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How QWERTY conquered keyboards

Why does every keyboard look like this?

OK, so this top strip here, there is a 99% chance

that on your keyboard it's:

We all have these QWERTY keyboards.

There’s probably even one in your pocket, on a screen.

But why?

Why is this pattern of letters so familiar?

“This of course, is the keyboard.”

But why, "of course?"

QWERTY was just one person’s invention

from the 1870s.

It’s almost 140 years old,

yet, it's still the standard.

“All of these machines are alike in many respects.”

We all use it, but don’t know why.

That’s the definition of overrated!

And it turns out that this little keyboard is the subject of intense debate,

some lies you’ve probably been told before,

and a few real explanations that might surprise you.

Including an old fashioned cartel.

Lots of people have tried to arrange these jumbled letters.

There was a half century period of indecision. Debate.

In the 1840's, Hughes Printing Telegraph arranged the keys like a piano keyboard.

Or, look at the Hansen’s Writing Ball from 1865.

People’s fingers pecked at this thing.

The letters varied per version, but they showed up in this pattern.

This 1868 typewriter looks weird too, but it was the start of something.

The inventor, was Christopher Latham Sholes.

He looked like typewriter Santa Claus, and he kept going.

In 1870, he developed a pattern like this.

As of 1873, he’d come up with a keyboard that looked a lot like QWERTY.

But there were quirks.

Notice that period where the R should be.

And the A and Z are flipped. The M also sits next to the L.

Remington, a company that made machines for shooting and sewing,

bought the design.

Suddenly, they were in the typewriter business.

The design Sholes patented in 1878 was basically QWERTY.

Along with the numbers, the only weirdness is that M next to the L,

and the C and X are flipped compared to a contemporary keyboard.

The company that made Remington Typewriters was soon sending out sales packets with the QWERTY we know and love.

But that doesn’t quite explain how QWERTY got big.

There are urban legends.

One’s that QWERTY was designed that way to keep typewriter keys from jamming.

But lots of designs could do that,

and there’s not a lot of good evidence that that's why QWERTY was designed.

Other options were even still around in 1890,

like the Merritt Typewriter.

You moved this handle to the right spot for your letter and pressed down.

The letters weren’t in QWERTY,

they were in a big long strip that looked like this.

So it was a KWBHGP keyboard.

Many typists believed it worked as well as QWERTY.

But the best evidence of all that QWERTY wasn’t “the perfect design,”

might be this invention from 1889.

The keyboard?

Not QWERTY, but XPMCHR.

The inventor?

Christopher Latham Sholes,

the guy who invented QWERTY.

He created it just before he died.

Even the creator of QWERTY wasn’t settled on QWERTY!

And that’s where the cartel comes in.

Look at this king.

He has something to do with QWERTY.

See the label on his crown?

"Trusts."

In the 1890s, many companies merged into trusts that allowed them to fix prices and control markets.

In 1893, that happened with typewriters,

when some of the biggest manufacturers came together to form Union Typewriter Company.

Manufacturers cared most about price and technical improvements,

like how the typewriter worked.

But there was another effect of the trust.

The biggest company made Remington Typewriters,

and they used Sholes’ QWERTY keyboard design.

The trust did the same.

Most experts think the trust didn’t work to fix prices.

It had trouble beating innovative competitors.

But their market power did fix a pattern on the keyboard.

And there’s one more reason

why that pattern stuck.

Look at these old typewriter ads.

Or these early typists.

Now you might notice that most of these students are women.

That is worth noting!

But for the story of QWERTY, it’s more important to notice that they’re in a class,

together.

Typing wasn’t like it is today,

where you get one of these at the office,

or one of these when you’re born.

Typists trained. They took classes.

If you took a class, you took it for the most common keyboard.

That was QWERTY.

People still debate whether QWERTY’s the best.

Some say the 1930s DVORAK keyboard is better,

others say it too is overrated.

Whether it’s the best system or not,

QWERTY isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

“How you type is more important than what you type.”

“This is the mark of a good typist.”

There are so many other unprovable theories when it comes to QWERTY.

One of my favorites is that the keyboard was arranged that way

so that sales people could peck out TYPEWRITER all on the top of the keyboard.