When Christopher Latham Sholes invented the typewriter in 1868, he arranged the keys in alphabetical order. However, when two keys located on the same side of the keyboard were pressed quickly in succession, the keys jammed. Sholes worked with a teacher to design a new keyboard layout that positioned the most common two-character combinations found in English words on opposite sides of the keyboard so the keys jammed less often. The result is the QWERTY keyboard, named for the first five letters on the top row.
Sholes' patent for the typewriter, Patent 207,559 issued August 27, 1878, includes a patent for the QWERTY keyboard. While Sholes claimed that the arrangement of the keys was scientific and that it would improve speed and accuracy, the intent of the design was to slow typists down so the keys didn't jam. Almost any word in the English language required a typist to reach further than had the keys been organized alphabetically. The end result, however, was actually faster typing because the keys didn't keep jamming.
Typing With One Hand or on One Row
The left side of the keyboard contains 15 of the 26 letters in the alphabet. According to Dictionary.com, there are thousands of words you can type with your left hand only, including "stewardesses." There are only a few hundred words you can type with only your right hand, such as "johnny-jump-up," a variety of flower. The Collins Dictionary lists four ten-letter words you can type using only the keys on the top row of the keyboard: "perpetuity," "proprietor," "repertoire" and, most famously, "typewriter." Some believe that the ability to type "typewriter" using keys on a single row was incorporated into the design on purpose, to make it easier to demonstrate the keyboard to others.
The first person to memorize the QWERTY keyboard layout was Frank McGurrin, a court stenographer and typing teacher from Salt Lake City, Utah. He is credited with inventing the touch-typing method. McGurrin taught himself to type without looking at the keys, won a typing contest and made the front page of many newspapers, which publicized his touch-typing method and made it popular. People who haven't memorized the organization of the keyboard use the "hunt-and-peck" method to type.
Dvorak's Unsuccessful Layout
A professor from Washington State University, Dr. John Dvorak, introduced a new keyboard design in the 1930s that he claimed was far superior to the QWERTY layout. While you can type only 100 words on the QWERTY keyboard using the keys on the home row, you can type more than 400 words with Dvorak's layout. Dvorak encountered tremendous resistance to changing the keyboard layout and learning a new design. According to the Science Museum, he said, "Changing the keyboard format is like proposing to reverse the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule, discard every moral principle and ridicule motherhood." (Reference 6)
- Today I Found Out: The Origin of the QWERTY Keyboard
- Custom Solutions: Fun Facts About Computer and Typewriter Keyboards
- The Great Idea Finder: QWERTY Keyboard
- Collins Dictionary: Words From QWERTY Keyboard Rows
- Dictionary.com: Look at Your Keyboard -- What Does QWERTY Stand For? Is It a Word?
- The Science Museum: Typewriters
- Photo Credit Gudella/iStock/Getty Images
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