Who Invented the Keyboard and is the Dvorak Really Better than the QWERTY

The origin of the keyboard starts, unsurprisingly with the first typewriters. There were a variety of type-writer-like devices around going back the 18th century, before one Christopher Latham Sholes, with some help from a few other guys, came up with one that would become the first commercially successful typewriter in the 1870s.

Much like many typewriters since, Shole’s device used letters and characters on the ends of rods which were called typebars. When a key was struck, the typebar would swing up and hit the ink-coated tape which would transfer the image onto paper. The difference between this and more modern incarnations, however, is this first device more or less mimicked the layout of a piano keyboard and positioned the keys in alphabetical order in those two rows.

This arrangement had a number of problems, but most notably as people got faster at typing, it caused the typebars of the most commonly used combination letters of the alphabet to be positioned close together, so when the keys were hit one right after the other at any fast speed, the keys would jam. To solve this, the keys were rearranged to put commonly used consecutive letters further away from each other to reduce jams.

While you might be thinking, and it is widely claimed, this was to fix the problem via making people type slower, all evidence point to this simply being to position the arms of these letters better so they’d be less likely to cross. It should be noted here that you’ll often read now-a-days that this whole jamming story is a myth, and that Sholes was simply trying to cater to telegraph operator’s usage in making the change.

Everyone claiming this, including the Smithsonian Magazine, which normally does a lot better research, cites one 2011 paper, On the Prehistory of QWERTY, by Koichi Yasuoka and Motoko Yasuoka of Kyoto University as their source.

However, what the people parroting this fail to mention is that, if you go actually read the paper as we’re wont to do when researching, this paper is just speculation with no real direct evidence to back their claims up. The authors of the paper further incorrectly state that the idea that it was a typebar jamming as motivation didn’t pop up until the 1980s. In truth, the idea that the change was spurred by the typebar jamming came about in 1923 in the book The History of the Typewriter, developed by authors from the Herkimer Historical Society.

So what was their source for this claim? None other than Sholes notes and many correspondence concerning the development of the typewriter.

Now, normally we’d then go and actually read through said notes and letters to find where Sholes actually says this to verify for ourselves, but in this case, while the letters and notes still exist, they only seem to exist in the state archives of Madison, WI and unfortunately we don’t exactly have the budget to send someone out there to verify…

So that’s where we had to stop on this particular rabbit hole. If anyone from Madison Wisconsin wants to go do a little digging further for us, we’d be much obliged. In the meantime, given the authors here aren’t likely to have made this jamming story up out of thin air and were using Shoels’ notes and letters as the base of their work, it seems probable that jamming really was the motivation for the change.

Whether you’re on board with us on that one or not, one thing the aforementioned 2011 paper did get right was, once it was clear a change was needed to stop the jamming, Sholes really did work with telegraphists on the final layout to try to cater to their needs as best he could. But this shouldn’t be much of a surprise given these were among his first customers. In fact, his literal first sale of the 1868 model was to Porter’s Telgraph College in Chicago.

In any event, in 1868, in collaboration with several other people, Sholes settled on an arrangement of the letters on the keyboard for better spacing between popular keys used in combination. The results was that this initially made it difficult for people to find the letters they needed to type efficiently, unlike when the letters were in alphabetical order. However, thanks to less likelihood of jamming, once one became proficient in the new layout, it was found to be a faster typing experience. Of course, at this point in history, people were still predominantly using the hunt and peck method, rather than 10 finger typing, so nobody was blazing fast or anything.

As for this keyboard though, it was the beginning of some semblance of the QWERTY we know and love today, which first appeared in 1872, though it wasn’t quite exactly the one we have yet.

For that, we have to fast-forward ever so slightly. The first more widely available typewriter machine found its way on the market in 1874 through Remington & Sons. The device was called the Remington No. 1, or sometimes the “Sholes and Glidden” typewriter, with Remington and Sons acquiring the rights to it and its near QWERTY keyboard. This, however, did not sell well.

Four years later, however, after slight modifications to the arrangement of the keyboard were made, we finally have the qwerty layout in the famed Remington & Sons Remington No. 2 model, which also notably included the ability to type both capital and lowercase letters by using the shift key.

