As children grow up they have to face quite a few disappointments in life. They learn that pixies, the tooth fairy, and that guy in the red suit don’t exist. They discover that green vegetables are not merely a garnish; and they encounter the QWERTY keyboard.
The child puts a great deal of effort into going through the daily positive brainwashing process of learning the letters of the alphabet; a-for-apple, b-for-ball, c-for-cat, etc. After a while, and with some perseverance, all twenty-six are imprinted in his or her mind in the correct order, and a world of reading and writing awaits. A lot of the latter part of this world will be explored using some form of keyboard input, and children these days are introduced to such devices at an early age.
That first encounter with a computer, however, can be something of a shock. Setting eyes on the keyboard for the first time, the child is aghast to discover that none of the letters are in their correct places; it’s as though someone has made a huge anagram of the alphabet, and everything the child has learned has flown out of the window. Why does it begin with Q? Why isn’t E between D and F?
Gingerly the child sets about typing using this unusual new arrangement. With curled index finger and protruding tongue a typing speed of 3 – 5 words per minute is reached using the hunt and peck method.
Of course, with practice the child can soon become proficient in using the keyboard, but why are the keys laid out in this alphabet soup fashion in the first place? The answer lies way back in the days of the very first typewriters.
In the late 1860s, an American inventor by the name of Christopher Scholes developed the first rudimentary typewriter with a group of associates. The keys on this early machine were originally laid out in alphabetical order, but this led to problems with the type bars jamming when typing at speed. To remedy this, Scholes relocated the keys with the aim of keeping the most frequently used letters apart, and the result is the QWERTY keyboard.
Not long after this, however, improvements in typewriter design put an end to the jamming problem, so technically the QWERTY system was no longer necessary, yet it has survived even into the computer age, where there are no type bars to jam.
It does have its rivals, however, the best known of which is the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard, which was patented by August Dvorak in Seattle in 1936. This layout was to challenge, but never conquer QWERTY, despite having several advantages over it, such as simplicity to learn, increased comfort when typing and favouring the right hand.
P Y F G C R L
A O E U I D H T N S
Q J K X B M W V Z
The Dvorak Simplified keyboard layout
Although this layout bears no resemblance to the familiar QWERTY, it can be mastered in a short time and it is worth pointing out that the world record for typing speed, held by the late Barbara Blackburn who reached a peak speed of a staggering 212 words per minute, was achieved using the Dvorak system. The Dvorak Simplified Keyboard is available on all major operating systems, but despite well-founded claims of superiority in accuracy and ease of use it has failed to dislodge the stubborn QWERTY layout.
So, having survived for well over a hundred years, does the QWERTY layout on the modern computer keyboard have anything more to offer than that of early typewriters? The layout may be of little relevance but the keyboard itself has many tricks up its sleeve.
The keys are all in the same places, but it took considerably more effort to press the keys of a manual typewriter (and yet there were never complaits of RSI) so the modern keyboard is a lot more user-friendly. The real difference though lies in the many symbols and special characters that can be inserted into documents using keyboard shortcuts that there would simply no room for on a typewriter. In Microsoft Word, for example, click Insert/Symbol and browse the many menus.
You will see that there is a vast array of symbols and characters at your disposal, from the generally used arrows, ticks and foreign currency symbols, to fun ones that include a smiley face, skull and crossbones, Yin and Yang, and, for those festive letters, that guy in the red suit. You can create your own keyboard shortcuts quite easily for these characters, which means that those you use regularly can be typed straight onto the page, adding impact to important documents and fun to less formal ones. When you consider that some typewriters could only print an exclamation mark by typing apostrophe, backspace, full stop, you can see how far we have come.