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Whence QWERTY?

 

Why typewriter keyboards look weird

Much like President Bush's mangling of words over two syllables, or the ubiquity of Britney Spear's navel, the key configuration on today's typewriters is just something we take for granted. While Dubya's verbal troubles can surely be traced back to his partying college days, and Ms. Spear's belly button prominence is no doubt the brainchild of some greasy record executive, what, pray tell, is the origin of today's keyboard layout? American inventor Christopher Latham Sholes is the one responsible. Sholes devised the first production typewriter in 1873. Back then, typewriters had eight to 10 rows of keys, since separate keys were needed for capital letters. (The invention of the shift key was yet to come). Most of these early keyboards were also arranged in alphabetical order. Sholes soon found that the alphabetical arrangement of keys led to jamming when the typewriter bars of fast typists were on the upstrike. Sholes theorized that in order to eliminate this problem, the bars of letters used frequently in combination should come from opposite directions. This eventually resulted in the "QWERTY" keyboard we have today. While this was purely a mechanical solution to prevent key jamming, Sholes convinced consumers that this "scientific arrangement" of keys required the least possible movements of the hand while typing. Actually, the opposite is true; the QWERTY arrangement necessitates a finger trek of great movement to form the most basic words.

With the advent of the word processor and computers that work without traditional bars, the need for the QWERTY configuration is long gone. But after over a century of this arrangement, it's doubtful that any key changes are in the works, regardless of what kind of efficient alternative someone might come up with.

Have a question for Who Knew? Email sam.boykin@cln.com

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