(Or Why Learning to Type is So Unnatural)
"Giant white alligators live in the sewers of New York City, the progeny of pet alligators flushed away when they grew too large for city apartments."
- They don't.
"Water spins down drains clockwise north of the equator; counterclockwise south of the equator."
- It doesn't.
"Computer keyboards are laid out with the letters QWERTY on the top row, because other arrangements allow typists to type so fast that typewriters would jam."
Perhaps not as common as the first two examples of urban mythology, the question as to why we are cursed with an illogical, inefficient, and painful keyboard layout should be of interest to anyone who works with computers. And since we've just completed a set of reviews of learn-to-type software, we thought it would be fitting to examine the history of the keyboard.
A Short History of QWERTY
In 1867, Christopher Latham Sholes, a Milwaukee printer, filed a patent application for a mechanical writing machine. Unlike the manual typewriters you may remember from your youth, his machine had its typebars on the bottom, striking upward to leave an impression on the paper. This arrangement had two serious drawbacks. First, because the printing point was underneath the paper carriage, it was invisible to the typist. Second, if a typebar became jammed, it too, remained invisible to the operator. Sholes worked for the next six years to try to eliminate this problem, trying mechanical changes and different keyboard arrangements.
In 1873, E. Remington & Sons licensed the design from Scholes, and set their engineers to work to on the design. One of their keyboard layout changes was driven by a clever marketing idea. The Remington brand name, TYPE WRITER, could be most speedily typed if all of its letters were on the same row. Remington's salesmen used this slight bit of subterfuge to impress potential customers.
Competing designs continued to be introduced over the next six decades that solved the mechanical jamming problem, and enabled faster typing. These designs ranged from the so-called "Ideal" keyboard, which placed the most commonly used letters of the alphabet -- DHIATENSOR -- in the home row (circa 1880), to the more well-known Dvorak keyboard, patented in 1932.
How much better were these other designs? During the second World War, the US Navy conducted experiments and discovered that the Dvorak layout increased typing productivity so significantly, that the payback time to retrain a group of typists was only ten days! But these designs were never successful in the marketplace.
Why would firms consistently buy an inferior product? The answer lies not in the device, but in the context of how the devices were employed. Typewriters by themselves, are unproductive objects. Their productive employment requires the presence of a skilled operator - the typist. In the late 1880's, the practice of "touch typing" (where you don't cheat and look at your fingers) was developed. And it was developed for the Remington keyboard. So while competing typewriter designers were heralding their advantages to potential typewriter purchasers, the typists were learning how to use the Remington QWERTY keyboard.
Economists describe the outcome of situations like this with terms like "system scale economies," "entry barriers," and "quasi-irreversibility of investment." Most of us would describe it more simply as:
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