The QWERTY Keyboard

Have you taken a look 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, the most common layout is known as QWERTY, named after the letters on the keys along the upper left row. Patents for this keyboard layout go back to 1867! This keyboard arrangement was devised to prevent jamming on mechanical typewriters. The mechanism within the typewriter uses long typebars containing letters which 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 was designed to prevent jamming by slowing the typist down.

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

Now, re-examine your keyboard or the image below, and notice the slight diagonal bias of keys on each row. Again, this pattern is driven by the keyboard’s legacy. 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 for that matter electric typewriter, to use QWERTY keyboards or to bias each row of keys.

Other keyboard layouts exist supported by most modern operating systems. The most common alternative English layout is the DVORK keyboard, patented in 1936 by Dr. August Dvorak. This layout was designed to reduce finger motion, increase typing rate, and reduce errors when compared to users of 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 choice for operating system level keyboard shortcuts on all major computers to be designed around the QWERTY layout.

Many of our hardware and software design assumptions are driven by conventions established to solve historical problems that no longer exist.

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