Why We Use QWERTY

by Ghani Kunto

Christopher Latham Sholes, a newspaper editor and printer, designed the basis of the keyboard layout that we use to this day.  Unless you’re part of the new generation who’s unfamiliar with the old typewriters, you’d undoubtedly remember how those mechanical typewriters were designed.  When pressed, each key would stamp a corresponding character via a metal arm—a typebar—that’d pound parts of an ink tape onto paper.  QWERTY keyboard takes its name from the first row of letters under the row of numbers on that keyboard.

Typebars often clashed and jammed together.  This was especially true in Sholes’s first designs, where he arranged the character keys in order of how they appear in the alphabet: A, then B, then C, then D, and so on.

This would of course slow things down for typists.  And they wouldn’t know they had a problem until they lifted the paper carriage.

It took Sholes six years to perfect his invention.  He finally used a study of letter-pair frequency by Amos Densmore—brother of the project’s financial backer, James Densmore.  By placing typebars of commonly occurring alphabetical pairs –such as S and T—further away, he managed to reduce the number of jams.

Remington and Sons (yes, the same Remington that made all those guns) bought the manufacturing rights, and history was made.

Some interesting trivia:

  • Sholes’s original layout had no 0 or 1.  This was to simplify the design and reduce manufacturing costs.  They were considered redundant, since you could recreate those numbers with uppercase “o” for 0, and uppercase “i”—or lowercase “l”—for 1.
  • In the original layout, exclamation point was made by striking apostrophe, a backspace, and a period
  • While “0” for zero was quickly added to become a standard key for keyboards, 1 and ! were never added until the 1970’s
  • Can you spot more differences between the original design and your computer keyboard layout?

A Business Lesson

Sholes’s design was not perfect.  Many alternatives came afterwards, including the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard and the Colemak standard, but his design prevailed as the worldwide standard.

I’ve three possible explanations:

The design embraces improvements

Consider the many variations to the QWERTY keyboard we see for languages that use Latin characters.  I remember in Canada the Canadian Multilingual Standard keyboard was legally required for use in all governmental offices.  When an invention opens itself to improvements, it prevents itself from becoming obsolete.

The design became the first standard

Bob Sadino, one of Indonesia’s celebrated entrepreneur, said that in business you better “be the first, be the best, or be different” otherwise you’re dead in the water.  I agree that being the first has its merits, but to become the first standard, that is even more important.  Two factors that an invention needs to quickly garner: critical mass and barrier of entry to the market.

The design was manufactured by a weapons manufacturer

Selecting the right partner for your business is tantamount to your success (or failure).  In this case, Sholes chose a firearm manufacturer.  In terms of branding, Remington meant precision and strength.  I imagine their slogan could be, “Remington: Our guns don’t jam.  Neither do our typewriters.”

And of course, imagine if you had Remington as a partner.  Wouldn’t your competitors think twice if you had that many guns in at your disposal?

Embracing Imperfection

I’ve this habit of wanting everything to be perfect before I go forward with the solution.  In a world that increasingly embraces the software industry’s philosophy of “release early, release often,” this is one of the habits that I need to better control.

There are times when opportunities offer no second chances.  But I realize now that today’s world would rather accept a good beta version of an answer and wait for the patches that’d follow, than to wait for “the perfect solution.”

The perfect solution will quickly become obsolete anyway.

Now every time I look at the keyboard of my laptop, I’m reminded:

Today’s world is no longer about the strong eating the weak.  It’s about the fast eating the slow.

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Facts from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/QWERTY

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