Why do we all use Qwerty keyboards?

Typewriter keys Qwerty was the brainchild of Milwaukee port official Christopher Sholes

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Look down from the screen on which you are reading this, and wonder. Q-W-E-R-T-Y. How on earth did this pattern of letters get so locked into our language?

It seems so random. Patchily alphabetic, and in places wantonly arbitrary.

Yet it is also the ultimate software - hard-wired into tens of millions of brains and hundreds of millions of fingers around the world.

It is the ultimate user-machine interface - replicated on the keyboards of computers, and some of the most sophisticated PDAs and mobile phones across the world.

Yet it is pretty much unchanged since it was standardised in the 1870s.

"Imagine you're on the maiden flight of that new ultra-modern aircraft, the Dreamliner. And you notice it's being towed to the runway by donkeys. Better still, camels," explains comedian Stephen Fry, the presenter of a new series on BBC Radio 4 that kicks off with a look at the origins of Qwerty.

"In exactly the same way, the Qwerty keyboard is an ancient system attached to our most modern devices. And like the metaphorical camel, it was designed by way of a series of compromises."

Typewriter wars

So how did we end up with Qwerty?

In the USA in the post civil war era, standardisation became all. The new world was to be a mechanical one. A .22 bullet had to fit any .22 rifle in the world. A typist had to fit any typewriter.

There was hot competition to create a single typewriter standard.

A Remmington typewriter from 1880 The style may have evolved, but basic functions have remained the same

The inventor of the Qwerty keyboard was Christopher Sholes, a Milwaukee port official, Wisconsin senator, sometime newspaper editor and a man who tried to invent not "a" typewriting machine, but "the" typewriting machine.

The challenge was mechanical; to devise a system which linked an easily understandable interface with the complicated technology of ink, typebars, levers and springs.

His first attempt was alphabetical, but the typebars clashed due to the key arrangements. So Sholes arranged them in a way to make the machine work. Frequency and combinations of letters had to be considered to prevent key clashes.

The typewriter wars heated with the appearance of typing competitions, where typists would battle it out to achieve the highest word counts.

Not surprisingly, type would clash and stick. So Sholes, it is alleged, rejigged the letters on his machine in order to keep speeds down.

In 1873, Qwerty was adopted by Remington, famous for its arms and sewing machines as well as its typewriters, and it became adopted as the basis not only for English but the majority of European languages as well.

'Creative obstruction'

But did Sholes really doctor the configuration of letters to slow the typist? Would an inventor really hobble his own brainchild?

If so, argues Fry, then the Qwerty keyboard and its inventor could be accused of "conspiracy to pervert the course of language and to limit the speed of creativity and language input, endangering billions with repetitive strain injury".

Start Quote

A good stenographer will beat a Qwerty keyboard hands down”

End Quote Mary Sorene Stenographer

Qwerty can be seen, he argues, as "a deliberate spanner in the works of language, metaphorically and technologically".

Qwerty is "not ergonomic", agrees Professor Koichi Yasuoka of Kyoto University, a world expert on the development of the keyboard.

But he sees evidence of the practicality of Qwerty in a world of mechanical typewriters. "T and H is the most frequently used letter pair in English," he explains. "In fact in Sholes's typewriter, the typebar of T and H are located on opposite sides."

The separation of these letters was made in the interests of speed, he believes. Users could type T-H without crashing keys, whereas the proximity of E and R, he argues, is inefficient. In other words there is no evidence of deliberate slowing down.

"Ergonomics were not a characteristic of mid-19th Century design," he concludes.

Speed of speech

Of course, there are other ways of typing.

In the early 1930s, time and motion expert August Dvorak denounced Qwerty, producing a raft of empirical evidence highlighting its inefficiencies.

Stenographer Stenographers beat Qwerty typists hands down

As an alternative, he produced an ergonomically designed keyboard which could have spelt the end of Qwerty. Dvorak users reported faster, more accurate typing and reduced keyboard clashes. But it was too late.

Just as AC beat DC, the audio cassette beat 8-track and VHS beat Betamax, Qwerty won the format war.

Typewriters with the familiar layout were already powering offices around the world. With Qwerty came standardisation and compatibility. And, although there may be more efficient keyboards, these offer only marginal improvements.

If users are truly looking for speed and accuracy, they could consider stenotypes used by stenographers in courtrooms. These machines have 22 keys and are capable of typing at the speed of speech, around 180 words per minute, or three words every second.

"A good stenographer will beat a Qwerty keyboard hands down," explains stenographer Mary Sorene. "Because we are stroking [typing] in syllables, we can write much faster."

But stenography is a steep learning curve and more difficult to learn than Qwerty.

Easier - and potentially quicker - would be to dispense with the keyboard altogether.

Already advanced speech recognition systems can be found in smartphones and most modern computer operating systems. Could they replace Qwerty?

Not according to Dan Dixon, of the Digital Cultures Research Centre at the University of the West of England.

"Human computer interface research has shown recently that people actually like to think and type, not think and speak. When people are given the option to speak they have a much harder time organising their thoughts," he says.

So the real block turns out to be turning our thoughts into words in the first place. For all its faults, Qwerty, it seems, is here to stay.

Stephen Fry puts the Qwerty keyboard in the dock in the first episode of a new series of Fry's English Delight on Wednesday, 11 August 2010 at 0900 BST and 2130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Or listen afterwards on BBC iPlayer.

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