It’s on your computer keyboard and your smartphone screen: QWERTY, the first six letters of the top row of the standard keyboard layout. But no one knows how it originated, and the puzzle has been frustrating historians for over a century. Will we ever figure it out?
Dead Men’s Secrets
Almost 150 years ago, the typewriter transformed the workplace just as dramatically as the personal computer did in the late 20th century. Since then, through path dependence, we’ve been stuck with QWERTY, an odd layout once called the “universal keyboard.” The QWERTYUIOP arrangement lives on billions of devices both analog and electronic around the world.
The weirdest thing about the evolution of the QWERTY keyboard layout is that no one knows for certain why the layout took the shape it did. It’s a genuine mystery, despite many seemingly authoritative sources writing to the contrary. In a comprehensive 1983 paper titled The QWERTY Keyboard: A Review, Jan Noyes wrote, “There appears … to be no obvious reason for the placement of letters in the QWERTY layout, and doubts concerning its origin still remain.”
We know who created the QWERTY layout and when it debuted, but the exact meaning behind most of the letter positions within the layout itself has been lost to history. None of the keyboard’s inventors left a record explaining the layout before they died. “The origin is obscure and the historians disagree,” wrote Roy T. Griffith in 1949. As a result, it’s been the subject of frequent speculation for the past 100 years. Here’s what we do know about it.
The Story of QWERTY as We Understand It
The road to QWERTY began around 1867 when a Milwaukee-based newspaper publisher and inventor named Christopher Latham Sholes began working on a typing machine with the help of Carlos Glidden, Matthias Schwalbach, and Samuel W. Soulé.
Sholes wasn’t the very first person to create a typewriter, but his innovations lead to the first successful commercial typewriter model in 1874, the Sholes and Glidden Type-Writer, commercialized with the help of businessman James Densmore.
Prior to that, Sholes’ first typewriter prototype (circa 1868), included a keyboard that looked much like a piano’s keys, with a nearly alphabetical arrangement. In 1870-1871, with the help of Matthias Schwalbach, the piano keyboard on the next prototype became four rows of push-button keys, but the keyboard still retained a nearly alphabetical arrangement.
What happened next is shrouded in mystery, as there are no surviving records that describe what took place. “It is positively known that Densmore and Sholes, laboring together, worked out the universal arrangement of the letter keys,” wrote the Herkimer County Historical Society in 1923’s The Story of the Typewriter. “Just how they happened to arrive at this arrangement, however, is a point on which there has always been much speculation.”
Working together in 1872, Sholes and Densmore rearranged the alphabetical keyboard layout into a “QWE.TY” arrangement similar to what we have today (with a period where the “R” would be later—and a hyphen in the top row where the “P” would later emerge). By 1874, the QWERTY layout we know today was mostly in place, with a few differences, such as the location of the “M” and semicolon keys.
Remington licensed the typewriter technology from Sholes and Densmore and released the Remington Standard No. 2 in 1878, which proved very successful. A later revision saw the “M” and semicolon keys swap positions (as well as a swap between “X” and “C”), which cemented the QWERTY letter arrangement we know today into its final form.
But Why QWERTY?
Since we don’t have any records from Sholes or Densmore about why they arranged QWERTY that way (and their 1878 patent doesn’t even mention it), historians have had to rely on pure speculation to explain it. And there’s plenty of it out there.
The most common origin theory about the QWERTY layout comes from a series of assumptions made and spread by historians over time. They claim that very early alphabetically-arranged typewriters were prone to jamming and the QWERTY layout fixed this by either jumbling the keyboard to confuse typists and slow them down, or by spreading out the most frequently used letter combinations in English to prevent the typebars in the machine from clashing and getting stuck.
As for slowing typists down, in his 1918 book, The Early History of the Typewriter, Charles Weller (who witnessed and used Sholes’ first typewriter prototypes firsthand), emphasizes the speed of the typewriter: “There were times when everything worked beautifully, and the speed that could be gotten out of it at such times was something marvelous.” Writing speed was the entire point of the typewriter, and there was no desire to slow anyone down. (Interestingly, Weller doesn’t spend any time describing the origins of the QWERTY layout in his book—it was likely a mystery to him too.)
So if they didn’t want to slow typists down, the inventors still could have been trying to prevent jams during speedy usage by spreading out frequently-used letter combinations like “TH.” Some critics have attacked this by pointing out that the letter combination “ER” is one of the most frequently used in English, and yet those two letters are right there, side-by-side, in the QWERTY layout. But if you look back, the original “QWE.TY” layout had placed the “R” in a different location. Other than the “ER” combination, analysis has shown that in general, the QWERTY layout does separate the most frequently-used letter combinations fairly well, at least as understood in 1874.
