(1) Why does a computer keyboard look the way it does? To understand, let’s take a trip back in time.
(2) The first typewriters were introduced in the 1860s. They had keys for letters and numbers, a roller for paper, and a ribbon with ink. Typists hit the keys with their fingers. They had to use enough pressure to make a piece of metal, called a typebar, fly up. At the end of the typebar was a letter or number. It hit the ink ribbon to mark a letter on the paper. If the typist hit the key too gently, the letter would be faint and hard to read.
(3) This mechanical system was not perfect. If you typed too fast, typebars could get stuck together. When the ribbon had been used for a long time, all the ink wore off and it needed to be replaced. Today’s computers solve many of the problems of typewriters. They make typing faster. They make it possible to fix mistakes before printing. They store a copy in case you lose the paper. But in one way, they are the same as typewriters. That way is the layout of the keyboard.
(4) Over the years, typewriter keyboards changed. Different approaches to the layout of letters were tried. But in 1874, a company called Sholes and Gidden introduced the QWERTY layout still in use today.
(5) The name QWERTY (KWER-tee) comes from the layout of keys in the upper left of the keyboard. Today we use this set-up without questioning it. But let’s ask a few questions about how it came to be the standard.
(6) Think about the most-used letters in the English language. The top 12, in order, are E, T, A, O, I, N, S, H, R, D, L, and U. It’s no surprise that all the vowels are in the top 12. After all, every single word needs at least one vowel. It would seem logical that a keyboard would place the most commonly used letters where they are easiest to reach. Yet the letter A is hit with the left-hand pinky, the same finger that hits the uncommon Q and Z. The letter E is not on the middle line of letters, right under a resting finger. A typist needs to reach up the third finger of the left hand to strike it.
(7) Well, there’s a reason the inventors of this layout made typing harder than it needed to be. It goes back to that little problem of typing too fast. Remember? If a typist hit certain keys too quickly, they stuck together. Developing a less efficient keyboard actually made typing more efficient!
(8) In 1961 – almost 100 years after the typewriter’s birth – IBM introduced the Selectric typewriter. Typebars were replaced with a typeball: a small ball containing all the letters and numbers found on the keyboard. The Selectric had to be plugged in. A motor spun the ball as the keys were hit, so it would be in the right position to hit the ribbon and make a mark on the paper. Yes, an inked ribbon and paper remained part of the process.
(9) Without typebars, the QWERTY keyboard could have been replaced with a more efficient version. But by that point, everyone was so used to this standard that it remained. Even the most advanced computers, tablets, and smartphones incorporate this 1874 invention. And you know what? It seems to work just fine.
By Exploros, CC BY-SA 4.0; typewriter photo by Nomad Soul/Bigstockphoto.com; keyboard photo by MichaelMaggs - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0