The Story You’ve Heard About The QWERTY Keyboard Is Probably Wrong

By Debra Kelly on Monday, November 10, 2014
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“Fine. I’m gonna make a new rule: whenever I’m in here, and you hear me typing, whether you don’t hear me typing, whatever the f—k you hear me doing in here, when I’m in here, that means that I am working. That means don’t come in. Now, do you think you can handle that?” —Jack Torrance, The Shining (1980)

In A Nutshell

The development and the popularity of the standard QWERTY keyboard has absolutely nothing to do with the traditional story of developing a key arrangement on early typewriters that had keys far enough apart that they wouldn’t stick together. Instead, the actual origins of the keyboard are a little murky. It’s suggested now that it has more to do with Morse code than it does with mechanical necessity—the arrangement of the letters keeps certain ones together based on how they begin in the Morse code alphabet.

The Whole Bushel

It’s one of those things that’s so normal, so ingrained in us that we don’t even think about it any more—the QWERTY keyboard. But when you look at it, it really doesn’t make any sense . . . at the same time that those of us who grew up with it can’t imagine it any other way.

The placement of the letters seems haphazard, and the usual explanation for that is the shortcomings of early technology. When typewriters were first becoming a thing, it’s said, the letters on the keyboard needed to be placed far enough apart that the speed of the typist wouldn’t jam keys that were right next to each other. On the surface, it sounds logical, except for a big problem that’s right in the name. “E” and “R” together are the fourth most common letter pair in the English alphabet.

So either the story is false or the keyboard’s creator did a terrible, terrible job, and no one ever really minded.

The QWERTY keyboard was developed by a man named Christopher Latham Sholes. Sholes was an 1860s inventor, printer, and journalist—so if anyone would know how the alphabet worked, it was him. There were earlier typewriters, and most of these had keyboards that were arranged alphabetically. When Sholes locked down a manufacturing contract with Remington, he also filed for a patent for his QWERTY keyboard. That was in 1878; by 1890, QWERTY had been well established as the front-runner of the keyboard world, and its design had been picked up by all the major manufacturers.

But why?

One terribly cynical (but incredibly forward-thinking) theory states that the seemingly random keyboard design became popular so manufacturers could also cash in on typing classes to help people make the most of the bizarre design.

There’s another theory, though, one that turns out to be pretty practical. Now, it’s believed that the QWERTY keyboard’s popularity was originally based in Morse code.

Imagine that you’re sitting at your desk in 1890, listening to Morse code come across the wires. It’s your job to transcribe what you’re hearing into a telegram, and it’s also your job to keep up with the person on the other end—there’s no pause button or rewind, after all. When the series of dots and dashes start flowing, some of the letters are identical at the beginning. For example, you won’t know if it’s a “Z” or the code that meant “SE” until the end of the code itself. By then, the person on the other end is on to the next one, and you’ve got to get the letters down. So “Z” and “SE” ended up being next to each other on the keyboard.

Perhaps the biggest irony is that Sholes didn’t even really believe in his QWERTY keyboard. Before his death, he filed several other patents for other keyboards that he thought were much, much better than the popular but nonsensical QWERTY. In one patent that was issued after his death, the keyboard’s top left-hand row was comprised of XPMCHR.

Not surprisingly, there have been more than a couple contenders for replacements of the QWERTY keyboard. No one has been able to unseat the rather accidentally popular version of the keyboard, even though there hasn’t been any real reason to use it for more than 100 years.

There have been some occasional changes to the original QWERTY keyboard, though. The typewriter version of it had not just a Shift key, but an “Uppercase” key and a “Lowercase” key that would change not just between capital and lowercase letters, but would also change what punctuation was used. And in the odd example, some keyboards made the slightest change to their layouts to keep from infringing on patents—swapping out two letters and being different enough that they didn’t have to worry about handing over some money.

Show Me The Proof

Smithsonian: Fact of Fiction? The Legend of the QWERTY Keyboard
The Atlantic: The Lies You’ve Been Told About the Origin of the QWERTY Keyboard
Kyoto University Research Information Repository: On the Prehistory of QWERTY