The material world: The Qwerty conspiracy
The curious arrangement of letters on the keyboard is, in fact, the least convenient arrangement for the user
Saturday 12 August 1995
At a stroke
Modern typewriters allowed training programmes, such as Pitman's, to make fortunes out of getting people to type ghg hgh fjf jfj, the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog, and so on. The typewriter never caught on in Japan, whose alphabet has 60,000 symbols. But elsewhere, at a stroke, the lonely business of writing became action-packed. Literature received a dose of machine-age glamour - Hemingway hoisting his Remington around Europe with a cigarette and a bottle of whisky seemed the height of intellectual chic.
A brief history of type
Type for printing was invented in China, and moveable type was used by Koreans half a century before Johannes Gutenberg "invented" the process in Europe in the 15th century. In 1808, an Italian Romeo, Pellegrino Turri, devised a machine for the composition of love letters for his mistress, who was blind. But the modern typewriter, inspired by the piano, was not developed until 1867. It was patented by the Milwaukee newspaper editor and senator Christopher Latham Sholes, and manufactured by Sholes & Glidden, later the Remington company, in 1874. Philo Remington was an arms company which supplied rifles to both armies in the Civil War; perhaps this is why typewriters sound like machine guns. They sold 1,000 machines in the first year, 50,000 in the first decade.
Most typists believe that the curious arrangement of letters on the keyboard is a product of some benign finger philosopher who devised an ideal formula for the keys. This is complete rot. The original Sholes-Remington machine had an alphabetical keypad. But they found that as soon as a typist achieved a reasonable speed, the keys jammed. The faster you typed, the worse it became. It was Sholes's brother-in-law, a mathematician, who found a solution. He placed the most frequently used keys as far apart from one another as possible. It was a deliberate attempt, in other words, to slow people down, the least convenient arrangement for the user.
This arrangement, sold as a revolutionary new, user-friendly design, didn't slow everyone down. The world-record holder, Mrs Carole Forristall Waldschlager Bechen, achieved an average of 176 words per minute on a manual typewriter.
The complicated Qwerty alphabet has obstinately remained the norm. In 1932, one John Dvorak patented an improved layout, with the most commonly used letters distributed between both hands. But it never caught on. The Encyclopedia Britannica cites this as an example of the way human inertia and resistance to change can prove a more formidable obstacle to progress than any technical challenge. It proves, in other words, that Lincoln was wrong: you can fool all of the people all of the time
Life & Style blogs
Caitlyn Jenner: Twitter bot created to remind social media users to use the right pronouns
Charlie Charlie Challenge: everyone on the internet thinks it’s a marketing stunt, but it probably isn’t
Not brushing your teeth can lead to dementia and heart disease
Insomnia could be cured with one simple therapy session, new study claims
What do the emojis on Snapchat mean?
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination
Migrants in Kos: Photos show real tragedy after Brits abroad complain of 'awkward' holidays
British tourists complain that impoverished boat migrants are making holidays 'awkward' in Kos
Michael Gove determined to scrap the Human Rights Act – even if Scotland retains it
Threat to scrap Human Rights Act could see UK follow Nazi example, warns UN official
Church of England 'one generation away from extinction' after dramatic loss of followers
- 1 California man brutally beat 82-year-old Sikh grandfather he mistook for 'one of those people'
- 2 Gay teenager 'forced to have sex with his own mother' to 'cure' his homosexuality, campaigners in India say
- 3 Charles Kennedy 'had better judgement drunk than many sober politicians' says Ian Hislop
- 4 Fifa corruption: Qatar says investigations are racist, anti-Arab and show 'ugly face' of countries who lost 2022 World Cup bid
- 5 We have six months to save the world, says leading economist
£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a solutions / s...
£18000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive is required t...
£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you inspired to bring new a...
£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...