The material world: The Qwerty conspiracy

The curious arrangement of letters on the keyboard is, in fact, the least convenient arrangement for the user

The typewriter has become almost obsolete, replaced by new technology. The days when shady roads leading down to Hampstead Heath echoed to the clack-clack-clack of the literature machine have long since been replaced by the hushed whisper of the word processor. Last year, Olivetti sold only 7,000 portable manual typewriters in the UK. In March, a newspaper offered as a prize the typewriter on which Bill Shankly punched out the Liverpool teams in the Sixties. Ian Fleming's gold-plated Royal typewriter was auctioned at Sotheby's in May for pounds 56,250. Hitler's typewriter was expected to fetch pounds 80,000 at auction in Sydney. Yet these defunct machines have left one enduring legacy: the arrangement of letters, the famous Qwerty keyboard.

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.

We're jamming

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

Sport
England's women celebrate after their 3rd place play-off win against Germany
Women's World CupFara Williams converts penalty to secure victory and bronze medals
Arts and Entertainment
Ricardo by Edward Sutcliffe, 2014
artPortraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb go on display
News
newsHillary Clinton comments on viral Humans of New York photo of gay teenager
Arts and Entertainment
The gang rape scene in the Royal Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell has caused huge controversy
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

    £17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

    £17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Japanese Speaking

    £17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are fluent in Japanese a...

    Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Immediate Start

    £16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

    Day In a Page

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'