How did we get stuck with Qwerty? More History….

Misleading stories abound that Qwerty was designed to improve efficiency, performance or to create a “home row”; who spread them?And what really happened?

In 1714 Henry Mill took out the first patent (number 385) for a typewriter in England. Most of the 100+ early attempts at typewriters were in ABC order, and some to enable the blind to write. Then Christopher Latham Sholes of Milwaukee, Wisconsin USA, invented a typewriter in September 1867. As with previous attempts the keys were in an ABCDEFG layout, and the typists soon got too fast and jammed the keys. The key levers hit the platen from underneath and then fell back down under gravity. He didn’t think to put return springs on to fix the problem.

Instead he solved this by asking his brother in law to devise a different layout of the keys. Publicly he said it was to put the most commonly used letters far apart on the keyboard to reduce the chances of the levers jamming. The result was Qwerty (the Qwerty layout). Its named after its first six letters: you probably have the layout in front of you now but here it is:


The immediate result was people typed painfully slowly with the Qwerty layout. No one could type nearly fast enough to jam the keys, so it appeared his typewriter was working. The other result was it made the typewriter very difficult for typists to learn, which kept them slow. The by-products of Qwerty were to make the fingers travel further to type words, making fast typing difficult, and to help cause the thousands of cases of RSI (Repetitive Stress Injury) that we see today.

To answer criticism that Qwerty was designed to slow typists down, Sholes argued that wasn’t his intention, he only meant to stop the keys jamming. Some believed him, some didn’t. But the fact was it slowed typists to a crawl for some long time, until teaching methods for qwerty were devised to get round the problem he had created. Simply because he didn’t think of return springs.

Sholes filed for a patent in August 1878 and it was granted under number 207559.

Qwerty crippled typists long enough for him to sell the idea to E. Remington and Sons Corporation, the New York gun manufacturer, and in 1873 they began mass producing Sholes’ design, putting big money behind the Qwerty layout. It was a sluggish, temperamental and inefficient machine; only 5,000 sold in five years. It was replaced by the improved No. 2 model in 1878; Remington set it up as a separate company in 1886. It was fifteen years, 1888, before they had volume sales. Qwerty was the only mass produced typewriter and therefore a monopoly. In 1888 E Remington became the Remington Arms Company Inc and still exists today. The Remington Typewriter company became Sperry, now Unisys.

As Qwerty was difficult to learn by comparison with the alphabetical layout, courses and armies of typing schools were established to teach it. A whole industry grew up, all with a vested interest in perpetuating the unnecessary complication of Qwerty.

In the typewriter age qwerty was an insurmountable obstacle for most beginners; it created a cartel of professional typists and barred the vast majority from access to that simple technology.

Once a person has made the effort and overcome the Qwerty barrier it becomes embedded in their subconscious and it is very difficult for them to use any other keyboard. For these reasons the Qwerty teaching industry still fights tooth and nail to keep Qwerty at all costs and make any argument to justify its existence, protecting their jobs at the expense of the non Qwerty population. They make false claims that Qwerty was designed to improve typing, or for a cozy “home row”.

The qwerty industry has succeeded in getting itself impanted in schools. Children are now expected to learn to type with qwerty at 60 wpm with 60-80 hours training. 80% fail to hit the target, then or at any time in their lives. It takes 45 hours training to become a licensed aeroplane pilot, with an 80% success rate. If Qwerty is the useful tool they proclaim, it has some failure rate.

Beginners have no natural champion in the computer industry; there is no one from inside the industry to represent the interests of the majority outside who don’t know Qwerty. That is why we were stuck with it.

Qwerty’s history is about big money, mass production, a weapons company, monopoly, vested interests, poor design and a total disregard for the best interests of beginners. Qwerty was not designed to improve typing, but to slow typists down for a primitive typewriter that didn’t have return springs.

Like paper tape readers and card punches, Qwerty was created by older technology and is being replaced by better technology. Qwerty’s decline began with the humble mouse, and new technologies will make it obsolete in the short term. Millions now use voice and pen input systems. New technologies such as text messaging, touch-screen systems and PDA’s have prepared for the future with alphabetic layouts now.

If you already use Qwerty, that industry has already taken your time and money learning their layout. There is no point spending more and you should stick with it for the duration, which hopefully won’t be long.

The alphabet is essential to language, both speech and the written word, whether on paper or on computer; it is much the more useful primary skill, and the skill of the future. The alphabet also makes a good keyboard layout. We strongly recommend that beginners don’t spend time learning Qwerty, which is a limited, decaying and unnecessary complication.

The alphabetical ABC keyboard is a bridge for beginners that can span the time until the new technologies are more widely used, and save them from the unrewarding frustration of learning Qwerty.