WHY TYPEWRITER'S A
We think we now know why the letters forming the word TYPEWRITER are
all on the same line of most typewriters and computer keyboards. Believing it to
have been more than a coincidence, we asked the half-million word lovers who
receive Anu Garg's weekly roundup, AWADmail, if they knew the reason.
The answer seems to be that when the typewriter was first marketed in 1873,
salesmen needed an easy way to demonstrate the marvellous newfangled writing
machine. The designer placed all the letters of the word TYPEWRITER in one line
so that the salesmen could peck out the word easily (probably with two fingers).
Here are some of the many explanatory emails we received from helpful people
around the world:
From Ramona Monette <monetteflores*hotmail.com>
From: P. W. Graves <DragonT*san.rr.com>
QWERTY is the modern-day layout of letters on most English language
computer keyboards and typewriter keyboards. It takes its name from the
first six letters shown on the keyboard's top row of letters.
The QWERTY design was patented by Christopher Sholes in 1868, and sold to
Remington in 1873, when it first appeared in typewriters. (This patent has
Frequently-used pairs of letters were separated in an attempt to stop the
typebars from intertwining and becoming stuck, thus forcing the typist to
manually unstick the typebars and also frequently blotting the document.
(The home row (ASDFGHJKL) of the QWERTY layout is thought to be a remnant of
the old alphabetical layout that QWERTY replaced.)
It also alternated keys between hands, allowing one hand to move into
position while the other hand strikes a key. This sped up both the original
double-handed hunt-and-peck technique and the later touch typing technique;
however, single-handed words such as "stewardess" and "monopoly" show flaws
in the alternation.
in the early days of typewriters, the users ( secretaries, stenographers)
became so adept at their use that they were able to type faster than the
mechanics of the machine were able to handle.. hence, many jams.
so, someone redesigned the keyboard to slow the input by placing the more
used keys under the weaker fingers and less used keys under more agile
now that electronics are faster than human fingers, someone created a
more efficient keyboard, but to use it, you have to carry your own keyboard
with you, as most people haven't shifted to the new keyboard and as a
result, don't have one for you to use.
From: David Boardman <makeminesupine*hotmail.com>
From: Ravi Iyer <Ravi.Iyer*Sun.Com>
When I was studying stenographic shorthand years ago, I was told the
QWERTY typewriter keyboard (so named because of the first six letters from
left to right on the top row) was devised because of speed contests. The
hammers (type-facers?) of the early mechanical typewriters would get tangled
up during the contests. So the keys were arranged in their current
configuration to avoid the most frequently used hammers from crashing into
each other and getting stuck.
I also seem to remember that the Dvorak method puts the most frequently
used keys in the home row and would make it easier to type and also increase
productivity. With the sophisticated computer technology we have, it seems
it would be relatively easy to produce software that could accommodate
QWERTYists and Dvorak users alike with CTRL and a click.
I don't know if the Dvorak mentioned above is related to the composer.
Nancy Maclaine <nmaclaine*austin.rr.com> told us about an internet
article, Consider QWERTY... which begins:
Probably apocryphal, but this is what I heard as the origins of our
QWERTY keyboard. It was to make it easy for the typewriter salesmen to
demonstrate the product and type the word "typewriter" without having to
peck at the keyboard.
You can read the rest of this entertaining and informative article by clicking
It makes no sense. It is awkward, inefficient and confusing. We've been
saying that for 124 years. But there it remains. Those keys made their first
appearance on a rickety, clumsy device marketed as the "Type-Writer" in
1872. Today the keyboard is a universal fixture even on the most advanced,
sophisticated computers and word processors electronic technology can
How could we get stuck with something so bad?
In this case, the answer lies in the old proverb about the early bird
catching the worm. As far as the typewriter keyboard is concerned, being
first was the whole ball game.
From: Lee Sataline <leesataline1*cox.net>
From: Ian Hall <Halltall*aol.com>
Several years ago Torbjorn Lundmark wrote a book entitled, Quirky QUERTY.
The answer to your question regarding the rationale of the the QUERTY
keyboard might be found there.