And if you’ve ever wondered why the Shift key is called that- well, wonder no more- The shift key received its name because it caused the carriage to shift position in order to type either a lowercase or capital letter which were on the same typebar.  Although the shift key we use on our keyboards today does not cause the machine to shift mechanically, the name stuck.

In any event, as the typewriter rose in popularity, people stopped complaining about the weird arrangement of keys and started memorizing the keyboard and learning how to type efficiently.  What particularly helped the sales of the Remington No. 2. Model was that Remington offered classes for a very small fee to learn to type proficiently with the keyboard. They also offered certification in the keyboard, which was a good thing to have for a typist looking for a job, and further good for companies wanting to ensure they could get someone proficient right away just by their resume.

Within a little over a decade there were over 100,000 typewriters using this qwerty layout. As it came to dominate, although other alternate keyboards tried to break into the market, most people decided to stay with the QWERTY layout largely due to the widespread popularity of the typewriters that used it.

The nail in the coffin to other layouts occurred in 1893 when Remington and four other major typewriter makers all merged and set the QWERTY as the industry standard.

There is one other layout, however, that over the decades has had a small amount of traction and induced many a flame-war on the interwebs, often touted as superior to the qwerty for many reason- the Dvorak layout.

This has its origins in the 1930s when Professor August Dvorak of Washington State University set out to develop a more user-friendly keyboard. He ultimately changed the layout such that all of the vowels and the five most commonly used consonants were arranged on the home row (AOEUIDHTNS). The general idea of this keyboard was to try to minimize the need to move your fingers anything but pressing on a key with the most commonly used words.

For example, with the Dvorak keyboard, a person could type approximately 400 of the English language’s most common words just by using the keys of the home row, compared to in the ballpark of 100 of those most common words on the QWERTY keyboard. It is also optimized such that you’ll more frequently alternate hands pressing the keys to further increase speed.

So does this actually speed up typing? Not in any real world noticeable way.

It turns out in the countless studies done on this, the general consensus seems to be that the average increase in words per minute is typically only about 2% to up to 10% or so, give or take depending on what study you want to go with. So, for example, if you used to type at 60 words per minute, you might expect something like at most 66 words per minute or so once you take the necessary time to become proficient at the new arrangement.

That said, some people see much higher improvement rates, even sometimes on the order of 30%-100% boost in words per minute rates. However, if you look closer, people that see these types of huge improvements tend to be people that learned to type on qwerty keyboards without any formal training and generally had suboptimal speeds there because of it. Thus, if they trained properly on the qwerty keyboard, they’d also have seen a large increase in words per minute.

As you might imagine from this, actually testing which is superior, if either, has been a bit difficult, given there’s potential for a lot of noise in the data with so many people at so many varied levels of proficiency on the QWERTY before being formally trained on the Dvorak.

Thus, in an effort to get around this problem, there have been studies that have taken the humans out of the experiment. Exhibit A: a January of 2006 paper titled The Great Keyboard Debate: QWERTY vs Dvorak, by Kathryn Hempstalk of the University of Waikato. In this study, she measured things like the average travel time it took for fingers to move up and down rows and press and the like for giving strokes on the keyboard.

She then took 21 lengthy books, including Moby Dick, and simply added up the time it would take to type those texts out using the Dvorak and the qwerty layouts, given the known average movement times for proficient typers- an ingeniously simple and accurate way to take the human element out.

So what were the results? Timing-wise, even with such a large sample size, neither keyboard was really faster than the other in the general case.  She summed up the study by stating, “the Dvorak layout is the most efficient because it requires the least amount of effort to type some given text, even though it [takes] approximately the same amount of time as the QWERTY layout.”

At this point you aficionados might be already heading to the comments to tell us that Dvorak’s initial studies, particularly one conducted with the U.S. Navy in 1944, looking at his keyboard’s superiority showed far more glowing results in increased in speeds- a whopping 74% increase and reduction of typos by 68% once the keyboardists were trained up.

