The Lies You've Been Told About the Origin of the QWERTY Keyboard

The QWERTY configuration for typewriters can be traced, actually, to the telegraph.

americanmorsecode.gif

The first time I heard the lie, I was in fifth grade. Mr. Ward took me aside (or maybe he told the whole class, it was a long time ago) to tell me about the wonders of Dvorak, a different keyboard layout that was scientifically designed to be more efficient than the standard layout. That layout was called QWERTY, he explained, and it had been created to slow typists down. You see, in the olden days, mechanical typewriters could jam if people hit the keys too quickly, so they had to put the common letters far apart from each other. The modern keyboard, I was told, was a holdover of the mechanical age.

Since then, I've heard this story repeated a thousand times. So many times, I had assumed it was true. But Jimmy Stamp over at Smithsonian points to evidence released by Japanese researchers that, in fact, the story is bunk. The QWERTY keyboard did not spring fully formed from Christopher Sholes, the first person to file a typewriter patent with the layout. Rather, it formed over time as telegraph operators used the machines to transcribe Morse code. The layout changed often from the early alphabetical arrangement, before the final configuration came into being.

The researchers tracked the evolution of the typewriter keyboard alongside a record of its early professional users. They conclude that the mechanics of the typewriter did not influence the keyboard design. Rather, the QWERTY system emerged as a result of how the first typewriters were being used. Early adopters and beta-testers included telegraph operators who needed to quickly transcribe messages. However, the operators found the alphabetical arrangement to be confusing and inefficient for translating morse code. The Kyoto paper suggests that the typewriter keyboard evolved over several years as a direct result of input provided by these telegraph operators.

That is to say, the lesson of the QWERTY story remains the resilience of a design created for an outmoded technology's dictates. QWERTY is still an example of technological momentum. But the development of the design wasn't accidental or silly: it was complex, evolutionary, and quite sensible for Morse operators.

Keyboard configurations are newly important as we think about how we should type on tablets and other devices. The calling card of the personal computer was the keyboard, and now, we are carrying around pieces of glass on which we simulate the old QWERTY design. Are we going to keep that layout going? Perhaps QWERTY will always be good enough. But if not, how might a new design develop?

Presented by

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Technology

Just In