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Slow Typing By Design

The Qwerty keyboard has had the same layout since 1873

[Originally published in The Coloradoan on 8/17/12]

Every time I look at the personal computer keyboard, I can’t help but wonder who invented the thing. The modern Qwerty keyboard is a mystery to many because it doesn’t seem to follow any logical pattern when compared to the English language.

For one of the typing courses I teach, I decided to do a little research because this question continued to irk me. It turns out the motive behind the design of this keyboard is even stranger than you may think.

In 1872, Christopher Latham Sholes, a Milwaukee newspaperman, poet and part-time inventor, was the main creator of the machine we know as the typewriter. According to typingweb.com, Sholes invented the machine for convenience to replace handwriting of documents. His original model typed in all capital letters and was a decorative machine, with flowers and decals, as it was first manufactured by the sewing machine department of Remington Arms.

However, Sholes soon faced a huge problem with the first typewriters. If a typist typed too fast, the keys on the machine would jam. After months of trials to fix the machine, Sholes decided in desperation that the only way to use the machines effectively was to slow down the typist.

Sholes reorganized the keys on the typewriter in such a foreign pattern that it forced the typist to slow down. This new layout is what we still refer to today as the Qwerty pattern because those are the first six letters of the typewriters’ second row. With this new pattern, frequently used pairs of type bars wouldn’t clash together and get stuck at the printing point.

The original Sholes model didn’t sell well, but eventually the Remington model became more popular and evolved into more modern typewriters and current computer keyboards.

Despite several other models that came along to challenge the Qwerty layout, it was so ingrained in the typing industry at that point that it remained on top of its competitors.

So, despite the fact that we all use keyboards now instead of typewriters, we’ve kept the Qwerty design because of its popularity, despite the fact that it actually slows us all down while we’re typing. A great example of early American ingenuity and how it has helped mold us in the digital age.

Now, think about this story the next time you think you’re typing too slow. It turns out is not your fault after all.

Stu Crair is the owner and lead trainer at Digital Workshop Center, providing digital arts and computer training instruction in Fort Collins. Reach him at (970) 980-8091 or stu@digitalworkshopcenter.com.