QWERTY Keyboard

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150 years ago, an American inventor by the name of Christopher Latham Sholes developed a machine to allow people to easily put text onto paper by pressing mechanical keys. He called his invention the “type writer”.

After years of tinkering and adjusting, he finally came up with an arrangement of the keys that worked. The letters on the left side of the top row were Q-W-E-R-T-Y.

We have basically been using the same keyboard ever since. 

Learn more about the QWERTY keyboard and its many failed alternatives on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The keyboards that most of us use is known as the QWERTY keyboard, based on the letters in the top left row. 

The QWERTY keyboard was first put into popular use with the sale of the Remington No. 2 typewriter in 1878.

However, the Remington No. 2 wasn’t the first typewriter. As I noted in the introduction, the modern typewriter is accredited to  Christopher Latham Sholes who was a printer and newspaper editor in Kenosha, Wisconsin. 

The first version of the typewriter he created didn’t use the QWERTY layout which we have today. His first typewriter had only two rows, and the keys were in alphabetical and numeric order. There were no keys for 1 or 0, because it was assumed you could use an uppercase I for 1, and an O for 0. 

There is an urban legend that has floated around for years that the QWERTY keyboard was developed precisely because it is inefficient. If the keyboard were to make sense, then the most commonly used letters would be on the home row where your fingers are most of the time. 

The six most commonly used letters in English are E-A-R-I-O-T. Only one of those letters, A, is on the home row. All the rest of them are on the top row. 

The legend holds that if people typed too fast, it would jam the keys on the early keyboards, so a more inefficient system was created to slow people down to ensure that the keys wouldn’t jam.

This is not true. 

Between 1844 and the creation of the first typewriter, and the 1878 patent filed by Sholes which spelled out the QWERTY key layout, the keyboard underwent a great number of revisions. 

The primary consumers of the very first typewriters were telegraph operators. They would get incoming messages over the telegraph in morse code, and they would have to then transcribe them into plain text. The typewriter was a very easy way for them to get that done.

The telegraph operators were the beta testers if you will, of the typewriter. 

Koichi Yasuoka and Motoko Yasuoka of Kyoto University did the seminal research paper on the subject. They found it was feedback from telegraph operators, based on their transcription of morse code, which led to the QWERTY keyboard. 

They noted in their paper:

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

So the letter Z which is four dots is very similar to the letters S, which is three dots, and E, which is one dot. They wanted S and E to be close together. 

So, long story short, the QWERTY keyboard was designed for the needs of telegraph operators using Morse Code. 

The Kyoto team concluded:

“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.”

OK. The typewriter wasn’t designed to be slow on purpose and it was for the benefit of morse code operators.

So why are we still using it today? 

Sholes and his partner and amateur tinkerer Carlos Glidden had difficulties manufacturing typewriters. If you have ever spent time with a manual typewriter, you know that there are a lot of moving parts, and it is actually a work of high precision manufacturing. 

In 1873 they sold the right to manufacture the typewriter to the Remmington Corporation, which was a firearms manufacturer. They had expertise in the manufacture of precision metal parts, and they were looking to diversify after the end of the US Civil War. 

The release of the Remmington No. 2 typewriter in 1878 was the first widely manufactured typewriter on the market and the first with a shift key for capital letters.  There were over 100,000 of the Remington Number 2’s manufactured. 

Eventually, Remington sold their typewriter business in 1886 to the Standard Typewriter Manufacturing Company, along with the rights to use the name Remmington in conjunction with typewriters.

This company then merged in 1893 with Smith Premier, Caligraph, Densmore, and Yost in a five-way merger to create the Union Typewriter Company.

This newly formed typewriter trust agreed to use the QWERTY keyboard for all of its typewriters. 

This is where the QWERTY layout really became entrenched. 

Learning how to type isn’t something that could be done overnight. Once someone had taken the time and effort to learn how to use a QWERTY keyboard, they weren’t likely to switch. 

In 1898 the patent on the QWERTY keyboard expired, and every other company which made a typewriter in the future had an incentive to use the same keyboard layout to meet the demands of the built-in audience which had already learned touch typing on this system. 

If you didn’t use QWERTY, you’d be alone in the wilderness trying to get people to adapt to your system.

Fast forward through the 20th century. Electric typewriters and eventually computers become popular and they all use the same keyboard for data entry. 

We are no longer constrained by manual keys or telegraph operators. In fact, with software, we could easily change our keyboard layout with just the click of a button. Why hasn’t anyone come up with anyone else?

Well, they have. Several times.

In 1936 educational psychologist August Dvorak developed the Dvorak simplified keyboard layout. The idea was pretty straightforward: just put the most commonly used keys where your fingers are on the home row to minimize movement. Hence, all five vowels are the five leftmost characters on the middle row.

In theory, the Dvorak keyboard is great. However, it has never found popular use and despite many tests, it has never been proven to be more efficient. A 1956 study by the U.S. General Services Administration found the Dvorak keyboard to be no more efficient than the QWERTY keyboard. 

Likewise, many people who have taken the time to switch have reported that there is no real efficiency benefit. 

Despite being available on all major computer operating systems, it is estimated that the number of Dvorak users is probably no more than 0.1% of computer users. 

There have been many other proposed keyboard layouts and text input systems. Some can be done with one hand and some use multiple keystrokes for characters where your fingers never leave keys. Despite all of the QWERTY and keyboard alternative which have been proposed over the years, none of them have caught on. 

Colemak is another keyboard layout that claims to the be third most popular keyboard layout, which is a lot like saying you are the third most popular brand of cola. 

The QWERTY keyboard is not universal. Other countries that use Latin characters have slightly different keyboards. 

Keyboards in German countries use a QWERTZ layout.  Many countries use the basic QWERTY layout but have punctuation keys in different places, and keys for special accented characters and currency symbols. 

And in China….well, I’m going to have to leave that to a whole other episode. 

So, the next time you sit down to type something, take a second to realize that the way you are inputting text was designed to help make telegraph operators transcribe morse code in the 19th century. 


Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is James Mackala. 

The associate producer is Thor Thomsen.

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