The mystery of the computer keyboard


Staring blankly at my keyboard the other day (as one does) I began pondering over the arrangement of the keys. “What’s up with that?” I heard the comedian within me say. I set forth on a cyber-galactic journey to discovery why my keyboard’s layout looks the way it does…

A brief history lessonAn old-assed typewriter
In the early days of the typewriter way-back-when (1860) the letters were initially arranged from A-Z along a metal bar. However, as the speed of typists increased, they found that particular ‘type bars’ would jam together, creating several complications, personal distress and making quite a mess of typed documents altogether.

Christopher SholesOne keen mind (American inventor Christopher Sholes) suggested that the most commonly used letters be equally spaced to reduce jams and increase typing speed and efficiency. Quite taken with Mr Sholes’ insightful idea, manufacturers gradually rearranged the letters until fewer and fewer jams occurred.

A final rearrangement of the keys introduced the word QWERTY (made up of the first 6 letters along the top row of a keyboard). This has become the most commonly used, modern-day keyboard layout that we enjoy and love and take completely for granted today.

QWERTY and its opponents
QWERTY was patented by Mr Sholes in 1874 and fast became the most popular keyboard layout on English-language computers and typewriter keyboards. It managed to dominate the market after being sold to Remington and whence it became mass-produced in the U.S.

The QWERTY layout wasn’t without it opponents however. The early Blickensderfer’s “Ideal” keyboard (1893) was non-QWERTY, instead having the sequence “DHIATENSOR” in the home row. These 10 letters are capable of composing 70% of the words in the English language yet were also met with the problem of clashing type bars when used speedily on a typewriter.

Quick facts

  • Gradual adjustments to the QWERTY layout occurred over a period of several years. One particularly interesting adjustment included placing the “R” key in the place previously allotted to the period mark. This enabled typewriter salesmen to impress customers by pecking out the brand name “TYPEWRITER” using one row of keys. This was also the longest word in the English language that could be typed using only the top row of a keyboard until the word “proterotype” came into existence.Modern-day keyboard
  • Evidence of the original alphabetical layout of typewriters remains in the second row of a modern-day keyboard, with the letters F-L in alphabetical order (i.e. FGHJKL) – with the exception of the ‘I’ key, which was moved for type-bar jamming reasons.
  • The ‘W’ and ‘E’ keys were swapped around as the naughty (middle) finger is stronger than the ring finger and ‘E’ is the most commonly used letter in the English language.
  • Far more words can be spelled/typed using the left hand (i.e. the left-hand side of a keyboard) than the right hand. In fact, thousands of English words can be spelled using only the left hand, while only a couple of hundred words can be typed using the right This is helpful for left-handed people, however, the combined use of a mouse makes up for the typing advantage of any leftys.

Now you know everything.

10 responses to “The mystery of the computer keyboard

  1. i really appreciate you…

  2. I just want to notify you that typewriter is NOT the longest word typed on the top row. Proterotype is, at 11 letters.

    proterotype [prot-er-uh-tahyp] – n. A primary type.

    Not being mean, just saying. I was mad when I discovered this. Lol.

  3. Thanks Kevin, that’s interesting and has been changed accordingly. Thanks for sharing!

  4. If you really want to shred some plastic you should try DVORAK because the QWERTY layout is actually rubbish for computers.

  5. Really? How so? Shred plastic?? DVORAK???

  6. Thanks for the link. Some interesting info there! Here’s a snippet:

    “The standard “QWERTY” keyboard was not designed with ease of typing in mind. Rather, it was designed to keep early typewriters from jamming…”

    “Few know that there is a much faster, easier, more efficient, and more comfortable alternative: the Dvorak keyboard. Unlike QWERTY, the Dvorak keyboard was scientifically designed for increased speed and accuracy. It is estimated to be 12 to 20 times more efficient than QWERTY. It’s the layout used by some of the world’s fastest typists.”

    Well there ya go!

  7. Why the alphabatic key of keyboard are not in sequences?

  8. They first were in sequence, but because certain letters got stuck when typists typed, they began to move them around

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