Monday, March 18, 2019

The Qwerty Keyboard

As yet again, I realise I've written the word 'hosue' (a favourite mistake) and murmur grateful thanks as my spellcheck changes it to 'house', I regret the fact that I never learned to touch-type. When I was at school it was pretty much discouraged if you were on a academic syllabus since you'd only need it if you were going to be a typist.

Of course, when it became obvious that this was a serious, all but essential skill in the internet world, I could have taken time out to teach myself but by then I was really quite speedy in a slapdash sort of way and so I've gone on.

The typewriter that I was first allowed to try was an ancient model, the kind you see in old black and white movies, used my my minister uncle for his sermons. I was seven, I think, and I was enchanted. I already wrote stories, but how much more like real, proper stories they seemed when they were printed, even if the letters jumped sometimes. I got my own, very similar, sit-up-and-beg typewriter when I was eleven, and I loved it to bits. The much slicker one that eventually replaced it never had my heart in the same way and my computer keyboard is just a means to an end. I miss the triumphant ping! and slam back as you came to the end of each line.

I never gave much thought to the weird qwerty arrangement of letters, an arrangement that has been in place unchanged for well over a hundred years. If you'd put me on the spot, I suppose I'd have said it was probably based on the letters most frequently used in the English language and the quickest way of reproducing them.

Then I heard the theory that this was entirely wrong; they were actually arranged in such a way as to slow down typing speed, since if you typed so fast that one key had not gone back to its place before the next one was hit, the machine would jam - and yes, when I got ahead of myself I certainly remember that happening.

But apparently this isn't accepted as entirely true either. When Christopher Sholes, a newspaper editor and senator from small-town Pennsylvania became enamored of the idea of 'playing the literary piano' instead of using a pen in 1868, he first devised a machine that did indeed look like a piano, or organ, perhaps, with two rows of ivory and ebony keys. Over the years it was modified and altered as its uses became more defined in a rather haphazard way, but after Remington started producing the qwerty arrangement on their typewriters, somehow that was what stuck.

What it most definitely isn't is the most efficient arrangement. In 1936 August Dvorak designed a much more ergonomic keyboard. Using the qwerty keyboard to copy a test text a typist's fingers would travel twenty miles, compared to one mile on the Dvorak version.

And what happened? Nothing. We all just stuck with qwerty. There are new systems on offer now that can easily be installed on a computer. But I think the reluctance to take time away from our feverish typing, which stopped me learning to touch-type long ago, still operates and qwerty is still king.

I have to admit I now wonder exactly how many typing miles I do on an average working day. Anyone got a fitbit for fingers?


Susan D said...

I know. I find it amazing that, whatever the reasoning behind the arrangement of the qwerty keyboard, it has lasted forever, for over 150 years, and just hasn't budged. Funny how no new generation has really taken on something else and run with it.

Aline Templeton said...

Even though I can't touch-type I have a good idea of where the letters I want are and if I changed it would mean going back to hunt and peck, so I suppose that's partly what stops us and even if we could just download an app we'd have to buy a new compatible keyboard too. Inertia is a wonderful thing!