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shady roads leading down to Hampstead Heath echoed to the clack-clack-clack of the literature machine have long since been replaced by the hushed whisper of the word processor.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