The myth of QWERTY

Remember the crushing sense of disappointment of finding out that Santa was not in fact, actually real? I was devastated. I felt so embarrassed about being seemingly being the last person EVER to have found this fact out. I had written considerably about and to Santa, and felt so naïve to have assumed that just because so many people said something was true, I automatically assumed it was. Well just recently I experienced a plethora of similar reactions. The history of technology is full of quite nice stories to regale people with, and one of my favourite ones, is the history of the QWERTY keyboard. Except it turns out, that all this time, I’ve actually been wrong. Awkward.

My lovely neat story was essentially about technological ‘lock in’ or the idea that we get stuck using some systems, that aren’t necessarily all that great, because, for a variety of reasons, social and technological, they become ubiquitous. A good (or so I thought) example of this was the reason why most western computers use the QWERTY keyboard. Legend has it, that Christopher Latham Sholes, the designer of the first typewriter in 1868 put commonly used letters at a distance from each other, to slow typists down, and prevent the mechanical keys from jamming. Because the Remmington typewriter was so successful, this particular layout became the definitive one over others used, and thus won out over other, more efficient systems, such as the Dvorak keyboard, purely because it came first. It’s a nice story, because it shows how some technologies win out over others, not because they’re the most efficient ones, but for a variety of reasons. Except that it’s wrong.

According to recent research to come out of the University of Kyoto, there is no evidence that proves or even indicates that Sholes’ (and his oft forgotten typewriter designing buddies Carlos Glidden, Samuel Willard Soule, James Densmore) were trying to prevent mechanical jamming by speedy typists. In fact, it went through several design phases before it began to look like the keyboard that we know and use today. Originally, it was laid out in a way that looked a little similar to a piano keyboard, and had no numerals. It was only when one of their first customers, Porter’s telegraph college, in Chicago suggested that in order to receive and write down telegraph messages, numbers would be helpful. As a result of this, Sholes and Mattias Schwalbach redesigned it to contain some numerals (no 0 or 1) and some punctuation marks. Other customers who were using typewriters to write down morse code letters changed the layout around on different models to suit different needs.

(Keyboard of Hughes-Phelps printing telegraph)

It was only when the Manufacturer E. Remmington & Sons started to show an interest in the typewriter, that the keyboard started to look a little bit more like the configuration that we have today, although that in itself, as the authors of the papers prove, was via a complicated series of decisions, and for some reason, a strong desire of Sholes’ to have the key Y right in the centre of keyboard. Neatly, this also allowed the user of the first Remmington typewriter, (or the ‘Sholes & Glidden Type-writer, to give it its official name) to spell out ‘typewriter’ using just the first row of keys. Still though, this was not the layout that we use today, and commonly associate with the conventional QWERTY keyboard. It wasn’t until 1898, 30 years after the unveiling of the first typewriter that 5 of the major typewriter producers (all owned by a majority shareholder) adopted the current layout that has become ‘locked in’ today.

Of course, this is still a story about how certain technologies develop, and impacting factors on them, indeed it opens up a lot of very interesting questions about technologies influencing other technologies, especially in communication (for example, the technology of  morse code, directly impacting the technology that so many of use to type new communication technologies, such as emails). It’s just not as neat and compact a story as I had previously thought. History is full of urban myths that have seeped into popular consciousness- Archimedes probably didn’t come up with displacement theory and shout ‘Eureka!’ in the bath and although there is evidence that Newton did certainly enjoy watching apples fall, none that indicates that one hit him on the head, thus leading to his development of the theory of gravity. These are engaging ways of explaining often complicated ideas, but the emergence of the QWERTY keyboard shows that technological emergence is never really straightforward- it doesn’t always follow a linear pattern that solely faces forward in a neat and organised way, but instead weaves around in peculiar and complicated ways


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