The problem was that follow up studies, such as one by the U.S. General Services Administration in 1953, among others around this time, couldn’t replicate these results, though some speculate these studies were rigged against the DVORAK. Whether that’s true or not, a surprising number of studies since, as noted, haven’t been able to replicate the original results either except in cases where someone hadn’t bothered to be properly trained in the QWERTY layout in the first place.

Whatever you want to believe on whether the 1950s studies were rigged or not, these studies ultimately killed the Dvorak keyboard’s momentum as the majority of people and companies didn’t want to commit the time or resources it would take to train on a new keyboard if the improvement was only marginal at best.

And since then, not much has changed on that front.

That said, proponents of the Dvorak keyboard who accept that the Dvorak isn’t actually noticeably faster, do point out there are other benefits to the Dvorak beyond speed, primarily in less wrist and finger fatigue and supposedly fewer typos (though the data on this latter one is mixed despite widespread claims).

While less finger and wrist fatigue does indeed appear to be a genuine benefit, proponents of just sticking with the QWERTY tend to be quick to point out that it takes a rather long time to master a new keyboard layout, with people who’ve made the switch to Dvorak generally claiming it took them about 1-6 months to reach the proficiency they have on the qwerty. And further, it takes an awful lot of continual typing before most find themselves fatigued on the qwerty layout anyway. Thus, for the majority of people, it’s probably not worth the effort of re-training.

Further, QWERTY disciples point out that losing proficiency in the qwerty layout that’s pretty much everywhere, is potentially an issue of making the switch. Though to that, many people we read who did become proficient on the Dvorak noted that for them, their brains had no issue switching back and forth between layouts so long as they continued to regularly use both. The human brain is pretty amazing, it turns out.

Perhaps the bigger issue for these individuals was that a lot of short cut key strokes in various software are geared towards the qwerty layout, and can often be quite awkward on a Dvorak keyboard, though there are ways around this if one wants in some cases with some autohotkey scripts that convert for you.

A similar issue is often pointed out by computer programmers in that the symbol placement on the Dvorak is extremely sub-optimal when programing in C and its many off-shoots.

Proponents of the Dvorak, however, correctly point out that all these problems are only problems because almost everyone uses the qwerty.  If everyone switched, you’d get a very tiny boost in speed, slightly less finger and wrist fatigue, and these other problems would go away.

But of course, as it’s only a slight improvement, and not a game changing one, the QWERTY keyboard, much like the useless letters Q, X, and C, persevere through today and seemingly will continue to do so for the foreseeable future, though there are some new efforts being made for better keyboard layouts when typing with just two thumbs as people do a huge percentage of the time now. But even then, the qwerty still dominates to date.

As Dr. Dvorak himself aptly summed up- “Changing the keyboard format is like proposing to reverse the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule, discard every moral principle, and ridicule motherhood.”

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4 comments

  • One thing about the QWERTY (and, I presume, the Dvorak) keyboard: it only works well when you are sitting down with the keyboard under your fingers. Your fingers are trained to access the correct keys. What is annoying is that, all too often, you are presented with a screen keyboard directly facing you. (A good example is at the airport, where you are required to key in your name and particulars on a standing screen.) You cannot rely on your fingers knowing the correct position, so you have to use one-finger typing. For such, the alphabetical keyboard is much easier than QWERTY. Even the keyboards on phone screens are defective in this manner.

  • I’ve been using dvroak since I was about fifteen years old. I’m 30 now. I prefer it becauses it’s a lot more comfortable to type with and I get an added benefit of not being a dick when I’m in public and people ask to use my laptop.
    Why sure you can use my laptop to look something up! Knock yourself out!

    They end up not wanting to use it and I don’t have to tell them “no”

  • I recall hearing that part of the arrangement for QWERTY was so that a typewriter salesman could type the word “typewriter” upside down while demonstrating to a prospective buyer using entirely keys in the top row (and therefore the nearest row to the salesman standing on the other side).

    Any idea if there is truth to that? It does seem like weird coincidence to me that the letters to “typewriter” are all in top row otherwise.

  • The downside I see would be I often have to use someone else’s computer or a business’ computer and they would rarely have Dvorak. Heck, I get messed up because the backspace is in a slightly different place.

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