We use the keyboards we use simply because they’re the ones we’ve always used. Is this the most efficient layout of letters? Hephzibah Anderson takes a look.

They may not be quite as superstitious as athletes, but authors regularly admit to having favourite writing spots and props that keep the words flowing. Agatha Christie plotted in a large Victorian bathtub, munching on apples as she contemplated murder. DH Lawrence preferred to compose outdoors, leaning against a gnarly tree trunk. And James Joyce wrote in bed, dressed in a white coat and using a blue pencil. Others get attached to their hardware – George RR Martin won’t be parted from his word processor, and Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo and Tom Wolfe are all still stuck on typewriters.

Legend has it that Qwerty was dreamt up with the express purpose of slowing typists down

Yet what you won’t find even these hardcore Remington devotees enthusing about is the layout of the keyboards on which they pound day after day. That wordsmiths themselves should overlook this defining characteristic of the tool most vital to their trade is telling. While every other aspect of the way we commit printed words to record has changed in the past 100 years, the layout of the keys we type with has remained static, despite having evolved to meet thoroughly bygone challenges. Across devices in the English-speaking world, a single system rules, almost as immutable as the alphabet itself: Qwerty.

Just how this came to be is a narrative that remains murky and – ironically – far from fixed. It’s a story that offers insights into the sometimes unexpected pace of technological change, and one that’s peopled by unsung inventors and obsessive tinkerers. It taps a fervent debate that most of us are oblivious to.

The earliest typewriters were cumbersome, moody machines but there was nevertheless an order to their keys that any English-speaking user could readily glean: they were arranged alphabetically. So why change this logical layout? Legend has it that Qwerty – known for the jabberwocky-style word formed by the first six letters of its top row – was dreamt up with the express purpose of slowing typists down. One character even lectures another about it in a Paulo Coelho novel.

Dance of the digits

In fact, the Qwerty layout was concocted to prevent keys from jamming – or at least, that’s what most experts have tended to believe. The letters on a typewriter are affixed to metal arms, which are activated by the keys; on early models, if a lever was activated before its neighbour had fully come back down to rest, they would jam, forcing the typist to stop. Enter Christopher Sholes. Born in small-town Pennsylvania in 1819, Sholes was many things, including newspaper editor and Wisconsin state senator. He was also one of a team of inventors credited with building the first commercially viable typewriter. Having already tried to build machines for typesetting and printing numbers, Sholes’ adventures in type began in 1867, when he read an article in Scientific American describing the Pterotype, a prototype typewriter invented by one John Pratt. The article sounded the death knoll for that “laborious and unsatisfactory” instrument, the pen, soon to be set down in favour of “playing on the literary piano”.

Until 1873, you’d have found a full stop where the ‘R’ now sits

Much taken with this idea, Sholes teamed up with printer Samuel Willard Soulé, and they set about building a machine whose keyboard did indeed have two rows of ebony and ivory keys, very much like a piano. Over the next few years, the project would reel in others, including lawyer Carlos Glidden, watchmaker Matthias Schwalbach and businessman James Densmore, who invested his last $600.

In 1868, the first Type-Writer was shipped to Porter’s Telegraph College in Chicago. Unfortunately it wasn’t much use, since it didn’t feature numbers, which were vital for transcribing Morse telegraph. These Sholes added, but what of the jamming keys? He’s generally credited with coining the Qwerty system, too, though it’s possible that it was Densmore who first suggested it. Either way, its genius was to place frequently recurring two-letter combinations – digraphs, in printing speak – at a reasonable distance from each other. It wasn’t until E Remington and Sons acquired the patent in 1873, however, that the keyboard finally settled into the formation we all know: until then, you’d have found a full stop where the ‘R’ now sits.

As to whether Qwerty slowed typists down, it’s a question that is still being debated. Most of us don’t think twice about our keyboards, but those who care really care. One such person was the creator of Qwerty’s biggest rival system, August Dvorak. Born in Minnesota in 1894, this distant relation of the Czech composer was an educational psychologist convinced that Qwerty could be improved upon. His interest was fired when he advised a student who was writing her masters thesis on typos. He believed that with Qwerty, common letter combinations necessitated awkward finger acrobatics – ‘hurdling’ – and noted that frequently used words like ‘was’ and ‘were’ relied entirely on the left hand. And so, in 1936, he and his brother-in-law patented the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard system.

Research suggesting typists on an alternative keyboard could type 74% faster has been discredited

According to Dvorak, a text that required the average typist’s fingers to travel up to 20 miles on a Qwerty keyboard clocked up only one mile using his system, all thanks to ergonomic benefits that also cut down on many common typos. Not such a concern in the age of the delete key, though Dvorak’s 21st Century fans also tout it as a fix for repetitive strain injury. World War Two-era research suggesting that Dvorak typists could rattle off assignments 74 percent faster than their Qwerty-using colleagues has since been discredited, but if you take the time to actually look at it, the Qwerty layout doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Key developments

Another theory behind its evolution is that it arranged all the letters needed to type ‘typewriter’ on the same top row, enabling salesmen to speedily tap out the instrument’s name and wow prospective customers. But as Koichi Yasuoka and Motoko Yasuoka, two researchers at Japan’s Kyoto University, noted back in 2011, there were no professional typists back when Sholes was busy shuffling the alphabet. Instead, they’ve posited another explanation: Qwerty rearranged the alphabet for the convenience of the telegraph operators who were Sholes’ first customers. Though even this isn’t the full story: “There was no consistent policy towards Qwerty”, they write. “The keyboard arrangement was incidentally changed into Qwerty, first to receive telegraphs, then to thrash out a compromise between inventors and producers, and at last to evade old patents.”

Of course, the laptop on which I’m now typing – yours, too, most likely – has an inbuilt but chronically underutilised function: it allows me to switch the layout of my keyboard and adopt a new system. Sure, I’d need to re-label the keys until I learnt to touch-type again, but without otherwise changing any of my hardware, I could be expressing myself on a Dvorak keyboard in mere moments. Maybe it’s because so few of us ever really learn to type these days that we stick so determinedly with what we know. Touch-typing is something we mostly pick up as we go along, hunting and pecking until our fingers can race, albeit with frequent jabs at the ‘delete’ key. If we’d actually been taught, we’d know that we could equally well learn a new system – a system that might be more suited to the language we speak or the devices on which we type.

When Sholes and his fellow inventors were working on their “literary piano”, they could have had no way of knowing that it was the arrangement of the machine’s keys that would be their enduring contribution to human communication. But now that we’re doing so much typing with our thumbs, a plethora of alternative systems are being coined. There’s the Hero Keyboard, which looks like the dial on a rotary phone, fusing the new with the exquisitely retro. TouchOne claims to be the world’s first dedicated smartwatch keyboard, squeezing its letters onto eight keys that require a combination of four gestures. And then there’s PopKey, a keyboard that does away with the alphabet altogether in favour of… animated gifs. One boast common to all these new-fangled systems is speed. But is that really such a virtue? For writers, not so much – remember that famous Capote putdown: “That’s not writing, that’s typing”. As for the rest of us, now that so many of the keyboards we encounter come with the inbuilt ability to publish instantly, perhaps we should be thankful for anything that slows us down, and saves us from the social media equivalent of a fat-finger error.

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