I have heard that the QWERTY keyboard layout was invented to get around the problem of old fashioned typewriters getting stuck if you typed too quickly.

Is this story true, or was there another reason for the QWERTY layout?

  • This question is kind of confusing, given that the titular claim (that most, if not all, answers seem to focus on) is not even mentioned in the question body. At the very least, "get[ting] around this problem" is in no way the same as "slowing down typists". – O. R. Mapper Nov 1 '17 at 21:15
up vote 40 down vote accepted

The answer is No.

http://home.earthlink.net/~dcrehr/whyqwert.html

From this document:

It was made to not jam typewriters and in the process type faster.

Specifically, the QWERTY arrangement was selected so that letters frequently occurring together would be far apart on the keyboard, reducing the tendency to jam, and thus allowing faster typing.

When Sholes built his first model in 1868, the keys were arranged alphabetically in two rows. At the time, Milwaukee was a backwoods town. The crude machine shop tools available there could hardly produce a finely-honed instrument that worked with precision. Yes, the first typewriter was sluggish. Yes, it did clash and jam when someone tried to type with it. But Sholes was able to figure out a way around the problem simply by rearranging the letters. Looking inside his early machine, we can see how he did it. . The first typewriter had its letters on the end of rods called "typebars." The typebars hung in a circle. The roller which held the paper sat over this circle, and when a key was pressed, a typebar would swing up to hit the paper from underneath. If two typebars were near each other in the circle, they would tend to clash into each other when typed in succession. So, Sholes figured he had to take the most common letter pairs such as "TH" and make sure their typebars hung at safe distances.

He did this using a study of letter-pair frequency prepared by educator Amos Densmore, brother of James Densmore, who was Sholes' chief financial backer. The QWERTY keyboard itself was determined by the existing mechanical linkages of the typebars inside the machine to the keys on the outside. Sholes' solution did not eliminate the problem completely, but it was greatly reduced.

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.

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    Interesting article that makes perfect sense but it does not provide any references for its claims. Does anybody have anything to corroborate this? – Ardesco Apr 13 '11 at 9:24
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    This answer is not properly referenced. Please add citations to support your claims! :-) – Sklivvz Apr 13 '11 at 9:42
  • It's amazing that it's clearly stated in the french version of Wikipedia (for both Azerty and Qwerty) and not on the english one. – Pierre Watelet Apr 13 '11 at 12:41
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    This doesn't disprove the claim. People were "typing too fast" in the sense that they were hitting adjacent keys in too close proximity. This would then jam the typewriter. Spreading out the commonly used pairs slowed down the typing speed in the sense of increasing the time between letter strikes. And sped up typing in the sense of reducing jams. This establishes the claim, not denies it. – Brythan Jul 4 '16 at 21:21
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    @Brythan: The claim in the answer is that, if two letters are typed rapidly in succession and the typebars are physically next to each other, they jam. So by moving two typebars away from each other, they can still be struck rapidly without jamming. Compare: Myth: Moving key positions slows down keystrokes which reduces jams which increases overall speed. Corrected claim: Separating typebars allows faster keystrokes without the commensurate increase in jams. – Oddthinking Jul 6 '16 at 8:49

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:

The original Remington typewriter, prototype of all modern typewriters, made its public debut in 1874. Hardly anyone noticed. “The advent of the first writing machine was not announced in cable dispatches and newspaper headlines,” The New York Times recalled later. “It slipped into existence quietly, timidly, unobtrusively, with an indifferent world to face.” In fact, the typewriter was so completely ignored it was nearly abandoned as a failure by its promoters, who had already faced a long succession of preproduction frustrations.

This model had a QWERTY keyboard, as would the machine's successors from Remington.

The Remington #2 keyboard

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 1878 Remington No. 2 offered both upper- and lower-case letters for the first time and was widely recognized by both its producers and its potential customers as a far superior machine to the 1874 model. Perhaps customers anticipated these improvements and waited for them. Charles E. Weller, a St. Louis court reporter who tested several models, made lists of faults with the first machines and then found the Remington No. 2 an enormous improvement, specifically citing the new shift keyboard. But technical problems also don’t account for the typewriter’s slow acceptance; the No. 2 was around for several years before sales took off.

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:

A speed contest for typewriters, open to all operators using any machine having upper and lower case, under the auspices of the Metropolitan Stenographers' Association, was held last night at the rooms of the association, 208 West Twenty-first-street. Of many operators who had entered only four contestants - two ladies and two gentlemen - appeared. The matter written was dictated by a reader selected by the association. The time allowed to each writer was five consecutive minutes, deductions being made for errors. The first prize of $25 was won by F. E. McGurrin, who wrote 479 words, Miss May S. Orr following with 476 words, and Miss M. C. Grant with 469 words. At the conclusion of the contest Mr. McGurrin gave an exhibition of writing blindfolded, making the extraordinary record of 101 words to the minute.

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):

A grand typewriting contest, which has already been made the subject of hundreds of telegrams and communications to every newspaper in the country, took place at Cincinnati on the 25th last month, between two very expert operators, one using the Remington Typewriter and the other using the Caligraph.

