Monday, December 18

Qwerty Keyboard

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The QWERTY design is based on a layout created by Christopher Latham Sholes in 1873 for the Sholes and Glidden typewriter and sold to Remington in the same year, when it first appeared in typewriters.

Anyone who has learned to type must have felt some frustration at the layout of the keys. For example, it makes no sense to have “J” and “K” on the home row for your right hand, while “E” and “T” are above the home row. And “L” and “A”, which are very frequently used, are not in the middle, where it seems like they ought to be. It is as if the layout had been designed specifically to make typing slower. The goal was actually to reduce jamming of typewriters.

These days hardly anybody uses a typewriter anymore. We use computers with word processing software. For those of us who are old enough to have used typewriters, early typewriters were not at all like the modern machines we have used. The early forms of typewriters were clunky, noisy, and very prone to malfunctions. The people who operated them (nearly all of them women) were also called typewriters. The typewriters (operators) were capable of learning, with experience, to operate the typewriters (machines) faster than the machines were capable of functioning.

There was a big problem with something called “clashing”, which happens when two typebars (the arms which carry the letter to the page) collide. A man named Christopher Sholes, who was the first to patent a working typewriter, worked to design a keyboard layout that would reduce clashes. He came up with the QWERTY pattern in 1873, which he sold to Remington. He designed it so that the placement of the typebars, and thus the keys, would reduce jams due to clashing. The keyboard also had the effect of reducing typing speed. So if you have ever grumbled that your keyboard was designed on purpose to slow you down, in a sense it was.

There is another keyboard layout, designed and patented by August Dvorak and his brother-in-law, William Dealey. It is not “new”; it was patented in 1936. It was designed specifically for the English language. Frequent letter combinations are different in other languages, so it may be only a marginal improvement over QWERTY in a language other than English. All the vowels are on the home row, under the left hand.  T, H, N, and S are also on the home row, under the right hand. With the Dvorak keyboard, an estimated 70% of typing is done on the home row, as opposed to 32% with the QWERTY layout. A skilled typist can definitely be quite a bit faster with the Dvorak keyboard. It is available for almost any operating system. It has never really caught on, though. For experienced typists, the transition to a new layout is difficult. Most public schools teach only the QWERTY system, so beginners nearly all start out with the slower system.


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