Why Is the Qwerty Keyboard Laid Out the Way it Is?

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The QWERTY Keyboard takes its name from the top row of letters on a standard keyboard.
The QWERTY Keyboard takes its name from the top row of letters on a standard keyboard. (Image: Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images)

The QWERTY keyboard originated with manual typewriters, but in later decades, the keyboard design migrated, first from manual to electric typewriters, then to computer keyboards. Although alternatives exist, the QWERTY keyboard is still the most common layout. The unusual pattern of keys on a QWERTY keyboard is the result of deliberate design, rather than random happenstance.

The QWERTY Keyboard

A mechanical typewriter or electronic computer keyboard provides a standardized alternative to manual handwriting for producing a hard copy document or a computer text file. The QWERTY keyboard takes its name from the arrangement of the first row of lettered keys on a standard keyboard, from left to right: Q, W, E, R, T and Y. These keys are located above the "home row" keys, which designate the starting position for a touch typist's fingers when using a typewriter or computer keyboard.

History

Christopher Latham Sholes patented the "type-writer" in 1868, with a keyboard arranged in alphabetical order. However, the keyboard experienced frequent jams with fast typists. The solution was to rearrange the keys to correspond with research concerning letter-pair frequency developed by educator Amos Densmore, who was also the brother of James Densmore, Sholes' main financial backer. The arrangement of a QWERTY keyboard was designed to minimize jamming by placing the most commonly used keys on opposite sides of the keyboard. The arrangement of the redesigned keyboard was determined by how the type bars inside the machine aligned with the actual keys on the outside. Sholes obtained a second patent for the machine and its redesigned keyboard in 1878, according to The Great Idea Finder website.

Controversy

A commonly held belief is that QWERTY keyboards are actually designed to deliberately slow typing speed, according to "The Straight Dope." Many advocates insist that the Dvorak keyboard, designed by August Dvorak of the University of Washington, is superior in efficiency and typing comfort. However, the QWERTY keyboard retains its dominance because of the scarcity of Dvorak-trained typists and Dvorak keyboards, and because of deliberate attempts to discredit the alternative keyboard design, according to "The Dvorak Keyboard." However, a report published in the "Journal of Law and Economics" claims that rigorous research disputes the superiority of the Dvorak keyboard.

Alternative Keyboard Layouts

Variations on computer keyboards focus on ergonomic design and on accommodations to allow individuals who suffer from repetitive strain injuries, or who have disabilities or hand deformities to use a computer keyboard. These alternatives include split keyboards, half keyboards and chordic keyboards that combine several keys pressed simultaneously to produce a single character or other type of data. Many split keyboards and half keyboards utilize a layout based on the standard QWERTY keyboard design; chordic keyboards do not.

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