The Caligraph's keyboard layout was not quite QWERTY, but it was close.

Caligraph's keyboard

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.

  • Just as a comment; I learned to type on a Remington typerwriter - from 1910 :D My grandmother had one and the keys did in fact stick together a lot if you typed too fast on it. – Darwy Apr 13 '11 at 18:47
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    As for many things, there probably was a lot of solutions to dealing with one problem. Had the Caligraph placed a space bar at the bottom of its keyboard, maybe it would have led to this kind of keyboard prevailing today! Also there is a french movie currently on Netflix about this typing competition. – Nicolas de Fontenay Jan 9 '14 at 16:16

Ooo oo, I know this one! The answer: sorta.

Sholes’s first keyboard used piano keys in a single row, with the letters in alphabetical order. But he was soon forced to change that arrangement, because his type bars responded sluggishly. When he struck one key soon after another, the second key’s type bar jammed the first bar before the first could fall back, and the first letter was printed again. Key jamming was still an occasional problem some 80 years later, when I had chicken pox, but at least by then the type bars struck the paper from the front side, so you could immediately see what was happening and separate the keys with your fingers. Alas, with Sholes’s machine and most other typewriters until the early part of the century, the type bars struck the invisible rear side of the paper, and you didn’t know the bars had jammed until you pulled out the page and saw that you had typed 26 lines of uninterrupted E’s instead of the Gettysburg Address.

To overcome the problem of invisible jamming, Sholes applied antiengineering principles with the goal of slowing down the typist and thus preventing the second bar from jamming the falling first bar. At that time, modern typing speeds were not yet a goal. The idea of eight-finger touch typing was still unknown. Typists rummaged around with one or two fingers while looking at the keyboard, and Sholes was ecstatic if the resulting typing rate reached a measly 20 or 30 words per minute, the rate of writing by hand.

http://discovermagazine.com/1997/apr/thecurseofqwerty1099/article_view?b_start:int=2&-C=

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.

In the case for the affirmative, I'd submit an academic paper presented to a 1977 conference of the Printing Industry Research Association

http://www.pira-international.com/About-us.aspx

by Lillian Malt.

https://www.maltron.com/lillian-malt-papers.html

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.

Joe

  • So ... an article written ~100 years after the events in question? If the paper has sources, you should cite them rather than the paper. If it doesn't, then why should we accept how is what Malt claims any more authoritative than what anyone else claims? – Acccumulation Nov 3 '17 at 2:50

An alternative theory that is not yet listed here is that the origin of the QWERTY keyboard layout was influenced mainly by telegraph operators receiving Morse code and transcribing it using early typewriters. The layout was based on their feedback and suggestions.

Paper: http://repository.kulib.kyoto-u.ac.jp/dspace/bitstream/2433/139379/1/42_161.pdf

Related Article: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/05/the-lies-youve-been-told-about-the-origin-of-the-qwerty-keyboard/275537

There are three different theories:

  1. In the QWERTY system, the most frequently used keys are far apart, so the type arms do not get tangled up so fast

  2. In the QWERTY system, it was easy to type the work "typewriter" very fast, in order for sales reps to impress their prospects

  3. The QWERTY system was designed to make it HARDER for typists to type fast, so they would make less errors

Source: http://smartbeard.com/history-of-the-typewriter/

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    The article you link doesn't just list three competing theories as equal. It points out the first one as true. – Oddthinking Dec 30 '14 at 23:12

Well, yes and no. The answer depends not on how you ask it, but when you ask it.

QWERTY was originally designed to speed up typing, by suppressing jams on old typewriters with the letters on long arms. In those days, typewriters were purely mechanical, the arms fly up and hit the paper, and drop back in place, hopefully before the next arm comes up.

By putting the most used characters above and below the primary keyboard line (where your fingers normally rest), the typist will pause a bit before hitting the next popular character. Thus, the chances of the arms colliding was reduced. So, pure typing speed was reduced a bit, but jams (which slow the typist down far more) were also reduced.

So if you ask this question any time before the rise of the IBM Selectric typewriter, which debuted in 1961 and saw widespread adoption by 1970, the answer would be yes.

However... advancing technology - first the IBM Selectric with its ball type head that makes collisions between arms impossible by eliminating the arms, and later computers that didn't use mechanical devices to record what was typed, that need no longer exists. With current technology, QWERTY now effectively slows down typing a bit.

Attempts to replace QWERTY with a more efficient layout, such as the Dvorak layout, have all met with failure - no one used them. Typing speed isn't really a problem today, most computer usage involves only short bursts of typing rather than pages and pages. The not inconsequential effort to re-learn something that has become instinctive or muscle memory doesn't yield enough benefits to justify the effort.

Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

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    This might be true, but this site is about providing citations for claims like "QWERTY was originally designed to speed up typing"; "pure typing speed was reduced a bit, but jams (which slow the typist down far more) were also reduced"; "Typing speed isn't really a problem today, most computer usage involves only short bursts of typing rather than pages and pages. The not inconsequential effort to re-learn something that has become instinctive or muscle memory doesn't yield enough benefits to justify the effort." All claims that should be cited. – Brythan Nov 1 '17 at 16:40

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