Thursday, March 3, 2011

"QWERTY" --why the keys are in that order

Have you ever wondered why the keys are in such a strange order on keyboards? I have. I've known this answer for years, but taking a break from writing Sexton Sand, I thought I'd share it with you.

"QWERTY" (pronounced Kwert-ee) is named for the order of the letters of the first row of letters on standard keyboards. It wasn't always that way. Initially, the keys were in alphabetical order.

The first typewriters (and they were made this way for many years) were mechanical devices. When the typist pushed a key, the key lifted a little hammer-like arm that smacked the letter against a ribbon that smacked against the paper and made a mark. Each key had it's own hammer-like arm.

If the typist went too fast, the little hammer-like arms made a metallic "clang" and stuck together. They had to be pushed back manually and resulted in ink smeared fingers and ink smeared pages.In 1878, a couple of smart guys (smartasses, too in my opinion) by the names of Christopher Sholes and Amos Densmore decided to slow typists down.

They slowed them down by arranging the letters on the keyboard so the important ones (like "a" and "s", etc.) were on the left side of the keyboard, and other important keys (like "m" for example) were on the lower right. The theory was that typists would have to hunt and peck and therefore would go slowly enough that jamming the machine would be the least of their worries.

Two things make this story a little humorous: 1) Typists in those days typed full-time. It didn't take them long to learn the new keyboard and start jamming keys all over again. 2) The other thing is human nature: if you make a major change like that--re-arranging a keyboard--the change will stick once the grousing stops and people get used to it.

As proof of #2, I submit the following: Take a look at your keyboard. Odds are very great it's a QWERTY keyboard.


Nancy Ferriell said...

I never took a typing class, but the old hunt & peck works fine for me. Joe mentioned "home row". He can't remember which fingers went on which keys. Fill in please. By the way, I remember the hammer keys keyboard but not the alphabetical ones. How old would I be if I did? You type so quickly that I don't know how your computer key pad isn't @#%^@ up constantly anyway.

David J. Steele said...

I took a typing class in 9th grade and was really glad the grading of the class had more to do with learning how to use the machine than the speed of typing. I could type 14 words per minute back then. Now it's 120-140.

I think my typing teacher would faint outright if he saw me type today. My method isn't hunt and peck, but it's not by anyone's book either.

"Home row" is the middle row of lettered keys. The pinkie of the left hand goes on the 'a' and the index finger of the left hand is on the 'f'. The index finger of the right hand is on the 'j', and the pinkie of the right hand is on the ' key.

It's a good position to start because theoretically you can reach the other keys with a minimum of stretching of the fingers.

As for remembering alphabetical keyboards... You can special order those today, but very few people do.

You're way too young to remember alphabetical keyboards on typewriters. The QWERTY keyboard has been standard since the late 1800's.

Thanks for the compliment about my typing. I haven't found a keyboard (computer) that can't keep up with me...but I *do* outrun my dialup connection often. For example, as I'm typing this, I'm about 5 seconds ahead of the letters appearing on my screen. I'm typing bilnd. It's a strange way to type.

The other problem I have (and it's kind of a fun problem) is that I wear keyboards out in about a year. The one I'm using now is 9 months old and the letters a,s,d,c,m and n have worn off the keys. E and D are almost gone.

Z, X, and V look brand new. Maybe I need a character in my bookx named "XZV"... Nah. Too damn hard to pronounce. :-D

It won't be long before the space bar stops working, and then I'll have to shell out thirty bucks for a new keyobard.