Why are keys on typewriters laid out in that order?

The QWERTY layout was configured by newspaper publisher and Wisconsin politician, Christopher Latham Sholes, in 1873.

He devised the layout because the typebars on machines he’d built previously were physically forced up onto the paper and often jammed. Sholes reduced this problem by spacing the most commonly used keys as far apart as possible. This slowed down the speed at which you could type, but you spent less time freeing typebars so overall speed was improved.

When Sholes and business partner James Densmore took it to E. Remington & Sons (manufacturers of arms and sewing machines back then) they liked this “Type Writer” and began production.

One alteration was made. The original arrangement featured a full stop was where the “R” key finally ended up.

This was changed late on to help salesmen who were travelling around the country promoting the machine. Salesmen – who were rarely fast typists — were able to show the speed of the new QWERTY arrangement by tapping out the name of the product: “Typewriter”, using only the top row of keys. It’s still the longest English word you can type using only the top row.

Rival typewriters worked though different mechanisms. Thomas Edison’s printwheel would later give rise to the teletype machine. This was Lucien Crandall’s typewriter and it employed a cylinder with letter heads that revolved to the correct alignment.

The Blickensderfer Typewriter also used a printwheel. This latter model didn’t suffer from jamming typebars, so he configured a three-deck key arrangement with the letters “DHIATENSOR” in one row. These ten letters compose seventy percent of words in the English language, so the arrangement was far more ergonomically intelligent.

However the inferior QWERTY became the standard system, partly because E. Remington & Sons was a bigger manufacturer with better distribution, but also because they set up touchtyping schools to teach typists their slow system. Once learned, it’s very difficult to then learn how to type quickly on another configuration. And with Remington & Sons (as well as typing schools) having a vested economic interest in the perpetuation of QWERTY, the inferior layout was aggressively pushed.

In 1936, August Dvorak, a professor at the University of Washington, developed the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard. This was the optimum layout for speed and ease of use. Studies have also proven that it reduces repetitive-strain injuries, including carpal tunnel syndrome.

The world record for typing at a peak speed of 212wpm was set in 1985 using this system, but the public have remained resistant to change.

For Esquire Magazine

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