Curious Questions: Why do we still use the QWERTY keyboard?

The strange layout of keyboards in the Anglophone world is bafflingly illogical. Martin Fone, author of 'Fifty Curious Questions', investigates.

I’m not the greatest of typists; I’m very much of the two-stubby-finger variety. In addition to my poor digital dexterity, I put it down to the layout of the keyboard. Who came up with it, and why do we persist in using it?

The first practical typewriter was developed as long ago as 1868 and patented in the US by Christopher Latham Scholes. It had a moveable carriage, a lever for turning paper from line to line, and a keyboard which was laid out in alphabetical order.

However, there was a fundamental problem with the layout of the keyboard: when typists worked quickly and used keys that were adjacent to each other, the keys kept jamming. This meant that the typist had to stop to free the keys.

Worse still, the keys on the earliest typewriters struck the back of the paper, and so mistakes became apparent only when the paper was removed from the machine.

Lillian Scholes, daughter of Christopher, pictured in an 1872 photograph known as 'The First Typist'. Lillian was pictured using a prototype typewriter invented by her father, Christopher Latham Scholes.

Lillian Scholes, daughter of Christopher, pictured in an 1872 photograph known as ‘The First Typist’. Lillian was pictured using a prototype typewriter invented by her father, Christopher Latham Scholes. (Photo: Granger/Rex)

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Scholes scratched his head, realised he was unable to solve the problem of the sticking keys, and concocted a Plan B – a disposition of the characters in a way that would slow the typist down.

After much experimentation and using a study of letter-pair frequency prepared by the brother of Scholes’s principal financial backer, Amos Densmore, he settled on the QWERTY arrangement. He considered the new arrangement important enough to include it in his next patent application in 1878. Scholes went into PR overdrive, claiming that the new keyboard’s arrangement of letters was scientific and would boost speed and efficiency.

The reality was anything but. The most accessible row of the typewriter keyboard is the middle one. Although about 70 per cent of words in English can be typed using the letters A, D, E, H, I, N, O, R S, and T, only A appears on the middle row.

Why do we still use the QWERTY keyboard

Only about three hundred English words can be typed using the right hand alone whereas around three thousand can be typed using just the left. As most people are right-handed, the keyboard layout favours our left-handed brethren. At the very least, the hands have to travel further over the keyboard than would have been the case with an alphabetic layout.

For office technology at the time, the advantages of having a typewriter outweighed the disadvantages in terms of speed and efficiency that the QWERTY keyboard imposed, and so typists learned the new layout and got on with it.

There have been attempts to (re)introduce a more logical keyboard arrangement. The most successful was the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard (DSK), developed and patented by August Dvorak, cousin of the Czech composer, and revealed to an unreceptive world in 1932.

Dvorak had been inspired by the work of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, pioneers in the field of workplace efficiency. Unfortunately, it never caught on – although even on modern computers, you can still find the layout as an option buried deep in the software settings.

The Dvorak or American Simplified Keyboard layout

The Dvorak layout, also known as the ‘American Simplified Keyboard’

It seems strange that we have continued to use a solution to a technological deficiency of the earliest typewriters, particularly as almost all of us now pound away on keyboards that don’t have keys that have to make an impression on a piece of paper. This is clearly an interesting example of how we have adapted to technological deficiencies rather than changing the technology.

Martin Fone is author of ‘Fifty Curious Questions’, from which this piece is an excerpt – find out more about his book or you can order a copy via Amazon.