Practical Solutions Communication History of Qwerty Keyboard Part 1

About the history of keyboard layouts Qwerty and Dvorak or DSK.



The Tyranny of Qwerty

What can you say about a valuable, desperately needed skill that:

--takes up to twice as long as it should to learn;

--takes up to twice as long as it should to use;

--makes you work perhaps 20 times harder than necessary;

--uses equipment booby-trapped to ensure errors;

--has persisted out of sheer inertia since 1872;

--is still being taught to millions of unsuspecting people?

Well, you can't say much.

The skill in question is typing, typing on qwerty. Qwerty--in case you've been using it for so long that you have forgotten what it is--is the name for the standard typewriter keyboard. Q, W, E, R, T, and Y are the first six keys in the upper row of letters. Together they make up the traditional name for the keyboard. Qwerty even sounds faintly contemptible, and, after you learn the facts, it is.

Briefly, qwerty came about this way. The first commercially practical typewriter was put together in Milwaukee through the work of C. Latham Sholes, Carlos Glidden, Samuel Soule, James Densmore, Matthias Schwalback, and a few others. Sholes and his associates began with a device to number the pages of a book and by 1867 created a rather crude machine that could make every man his own typesetter. This working model was first patented in 1868, went through many refinements, and was turned over to E. Remington and Sons, gun makers of Ilion, N.Y., for manufacture in 1873.

In their innocence Sholes and his partners first arranged the letters of the typewriter's keyboard in alphabetical order, but the uselessness of this system soon became apparent. Also, that particular model had mechanical problems. Type was suspended by wires in a small, circular nest inside the machine. You didn't have to type very fast for the letters to rise up and jam at the platen (the roller of a typewriter), the very place where they were supposed to print.

To end that annoyance, James Densmore asked his son-in-law, a Pennsylvania school superintendent (who surely should have known), what letters and combinations of letters appeared most often in the English language. Then, in 1872, Densmore and Sholes put what they believed to be the most-used characters as far apart as possible in the type basket and ended up with the horror of qwerty.

Since that time typewriters have become so refined mechanically that they almost operate themselves; the keyboard designed in 1872, however, remains basically the same. Today you and I and about 50 million other people in the English-speaking world still use qwerty. Touch typing, in use almost from the very start, still has beginners thumping away, mumbling to themselves, "A, S, D, F, space ... semicolon, L, K, J, space."

Will it last forever? It could, for all we typers seem to care. And yet for over 40 years--since 1932--a logical alternative has been available but almost totally ignored. The world has hardly beaten a path to his door, but in 1932, after 20 years of study financed by two grants from the Carnegie Corporation, August Dvorak came forth with a new typewriter keyboard. It was a dream.

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