04 February 2012

Thoughts on QWERTY and Keyboards

I was looking for keyboard apps for my phone a few days ago. Specifically, I was looking for keyboards where I could use Dvorak and type Chinese (not necessarily on the same keyboard app).

I was thinking while looking and trying various keyboards about the influence of typewriters.

The Sholes and Glidden typewriter, the first commercially successful typewriter which can probably be responsible for the widespread use of typewriters in most of the 20th century, started the QWERTY layout. It was simply a mechanical and linguistic design based on the limitations of the machine and the English language. Originally, the idea was that there would be two rows of keys with all the letters in alphabetic order (sort of like a piano). This did not work. Through testing designs, they settled on three rows and moved keys around to avoid jams. The basis is evident in the QWERTY design now. The fact it was based on the order of the alphabet is clear in some areas. The fact that some keys are separated purposefully is also evident. I do not think that the typical front strike typewriter that dominated the market for most of the 20th century has the same mechanical quirks as the Sholes-Glidden, but since people were touch typing with it, and it was adopted by Underwood, it quickly became the dominate layout and the one which was used by default. Even pre-existing layouts and future improvements (the Blickensderfer and Dvorak trials) could not get anywhere. Blicks eventually came in QWERTY and Dvorak was stuck in trial typewriters or in not so easy conversions. The skill of touch typing was more important than an ideal or even alternative layout.

This makes sense, as although the Dvorak layout was a better design (being designed for touch typing, rather than an early typewriter mechanical design), one really needed to acquire the skill of using it, and for people who already had the skill, it would have a hard time justifying itself to those people. I touch type in both QWERTY and Dvorak based layouts but I am much faster in the one I started with.

But, the layout is difficult to change. That makes sense. However, what doesn't make sense is how closely they model digital keyboards after manual typewriters. It is an application. It could be anything, yet, they have:

  • Staggered keys

  • Caps lock

  • Typewriter space bars

The staggered key layout is only in typewriters because of the levers the keys move. They have to be staggered because it is impossible to have them on a grid. There is no other reason for it. One can get (in limited designs) keyboards which are in QWERTY and are not staggered and they are not more difficult to use and probably a superior design. But in software digital representations, the keys are staggered. Why? Because they are modeling it after typewriters. That would be like, actually, worse than, keypads on phones without touch screens being in a circle because rotary phones had the numbers in a circle. That is silly. The rotary design was a mechanical consideration only. Once the mechanics were changed, the design changed to a keypad, a grid of keys. What would they think in the 19th century when the QWERTY design was made that not only would the layout of their experimental typewriter design work out, but it would be emulated, down to the staggering, in touch screens?

Next, the caps lock. That is a common key on keyboards on computers and it has a very easy to access spot above the shift key (which is based on the key which shifted the carriage of a typewriter). Why is it there? No good comes from it on computers except hitting it by accident and SHOUTING AT PEOPLE ONLINE BY ACCIDENT. I had to hold the shift key for that. I have the Caps Lock key remapped to be an Esc key, a useful key for computers. It isn't even based on a key originally. It was often a lever or something else which locked the shift down because it was impossible to type while holding a harder to press key such a long distance with a pinky while typing. It is basically a brick for the key. But, computers have it, and even the digital keyboards have it.

Now, the space bar. The space is necessary between every word and after punctuation, and it operated differently on typewriters. It did not move a typebar, but engaged the carriage in some fashion. And it is the only key for the thumbs, both of them. Now, I cannot think of a particularly better design for it, but surely the mechanical structure of the typewriter is not restricting the imagination of clever people wanting to make the next big thing in typing?

We can type on phones by swiping our fingers from letter to letter, but it is done on a layout that is not just inspired by, but actually just a copy of, a typewriter keyboard from the 19th century.

I do not see it changing in the future. Also, English is becoming more locked into its literary form, or simpler forms. Perhaps, in the future, we will find that not only are the old typewriters still ready for the youngest computer typist, but that they are still almost the same. In fact, perhaps it is started. Most American typewriters have the ¢ key, but when was the last time this was useful on a computer keyboard? Even in stores, we see fractions of a dollar being expressed in terms of dollars.

It is nice to know that although many think the typewriter is obsolete, its keyboard and function for typing is not only perfectly up to date, it is set for the future as well.


  1. Nice post. I too use QWERTY and Dvorak. Dvorak especially on my PC as well as remapped other keys since on a PC they do not make sense for easy use. Switching back to the typewriter is not a problem. There are 2 ways to slow data entry people and those of us who use computers one is the QWERTY keyboard and the other is the mouse.

  2. Nice post. I too use QWERTY and Dvorak. Dvorak especially on my PC as well as remapped other keys since on a PC they do not make sense for easy use. Switching back to the typewriter is not a problem. There are 2 ways to slow data entry people and those of us who use computers one is the QWERTY keyboard and the other is the mouse.

  3. I am anti-mouse as well. In fact, I only use it within applications (such as web browsing...I use mouse gestures for navigation and controlling the browser), but I use a tiling window manager (no desktop environment) in GNU/Linux. I use xmonad. It is entirely different from Windows, OS X, and other common system desktop environments.

    One does not have to use the mouse (and the mouse is of limited use in it) to do anything. Windows do not get placed on top of each other. Moving and switching is done with the keyboard, opening applications is with the keyboard. I have two monitors and switching back and forth is done with the keyboard too.

    Whenever I use a stacking window manager, I get frustrated at how it must be micromanaged. Why would the system think I want an application to open in a small window and on top (or below) another window? What sense does that make?