From: Dan Bent, Honolulu <DanBent*FairMediation.com>
I was told in high school (I took typing on a manual typewriter, so you
can guess how old I am) that the placement of letters on the typewriter was
in process of revision, when the man working it died early in the 20th c.
By that time, typesetters (when we still used lead type) had been trained
with the keyboard and so it went on. Otherwise he never would have left the
most used letter - "E" - to be struck by the weakest finger, the ring
finger. Occasional attempts at keyboard reform have failed, too many people
having learned the "Home Row." I have seen old typewriters with different
keyboards but they never caught on as the major manufacturers were going
with the original, mid-stream arrangement.
From: Marisa Carder (Seattle telecommuter) <Marisa_Carder*mckinsey.com>
As a user of the Dvorak keyboard (a different arrangement of keys
developed by ergonomist August Dvorak which he patented in 1936), I have
read quite a few articles on the subject of keyboard arrangements.
This is what I recall from such sources: The standard QWERTY arrangement
was designed to slow the typist down since early typewriters would get stuck
when the typist was too fast. However, they wanted "TYPEWRITER" salesmen to
be able to type something relatively fast without the necessity of having
actual typing skill. So, they put all of the letters for it on the same line
so they could impress their prospects by typing it quickly.
From: Kathy L. Smith <leap-baby*adelphia.net>
I was told in my first typing class [a long time ago, when dinosaurs
roamed the earth =) ] that the letters TYPEWRITER are all on the top row so
that the typewriter salesman wouldn't have to hunt too hard to demonstrate
the machine to prospective buyers. Also, that's why the letters aren't all
next to each other, or the keys would have jammed.
From: Barbara Halbrook <BHalbrook*LewisBakeries.com>
The link below tells the story of the first typewriter and the qwerty
From: ArtSpotiB <ArtSpotiB*aol.com>
Some years back I read an article entitled "The QWERTY Phenomenon". The
author claimed this phenomenon described a process or technology that was
outmoded but so much a part of our culture that it remained the standard.
The author believed the original (QWERTY) keyboard was designed with
letters placed to slow down the typist's speed so as to avoid colliding
typebars (something those of us over 50 can relate to). Although this is no
longer a consideration, with the onset of electronic keyboards, he believed
that we cling to this less-than-efficient engineering rather than learn a
Since the information attached <
http://home.earthlink.net/~dcrehr/whyqwert.html > refutes his theory, he
may have to revise the name of his article and find a different illustrative
From: Michael Bucher in California "Bucher, Michael" <bucher*smccd.net>
The letters' arrangement on the keyboard of a typewriter were arranged
intentionally. This was to avoid their jamming when a typist was too quick
for the long rods with the letters would rise and fall too close together.
There have been many attempts to revise the keyboard to a less intensive
arrangement. However, due to the large number of already trained persons, we
are all now stuck with an arrangement that slows us down.
From: A. J. Devies, Daytona Beach, FL, USA <ajdevies*att.net>
What I have always read is that early typewriter technology was unequal
to early typists. Fast typists jammed typewriter "hammers" together.
Keyboard designers responded by rearranging the keys to slow them down.
Keyboards designed to promote speed would place the letters most frequently
used in the "home row" where the fingers rest. Of R, S, T, N and the vowels
only A and S are in the home row and they are under the weaker ring and
pinkie finger. All the other vowels are in the upper row together with P, R,
T , W and Y. None are in the bottom row.
Result? No English words can be formed from the bottom row alone, only
those with one or more A can be written from the home row. I would predict
that a much larger number of words can be written using only letters from
the top row of letter than from the home row. Typewriter and propriety are
among the longest.
I'd be surprised if it were anything but chance and the aforementioned
intent to slow typing that placed those letters together in one row. If you
have a computer program that generates anagrams, you might enter two or
three sets of the top row letters to see how many other "significant" words
If you get other info that supports a deliberate placement of the word
typewriter up there, I hope you will share it with me.
Ain't it awful that we are saddled with an anti-ergonomic arrangement
perpetuated on electronic keyboards capable of blazingly fast typing speeds!