But it’s still not a slam dunk. While it’s true that the early typewriter prototypes did jam (according to this first-hand 1918 account), later QWERTY typewriters jammed too if you pushed too many keys at once—this is one of the reasons the inventors quickly transitioned away from a piano keyboard, which made early testers think they could push multiple keys at once. So the jamming issue documented in the historical record may not be related to the letter arrangement at all, but from misuse of the typewriter.
Also, a contradicting statistical study in 1949 showed that the QWERTY layout in the type basket (the layout of the typebars in a circle where they strike the paper) of the production 1874 model used more close-in-proximity typebars theoretically prone to clash (26%) than a completely random layout (22%). And to further complicate things, the layout of the keyboard that people press to type did not have to exactly match the layout of the typebars that struck the paper.
Overall, with all the back and forth, there’s still no way to conclusively say this was the origin of the layout, but the theory persists because it sounds like a plausible technical explanation for the seemingly random jumble of keys that we all use today.
Another more recent theory about the origins of QWERTY comes in relation to the telegraph. In their 2011 paper, “On the Prehistory of QWERTY,” Kyoto University researchers Koichi Yasuoka and Motoko Yasuoka claim that the layout appeared organically following feedback from telegraph operators. They claim, with thin evidence, that a key appeal of the typewriter was in helping telegraph operators transcribe incoming messages from Morse code to regular Latin script quickly. They also claim that because of peculiarities with Morse code, certain key arrangements could speed up the process. Unfortunately, while this has been widely reported to be true, the evidence just isn’t there to support these claims. Like the other theories, it’s more speculation.
A much older theory for QWERTY involves a similarity to the “lay” (layout) of a compositor’s type case for lowercase letters, which were arranged more by frequency of usage than by alphabetical order. When arranging type on a printing press, compositors manually selected type letters from a type case and put them in place to spell out words. Sholes, as a publisher, was familiar with the works of compositors (and reportedly once worked as one himself, according to Noyes), so it was a natural analogy to think of pulling type from a case and placing it on a page when operating a typewriter.
One of the most informed opinions we have about the origins of QWERTY comes from historian Richard N. Current, who wrote The Typewriter and the Men Who Made It in 1954. Current had access to letters between Shoals and his business partner James Densmore as they developed their typewriter. Current mentions a few possible theories such as alphabetical order not being ideal for fast typing, as well as avoiding typebar jams—again, with nothing to go on but speculation. But ultimately he says that Sholes and Densmore “finally arranged the typewriter keyboard in the spirit of the printer’s case, though they did not duplicate its particular arrangement.”
Historians have supported and dismissed the QWERTY-type case connection over time, but interestingly, Current’s book holds a potential clue in this theory’s favor that Current didn’t recognize. In a reproduced letter authored by Mark Twain on an early typewriter, Twain writes, “The having been a compositor is likely to be a great help to me, since one chiefly needs swiftness in banging the keys.” This suggests that the QWERTY arrangement reminded Twain of pulling type from a compositor’s type case. But still, since QWERTY doesn’t exactly match any known type case layout, all of this is speculation.
What seems likely is that Sholes and Densmore began with an alphabetical arrangement and changed it to a layout that matched their mechanical needs and personal comfort, for whatever reasons. In the end, a few alphabetical vestiges remain in the standard layout, but the true secrets QWERTY are buried with Sholes and Densmore, where they will likely stay. As for the persistence of the myths and speculation about QWERTY, it’s difficult for historians and experts to admit that sometimes they just don’t know, and the fact that they will never know the origin of something so fundamental is doubly frustrating. In the face of that uncertainty, it’s easy to grab onto the comfort of a false narrative instead.
From Typewriters to Computers
From the late 1800s on, typewriters exploded in popularity. Despite competing alternative keyboard layouts, QWERTY held on because people learned it first, and it made sense to not have to learn a completely new layout on a different machine. Other manufacturers imitated the Remington standard, and in the absence of patent enforcement of the layout, it proliferated.
In the 1920s, the Teletype corporation created teleprinters with keyboard layouts based on standard typewriters, and they borrowed the QWERTY layout along the way. By the 1960s, people often used Teletypes as computer terminals, so the standard made its way to computers and then personal computers in the 1970s. QWERTY received a further boost when IBM incorporated it into its 101-key Enhanced Keyboard layout, which became the basis of the desktop computer keyboard standards we use today.
As much as we in America think of QWERTY as a universal given, different keyboard layouts reign in different parts of the world. For example, France, Belgium, and some African countries use AZERTY. Germany and Austria use QWERTZ. But they’re all derivatives of the original QWERTY layout—the same one cobbled together by Sholes and Densmore way back in 1874. Those men took QWERTY’s secrets with them, but their invention’s impact will likely continue as long as we use keyboards, which could be decades or even centuries to come.
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