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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). Makes sense!

Here are some of the many explanatory emails we received from helpful people around the world:

From Ramona Monette <monetteflores*>

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 since expired.)

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.

From: P. W. Graves <DragonT*>

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 fingers

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*>

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.

From: Ravi Iyer <Ravi.Iyer*Sun.Com>

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.

Nancy Maclaine <nmaclaine*> told us about an internet article, Consider QWERTY... which begins:

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 produce.

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.

You can read the rest of this entertaining and informative article by clicking on WhyQWERT.

From: Lee Sataline <leesataline1*>

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: Ian Hall <Halltall*>

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: Dan Bent, Honolulu <DanBent*>

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: Marisa Carder (Seattle telecommuter) <Marisa_Carder*>

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: Kathy L. Smith <leap-baby*>

The link below tells the story of the first typewriter and the qwerty keyboard.

From: Barbara Halbrook <BHalbrook*>

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 new configuration.

Since the information attached < > refutes his theory, he may have to revise the name of his article and find a different illustrative "phenomenon".

From: ArtSpotiB <ArtSpotiB*>

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: Michael Bucher in California "Bucher, Michael" <bucher*>

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 emerge.

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: A. J. Devies, Daytona Beach, FL, USA <ajdevies*>

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

From: Robert Wayne Pooler, Cactus Press,Yuma, AZ <robert*>

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*>

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 VERTICALLY.

From: Berthold Wulff <Berthold.Wulff*>

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*>

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].

From: Nina Cattermole <Nina.Cattermole*>

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.

Thank you, one and all.
Story first posted April 2004

Copyright 2004

Eric Shackle

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