The QWERTY Keyboard

Have you looked at your computer keyboard lately? Two of its most identifiable features exist only for legacy reasons.

Look at the relationship and arrangement of letters on the English keyboard. By far, QWERTY is the most common layout, named after the letters on the keys along the upper left row. Patents for this keyboard layout go back to 1867! Christopher Sholes arranged the keyboard to prevent jamming on mechanical typewriters. The mechanism within the typewriter uses long typebars containing letters that swing up to strike the paper via the ink ribbon. Due to the small target for the letter strike, a fast typist could easily jam the typebars. The QWERTY keyboard layout prevented jamming by slowing down the typist.

Interestingly, typists have been historically judged by how fast they could type, which contradicts the QWERTY keyboard design.

Now, re-examine your keyboard or the image below, and notice the slight diagonal bias of keys in each row. Again, the keyboard's legacy drove this pattern. On mechanical typewriters, a long rod connects each key to the mechanism that activates a typebar, described above. The slight bias provides physical spacing for the mechanics of each key.

QWERTY Keyboard layout
QWERTY Keyboard layout

There is no mechanical or technological reason for computers or electric typewriters to use QWERTY keyboards or bias each row of keys.

Other keyboard layouts exist supported by most modern operating systems. DVORAK is the most common alternative English keyboard layout, patented in 1936 by Dr. August Dvorak. This layout reduces finger motion, increases typing rate, and reduces errors compared to users of the QWERTY keyboard layout. While the DVORAK keyboard layout never became popular, it is the ANSI standard. QWERTY is considered an alternative.

While historical reasons drive the QWERTY keyboard layout on modern computer keyboards, it is important to recognize the implication on all computer development. For example, consider the impact of designing operating system-level keyboard shortcuts around the QWERTY layout.

Legacy solutions established conventions drive many of our hardware and software design assumptions, even though the problems they solve no longer exist.

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