How did the qwerty keyboard become so popular?

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Por: PeriodicoVirtual

How did the qwerty keyboard become so popular?

It isn't easy to type "QWERTY" on a qwerty keyboard.

My left-hand little finger holds the shift key, then the other fingers of my left hand clumsily crab sideways across the upper row. Q-W-E-R-T-Y.

There's a lesson here: it matters where the keys sit on your keyboard. There are good arrangements and bad ones.

Many people think that qwerty is a bad one - in fact, that it was deliberately designed to be slow and awkward.

Could that be true? And why do economists, of all people, argue about this?

It turns out that the stakes are higher than they might first appear.

But let's start by figuring out why anyone might have been perverse enough to want to slow down typists.

In the early 1980s, I persuaded my mother Deb to let me use her mechanical typewriter, a miraculous contraption which would transcend my awful handwriting.

When I hit a key, a lever would flick up from behind the keyboard and whack hard against an inked ribbon, squeezing that ink against a sheet of paper.

On the end of the lever - called a type bar - would be a pair of reversed letters in relief.

I discovered that if I hit several keys at once, the type bars all flew up at the same time into the same spot.

Fun for a nine-year-old boy, less so for a professional typist.

Typing at 60 words per minute (wpm) - no stretch for a good typist - means five or six letters striking the same spot each second. At such a speed, the typist might need to be slowed down for the sake of the typewriter. That is what qwerty supposedly did.

Then again, if qwerty really was designed to be slow, how come the most popular pair of letters in English, T-H, are adjacent and right under the index fingers? The plot thickens.

The father of the qwerty keyboard was Christopher Latham Sholes, a printer from Wisconsin who sold his first typewriter in 1868 to Porter's Telegraph College, Chicago. That bit's important.

Christopher Latham Sholes' daughter Lillian Sholes Fortner with her father's typewriter in 1939

The qwerty layout was designed for the convenience of telegraph operators transcribing Morse code - that's why, for example, the Z is next to the S and the E, because Z and SE are indistinguishable in American Morse code. The telegraph receiver would hover over those letters, waiting for context to make everything clear.

So the qwerty keyboard wasn't designed to be slow. But it wasn't designed for the convenience of you and me, either.

So why do we still use it?

The simple answer is that qwerty won a battle for dominance in the 1880s.

Sholes' design was taken up by the gunsmiths E Remington and Sons. They finalised the layout and put it on the market for $125 - perhaps $3,000 (£2,271) in today's money, many months' income for the secretaries who would have used it.

It wasn't the only typewriter around - Sholes has been described as the "52nd man to invent the typewriter" - but the qwerty keyboard emerged victorious.

The Remington company cannily provided qwerty typing courses, and when it merged with four major rivals in 1893, they all adopted what became known as "the universal layout".

And this brief struggle for market dominance in 1880s America determines the keyboard layout on today's iPads.

Nobody then was thinking about our interests - but their actions control ours.

And that's a shame, because more logical layouts exist: notably the Dvorak, designed by August Dvorak and patented in 1932.

August Dvorak's alternative keyboard groups commonly used letters together

It favours the dominant hand (left and right-hand layouts are available) and puts the most-used keys together.

The US Navy conducted a study in the 1940s demonstrating that the Dvorak was vastly superior: training typists to use the Dvorak layout would pay for itself many times over.

So why didn't we all switch to Dvorak? The problem lay in co-ordinating the switch.

August Dvorak, seen here teaching a typing class, was a professor of education in Seattle

Qwerty had been the universal layout since before Dvorak was born.

Most typists trained on it. Any employer investing in a costly typewriter would naturally choose the layout that most typists could use, especially when economies of scale made it the cheapest model on the market.

Dvorak keyboards never stood a chance.

So now we start to see why this case matters. Many economists argue qwerty is the quintessential example of something they call "lock in".

This isn't really about typewriters.

It's about Microsoft Office and Windows, Amazon's control of the online retail link between online buyers and sellers, and Facebook's dominance of social media.

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