From: Robert Wayne Pooler, Cactus Press,Yuma, AZ <robert*cactuspress.com>
Typewriter keyboards were developed using a specific scheme that
prevented frequently used key combinations from jamming the key mechanisms.
A history of the invention of the QWERTY keyboard and an explanation of it's
evolution can be found at
The explanation of the QWERTY keyboard that I have always read or
remembered was that the configuration of the keys was to place the most
common characters in position under the fingers in the "home" position and
the next common characters in the next most ready positions. The actual
positions of which characters were left hand and right hand were determined
by the mechanics of the manual typewriter.
The designers sought to distribute the characters so that in common usage
the left hand and the right hand would alternate striking the keys and the
resultant motion of the strike arm hit the ribbon and paper and would clear
the position before the next strike arm would arrive to strike the paper.
If you remember typing on a manual typewriter or even an early electric,
you could sometimes type a combination of keys that would cause two or more
strike arms to arrive at the same time and jam. You would have to reach in
and release them, allowing them to return to the rest position and then
continue your work where the jam occurred.
Ah, the good old days....I'm showing my age.
From: Art Darwin <blandart*hci.net>
I am a (long) retired printer/typesetter. Two explanations for the
keyboard of typewriters do not quite satisfy. One is that it was a
completely random arrangement. Another is that it is related somehow to the
distance keybars had to travel to strike the platen and return before
another causing a jam, which still happened!
With IBM's first successful electric machine, a great to-do was raised
about the idiocy of the typewriter layout. And went no where because typists
emphatically resisted. If you are curious yet, read on...
Ottmar Mergenthaler made a "typesetting" machine which revolutionized
printing and publishing. It broadened learning--at least until everyone
became novelists and pundits, and there went the forests to feed the paper
monster. Anyway, Mergenthaler also devised the most efficient keyboard
layout as yet envisioned.
Too over-simplify, the layout puts the most used letters and most doubled
letters very close together. Most of them were controlled by the thumb and
three fingers of the left hand (the small finger was poised over the space
bar). The right thumb and fingers took care of the nearest letters. Minimal
motion was lost in moving between most frequently struck keys. Newspapers
paid premiums to hire "speed artists," Linotype operators who could turn out
prodigious amounts of type in one shift.
I can't show you a Linotype keyboard, but Google or GuruNet may find a
site if you hit the right keyword. If you are lucky, you will see how etaoin/shrdlu
makes sense. Those are the first two rows of the keyboard, reading
From: Berthold Wulff <Berthold.Wulff*gmx.net>
This is not so much a theory of origin, but historic nonetheless: The
late Stephen Jay Gould wrote in one of his essays that salesmen liked to
type this word quickly and easily to impress prospective customers. This at
least gives a hint why, among other reasons, the suboptimal qwerty keyboard
turned out as favourite among other then existing systems.
From: Larry Sadler <ls*onfc.on.ca>
From: Nina Cattermole <Nina.Cattermole*otagomuseum.govt.nz>
Your point about TYPEWRITER and PORTIERE are only true for the QWERTY
keyboard layout. The DVorac layout, for example, would have a different set
of words for a given row. There may be other words pertinent to the other
keyboard [QWERTY] rows also [note my presumption of keyboard - a computer
context- rather than typewriter keys].
Thank you, one and all.
The explanation of why the typewriter keyboard is laid out the way it is
that I read (many, many years ago so I don't have the reference, sorry:-()
is that when typewriters were first introduced the keyboard was laid out in
alphabetical order, however the mechanism worked so inefficiently that
typists were consistently hitting the keys faster than the rate recommended.
With the result that the keys would jam, the striker bars would tangle, the
spacing be hideously inaccurate and various other potentially damaging
errors would occur. So the manufacturers started scrambling the keyboard
order to slow the typists down. After several years of shaking down, plus
improvements in the typewriters, the now standard QWERTY keyboard was the
result, and given that all touch-typing systems are taught with this
keyboard it is a little late to change it for something logical. The
typewriter point you mention in your e-mail may have been pure coincidence
or a joke on the part of the person who laid out the keyboard.