Industrial Design

How Design Dictated How We Type

Reflect on this: the English-language QWERTY keyboard layout was designed by Christopher Latham Sholes in 1873 not to make typists faster, but to slow them down – and we have been living with that ever since.

As with so many inventions, the design was driven by available materials and technology.

Sholes was the fifty-second known person to try inventing a mechanical writing machine, but the first to call it a “type-writer.” He worked out the basic design of the type-writer readily — each key was attached to a metal typebar that had the corresponding letter, molded in reverse, to the striking head. The problem was that when multiple keys were hit too fast or simultaneously, the typebars became entangled and would have to be unjammed by hand.

Sholes tried arranging the keys alphabetically in two rows. The keys jammed. Then he took common letter pairs such as “TH” and kept the key bars apart so they wouldn’t lock. For six long years, he tried arranging and rearranging the keys, and finally turned to a study of letter-pairing frequency done by educator Amos Densmore, brother of his financial backer. That’s how Sholes arrived at the QWERTY arrangement that is standard to all keyboard layouts. The layout of the letters forced users to type at a more even, albeit slower, pace. The keys were also not aligned, but each row was slanted diagonally to accommodate mechanical linkages.

Sholes sold the commercial rights to his invention to E. Remington & Sons, which also made firearms. Improvements to the No. 2 Remington model introduced upper and lowercase letters, via a shift key, and Sholes’ invention became a hit.

Fast forward to the 21st century. The technology has changed. Mechanical typewriters have gone the way of horse-drawn carriages. Computers don’t have typebars that jam, but with rare exception, most of us are still using the QWERTY keyboard, even though some designs such as the Dvorak Simplified keyboard layout, patented in 1936, have been shown to require less finger motion, increase typing speed, reduce errors and be more ergonomic. Dvorak is also an option on all computer operating systems.

Resistance to giving up QWERTY has been described by some as “muscle memory.” Even if our brains can learn a new sequence of keys, our muscles reflexively resist. Is it logical? No. Is it better? No. But like Americans refusing to join the rest of the world in using the metric system and clinging fast to Fahrenheit over Celsius, most typists stubbornly hang onto QWERTY flaws and all.