A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Was the QWERTY keyboard purposely designed to slow typists?

October 30, 1981

Dear Cecil:

I recently started a job that requires lots of work at a typewriter-style keyboard, and, being of a logical bent, I am struck by how little sense the arrangement of letters on the keyboard makes. A common complaint. But last night, when I mentioned the matter to my wife after a long hard day at the office, she casually mentioned that she "read somewhere" (and of course does not remember where) that the keyboard was deliberately designed to put the most-used letters in the worst places. Could this be true? Is this the ultimate expression of man's inhumanity to man?

Cecil replies:

If you ask me, Cocoa Puffs are the ultimate expression of man's inhumanity to man, but I suppose there will always be differences of opinion on this point. As for the typewriter keyboard, your spouse's story is not far from the painful truth. The QWERTY keyboard, so called for the top row of letters on its left-hand side, was devised to make things easy for the typewriter, not the typist.

In what is generally considered the first practical typewriter--designed by an American inventor named Christopher Sholes and a group of cohorts in the late 1860s--the type, arranged in a sort of circular basket under the carriage, was prone to frequent jamming at typing speeds in excess of hunt-and-peck. (Another problem, by the way, was that type met paper on the underside of the cylinder, so the typist couldn't read the fruits of his or her labors without lifting up the carriage.) To solve the jamming problem, Sholes and company, who had originally arranged their keyboard in alphabetical order, decided to put the most commonly used letters (or what they thought were the most commonly used letters) as far apart as possible in the machine's innards. The next year, 1873, they turned their invention over to the Remington gun company of New York State, and their keyboard has been standard ever since, despite the fact that succeeding improvements in typewriter design quickly rendered it ridiculous.

Of course, a superior system exists. It's called the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard, or DSK, after inventor August Dvorak, who developed it while a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. Among other improvements, the DSK puts all vowels in the "home row" of keys--the second row from the bottom--and favors the right hand slightly. Numerous studies have proved that it can be learned quite easily even by experienced typists, and that it makes for faster, less fatiguing, and more accurate typing than the conventional system. But habit, apparently, dies hard in the typing biz--the DSK was patented in 1932.

KEYBOARD SCAM EXPOSED!

Dear Cecil:

You and others have commented on the received "history" of the QWERTY [i.e., conventional] typewriter keyboard design and remarked on the supposed superiority of the Dvorak keyboard, which puts all the vowels in the "home row" and slightly favors the right hand. The time has come to put this myth to rest. Enclosed is an article from the Journal of Law and Economics. Enjoy. --Scott Koslow, assistant professor of marketing, University of Texas at Dallas

Cecil replies:

OK, doc, you got me dead to rights. The origin of the QWERTY keyboard, so named because that's what the top row of letter keys spells out, is one of those oft-told tales about how we get stuck with an oddball standard because of a short-sighted decision by some mope(s) in the dawning days of a new technology.

According to legend, the seemingly random layout of today's keyboards has its origins in the limitations of the first typewriters. The early machines were crude and prone to jamming if you typed too fast. The QWERTY keyboard was designed to place the most commonly used letters on the opposite sides of the keyboard, making jamming mechanically less likely. Legend has it that the QWERTY keyboard was also made intentionally clumsy (only one vowel in the home row, for instance) in order to slow down typists and further reduce the possibility of jamming.

Within a relatively short time, of course, typewriter engineering had improved sufficiently that jamming was no longer a major concern. But by then, the story goes, people were used to the QWERTY keyboard and we've been stuck with it ever since, even in the face of allegedly superior alternatives such as the Dvorak keyboard. Advocates say research proves the Dvorak is easy to learn and makes typing faster and more accurate. But it's never made much headway because of the crushing power of standards, even stupid ones.

Baloney, say the authors of the article you enclose, S.J. Liebowitz and Stephen Margolis. They point out that (1) the research demonstrating the superiority of the Dvorak keyboard is sparse and methodologically suspect; (2) a sizable body of work suggests that in fact the Dvorak offers little practical advantage over the QWERTY; (3) at least one study indicates that placing commonly used keys far apart, as with the QWERTY, actually speeds typing, since you frequently alternate hands; and (4) the QWERTY keyboard did not become a standard overnight but beat out several competing keyboards over a period of years. Thus it may be fairly said to represent the considered choice of the marketplace. It saddens me to know I helped to perpetuate the myth of Dvorak superiority, but I will sleep better at night knowing I have rectified matters at last.

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