Who decided the arrangement of letters on a computer QWERTY keyboard, and why?

by | Sep 3, 2009 06:40 AM ET

You Asked:

Who decided the arrangement of letters on a computer QWERTY keyboard, and why? --- Andrea, Waynesville, Mo.

Marshall Brain Answered:

In order to understand the QWERTY keyboard that we have today, we need to go back in history more than a century, to the creation of the typewriter. It is likely that a lot of people have never seen an actual typewriter, so here is one in action:

If you watch when he hits a key, you can see a little bar that moves toward the paper. That bar contains the lower case and upper case version of one letter. The letter on the bar hits an inked ribbon, and the ink gets pressed onto the paper.

One early typewriter inventor (Christopher Sholes of Remington & Sons) found that if people typed too quickly, the bars would collide up near the ribbon and jam together. So the idea behind the QWERTY arrangement was to slow typists down.

In other words, the QWERTY keyboard is designed so that typists have to move their fingers off the home row in order to reach the most frequently used characters. If you look at a chart of letter frequencies like this one, you can see the trend. The 10 most commonly used letters in the English language are E, T, A, O, I, N, S, H, R and D. With the exception of A, S and D, all of those letters require movement off the home row. And A is on the pinky.

It would be hilarious (or really depressing) if the keyboard layout most commonly used today was originally designed to be as inefficient as possible. Nonetheless, that seems to be the case.

There are two other common ways to arrange the letters on a keyboard: 1) the standard ABCD... layout and 2) The Dvorak layout, which tries to be as efficient as possible by minimizing finger movement. Here is a nice introduction to the Dvorak keyboard:

For more info see: Why are the keys arranged the way they are on a QWERTY keyboard?

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