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History of the QWERTY Keyboard

As children grow up they have to face quite a few disappointments in life. They learn that pixies, the tooth fairy, and that other guy in the red suit don't exist. They discover that green vegetables are not merely a garnish; and they encounter the QWERTY keyboard.

The child puts in a great deal of effort going through the daily positive brainwashing process of learning the letters of the alphabet; a-for-apple, b-for-ball, c-for-cat... until finally all twenty-six are imprinted in his or her mind in the correct order and a world of reading and writing awaits. A lot of the latter part of this world will be explored using word processing packages such as Microsoft Word, and children these days are introduced to these programs at an early age.

QWERTY keyboard
QWERTY keyboard

The child's first encounter with a computer, however, can be something of a shock. Setting eyes on the keyboard for the first time, the child is aghast to discover that none of the letters are in their correct places; it is as though someone has made a huge anagram of the alphabet, and everything the child has learned has flown out of the window.

Gingerly the child sets about typing using this unusual new arrangement, with curled index finger and protruding tongue a typing speed of 3 - 5 words per minute is reached using the hunt and peck method. Of course, with practice the child can soon become proficient in using the keyboard, but why are the keys laid out in this alphabet soup fashion in the first place? The answer lies way back in the days of the very first typewriters.

Scholes keyboard
Scholes keyboard

In the late 1860s, an American inventor by the name of Christopher Scholes developed the first rudimentary typewriter with a group of associates. The keys on this early machine were originally laid out in alphabetical order, but this led to problems with the type bars jamming when typing at speed. To remedy this, Scholes relocated the keys with the aim of keeping the most frequently used letters apart, and the result is the QWERTY keyboard.

Not long after this, however, improvements in typewriter design put an end to the jamming problem, so technically the QWERTY system was no longer necessary, yet it has survived even into the computer age, where there are no type bars to jam.

Dvorak keyboard
Dvorak keyboard

It does have its rivals, however, the best known of which is the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard, which was patented by August Dvorak in Seattle in 1936. This layout was to challenge, but never conquer QWERTY, despite having several advantages over it, such as simplicity to learn, increased comfort when typing and favouring the right hand.

Although this layout bears no resemblance to the familiar QWERTY, it can be mastered in a short time, and it is worth pointing out that the world record for typing speed, held by the late Barbara Blackburn who reached a peak speed of a staggering 212 words per minute, was achieved using the Dvorak system. The Dvorak Simplified Keyboard is available on all major operating systems, but, despite well-founded claims of superiority in accuracy and ease of use it has failed to dislodge the stubborn QWERTY layout.

So, having survived for well over a hundred years, does the QWERTY layout on the modern computer keyboard have anything more to offer than that of early typewriters? Well, yes and no.

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