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The Word Nerd: The Keys to QWERTY unlocked

Quiz: What common 10-letter word is composed solely of letters found on the top letter line of a typewriter?

(For the benefit of millennials I should explain the antediluvian word typewriter. It is a single font, mechanical system for applying ink to paper that handled only alphanumeric characters.)

Notwithstanding that “repertoire,” “perpetuity” and “proprietor” are satisfactory answers to my quiz, the usual answer to this conundrum is “typewriter.”

Of course, this answer is dependent on using the QWERTY keyboard. (So called because QWERTY form the first six letters on the top letter row.) But why do we have this configuration in the first place? After all, it wasn’t designed to accommodate a specific typing technique because at its 19th  century inception touchtyping hadn’t as yet been invented.

While the earliest known typing devices date back to the 1750s, the first versions with a key for every character occurs in the 1860s, when Christopher Sholes, a Wisconsin politician, publisher and amateur inventor developed a typewriter prototype in 1868. Its keyboard resembled a piano and was built with an alphabetical arrangement of 28 keys. So why was the non-alphabetical QWERTY keyboard developed?

The standard theory asserts that Sholes had to redesign the keyboard in response to the mechanical failings of early typewriters. The metal arms 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. The solution was to redesign the arrangement to separate the most common sequences of letters such as th  st  or on.

This theory is somewhat suspect because er is one of the most common letter pairings in the English language and the letters e and  r adjoin on a QWERTY keyboard. Interestingly, 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 we might now be discussing a QWE.TY keyboard.

In any case, by 1873, the typewriter had 43 keys and an arrangement of letters that was designed to prevent these expensive machines from jamming. That same year, the Sholes’ consortium entered into an agreement with gun and precision machinery manufacturer Remington who with the demise of the Civil War, was trying to adapt to a peacetime economy. However, right before their machine went into production, Sholes filed another patent, which included a new keyboard arrangement. Issued in 1878, it 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 USA. The fate of the keyboard was entrenched when the five largest typewriter manufacturers –Remington, Caligraph, Yost, Densmore and Smith-Premier merged in 1893 to form the Union Typewriter Company which agreed to adopt QWERTY as the standard that dominates even in the 21st century.

While undoubtedly the partnering with Remington helped popularize the QWERTY system, its development as a response to mechanical error has been questioned. Researchers at Japan’s Kyoto University concluded in 2011 that the mechanics of the typewriter didn’t influence the keyboard design. Rather, the researchers believe the QWERTY system emerged as a result of how, and by whom, the first typewriters were being employed. Early users included telegraph operators who needed to transcribe messages in a timely manner. It is feasible that these operators found the alphabetical arrangement to be unclear and inefficient for translating Morse code. The Kyoto analysis suggests that the typewriter keyboard evolved over several years as a direct result of input provided by these telegraph operators.

In this scenario, the typist preceded the keyboard. The Kyoto research also cites the Morse lineage to further debunk the theory that Sholes wanted to protect his machine from jamming by rearranging the keys with the intent of slowing down typists.

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 tinker with
advancements to the typewriter for the rest of his life, including several keyboard layouts that he determined to be more efficient. In fact, he filed a patent in 1889, a year before he died that was issued posthumously.

So why do we persist with the QWERTY layout? I suppose the answer is simply because by now so many people know its sequences so well and can type without even having to look at the individual keys. Adopting a different layout would be tantamount to learning a new language.

Richler’s latest book is Wordplay: Arranged and Deranged Wit.

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One Comment

  1. Sandi Brown says:

    Interesting article. I glanced down at my lap top keyboard and lo and behold, QWERTY. I remember taking typing lessons, using a lot of white out, carbon copies. Another century.
    I also found it interesting that Remington, gun manufacturer and precision machinery maker, needed to find another way after the Civil War to succeed in a peace economy and turned to the typewriter. Another case perhaps that the pen (or keyboard) is mightier than the sword (or gun). How many people realise the word “word” appears in sword? Neat.

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