I have heard this come up a few times, the rationale being that old fashioned typewriters would get stuck if you typed too quickly, so the QWERTY keyboard layout was invented to get around this problem. But is it true or was there another reason for the QWERTY layout?
The answer is No.
From this document:
It was made to not jam typewriters and in the process type faster.
The qwerty keyboard has been so widely adopted AND there was no proof that arranging the keyboard alphabetically makes typing faster, that today it's still the qwerty that prevails.
I'd like to offer an answer from a slightly different perspective. If the claim is that the QWERTY keyboard was designed to make typists slower, who were these typists who were so fast that they were causing problems with mechanical typewriters? Presumably on typewriters not using a QWERTY keyboard?
In fact, there were no fast typists that predate the QWERTY keyboard. What we consider the first commercially viable typewriter was the Sholes & Glidden typewriter, produced and sold by Remington & Sons. It was not a huge success. As noted in American Heritage magazine:
This model had a QWERTY keyboard, as would the machine's successors from Remington.
The Remington #2 was the first successful typewriter, though it was still years after its 1878 introduction before it started selling in significant numbers. American Heritage, again:
The invention of what we consider touch typing, and therefore typists who could stress the upper limits of their machines, is usually attributed to a Mr. Frank McGurren in the late 1880s. Newspaper accounts of his exploits stress that he didn't have to look at the keyboard to achieve speeds of typing on his Remington #2 that left his competitors in the dust. For example, from the New York Times of August 2nd, 1888:
As near as I can tell most of the people competing with McGurrin were using the only other major typewriter at the time, the Caligraph. From The Phonographic World, Vol. 3, #12 (August, 1888):
The Caligraph's keyboard layout was not quite QWERTY, but it was close.
So even in contests where speed was the goal neither competitor was using anything significantly different from a QWERTY keyboard. (Though the Caligraph's spacebars were those paddles on the sides. Not sure who thought that was a good idea.)
By 1888 the problems of the type bars jamming that existed with the earliest Sholes & Glidden model had been solved, so the QWERTY persisted even as speed became paramount. I would guess this is because while the QWERTY keyboard was created to solve a specific technical problem in the 1870s, it turned out that it also inadvertently made typing in general faster by maximizing the alternation of hands when typing the most common letter pairs.
I'm also going for no.
My reference is the dutch Wikipedia you can find here.
The inventer for the first typewriters was placing the keys in alphabetical order. But keys who were frequently used were placed close to eachother. Because of that, many of the metal spikes on which the letters were attached to collided and resulted in a failure of the typewriter. To solve that, he replaced some of the letters so that frequent used keys were next to not frequent used ones. This actions caused the keyboards to start looking like QWERTY keyboards en in time become QWERTY.
The article also mentions some cases in which people would have tried to slow down typing.
There were also attempts to create other keyboards setups:
In the case for the affirmative, I'd submit an academic paper presented to a 1977 conference of the Printing Industry Research Association
by Lillian Malt.
On the first page she states
One piece of equipment which is universally recognised as being ill-fitted to human operation is the ubiquitous typewriter keyboard. The standard Sholes-designed keyboard with its QWERTY letter layout, must be one of the very few pieces of equipment which has entirely resisted improvements, which could and should have been made to complement our advancing technological ability. It has been said of the Sholes letter layout that it would probably have been chosen if the objective was to find the least efficient—in terms of learning time and speed achievable—and the most error producing character arrangement. This is not surprising when one considers that a team of people spent one year developing this layout so that it should provide the greatest inhibition to fast keying. This was no Machiavellian plot, but necessary because the mechanism of the early typewriters required slow operation.
Ooo oo, I know this one! The answer: sorta.
ndefontenay, however, makes a point I hadn't thought of before. Sholes' alterations would have the net effect of speeding up typing since, as pointed out above, a jam on a mechanical typewriter is very costly. Think of it as the difference between running and walking; sure, you can move a lot faster in the short term if you sprint, but over a long haul walking will get you there faster.
So yes, QWERTY was developed to be the fastest keyboard layout... for an 1870's Remington typewriter.
A more useful question is if QWERTY is slower on modern keyboards. Since that's off-topic, I'll only link to my propaganda on that subject.
It all depends whether the QWERTY layout was patented. If so, and said patent is still bringing in royalties, someone or some corporation clearly does have a vested interest in QWERTY over more memorable and/or efficient layouts. See: http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index;_ylt=Au1Dz5bH8c1t3LSowN3B7mnty6IX;_ylv=3?qid=20130120065051AAFAbD8