Why QWERTY was invented!

Martin Brinkmann
Nov 11, 2005
Updated • Feb 18, 2016

Ever thought about why your keyboard layout is the way it is today? Why the first line or letters starts with QWERTY and not some other letter sequence? Wonder no more: As Wikipedia and the Smithsonian Mag have the answer why qwerty was invented".

The inventor, C. L. Sholes, put together the first typewriter prototype. It had its letters on the end of rods called "typebars", and these typebars hung in a circle. The roller which held the paper sat over this circle, and when a key was pressed, a typebar would swing up to hit the paper from underneath.

If two typebars were near each other in the circle, they would tend to clash into each other when typed in succession. So, Sholes figured he had to take the most common letter pairs such as "TH" and make sure their typebars hung at safe distance from each other.


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Side note: If you have used a typewriter before, you have probably noticed that the typebars may still clash if you type fast and violently enough.

Sholes used a study of letter-pair frequencies prepared by educator Amos Densmore, brother of James Densmore, who was Sholes' chief financial backer. Basically, it determined which key pairs where used very frequently in the English language making sure they would not sit right next to each other on the typing machine's keyboard.

The QWERTY keyboard itself was determined by the existing mechanical linkages of the typebars inside the machine to the keys on the outside. Sholes' solution did not eliminate the problem completely, but it was greatly reduced.

Qwerty became common on typewriters and computer manufacturers decided to port the existing keyboard layout to computers so that typewriter users were able to accommodate quickly. Experimental keyboards have been released in the meantime to optimize the typing speed and workflow due to a more natural design, but they never were commercially successful. Wonder why the letters are displayed the way they are on today's keyboards?

Dvorak went beyond Blickensderfer in arranging his letters according to frequency. Dvorak's home row uses all five vowels and the five most common consonants: AOEUIDHTNS. With the vowels on one side and consonants on the other, a rough typing rhythm would be established as each hand would tend to alternate.

With the Dvorak keyboard, a typist can type about 400 of the English language's most common words without ever leaving the home row. The comparable figure on QWERTY is 100. The home row letters on Dvorak do a total of 70% of the work. On QWERTY they do only 32%.

Even though Dvorak's layout may be more efficient -- there are studies that refute the claim -- when it comes to writing, QWERTY is the keyboard layout that is used throughout the world the most (with regional differences in regards to key layout).

Probably the main reason why QWERTY is still being used today is that it takes time and effort to get used to a different keyboard layout.

Why QWERTY was invented!
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Why QWERTY was invented!
Find out why our modern day computer keyboards (and most on-screen keyboards) use a QWERTY layout and not some other key layout.
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