adopted as the standard keyboard for the typewriter.

The conference chose this layout because typing teachers had been teaching QWERTY for decades. The teachers did not want to make the keyboard more efficient. According to Wilfred A. Beeching, "The battle raged backwards and forwards. Nobody could agree on what a new keyboard should be, but the biggest opposition came from teachers of typing. As it still does today. They wanted things to remain as they were, and they are still the most reluctant to change their methods and learn all over again." (Wilfred A. Beeching, Century of the Typewriter, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1974, pp. 40-41) According to August Dvorak, a man who has advocated changing from the QWERTY keyboard, "proposing a new keyboard was like proposing to reverse the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule, discard every moral principle, and ridicule motherhood." (Beeching, pp. 42)


Problems with QWERTY

The problem in designing a typewriter keyboard is this: some letters of the English language are used more often than others, and some combinations of letters are used more often than others. To avoid stress on the fingers, the keyboard should place the most-used letters where they are easiest to reach with the fingers. In addition, to avoid collisions from type bars, it should separate the letters of the most-used combinations. For example, the combination "th" is often used in such words as the, that, than, this, thing, and so on. If the "t" key and the "h" key were too close together, the type bar for "h" would frequently strike the type bar for "t".

Christopher Sholes designed the QWERTY keyboard to reduce problems with the type bars. His layout prevents most clashes between type bars, but in other ways it is very poor. He placed the most frequently used letters on the top row, including E, T, R, and I, and this forces the fingers to stretch to reach the most-used keys. In contrast, the middle row, where a typist's fingers rest, contains such rare letters as J, K, and semi-colon. Fingers do not have to flex to reach the least-used keys. Also, the fore finger and middle finger are the fingers we can use best, and the most-used letters should be where these fingers can reach them most easily. On the QWERTY keyboard, however, many of the most-used letters are at the sides where they are within easy reach of the little finger but not of the middle fingers (Illustrated World Encyclopedia, Vol. 14, 1970, Glen Cove, New York, p. 4694).

The QWERTY keyboard has been presented as a scientific arrangement to minimize finger movement. However, according to Beeching, Sholes' ruse was "probably one of the biggest confidence tricks of all time... the idea that the so-called 'scientific arrangement' of the keys was designed to give a minimum movement of the hands was, in fact, completely false!" (Beeching, p.39)


What Others Say About QWERTY

"awkward . . . designed to slow typing" Quantification of Tendon Excursion &c, Flannery, Robertson, and Cooper, Conference Proceedings, 19th Annual Meeting of the American Society of Biomechanics, August 1995, p. 195.


"worse possible arrangement" Typists' Speed & Efficiency, Virginia Russell, Computer Technology Review, Winter 1985


"confidence tricks" [or scam] Century of the Typewriter, Wilfred A. Beeching, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1974, pp. 14 to 47.


"very poor" Illustrated World Encyclopedia, Vol. 14, 1970, Glen Cove, New York, p. 4694.


"wrong thing" interview in Conquering the Keyboard, by Robert Alonso, Personal Computing, August 1985, p. 72


"costly . . . error . . . slows . . . produces fatigue" United States Patent 3,847,263, 1974, column 1, U.S. Patent and Trademark Office


"inefficient" United States Patent 4,655,621, 1987, column 1, USPTO

"not the best . . . [makes] much more work" 1994 Compton's Encyclopedia, Typewriter, p. 342.


See "The Case Against QWERTY" at National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Wash. D.C. 1992, p.39

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