The Ultimate Solution to the Typewriter Keyboard Layout Mystery

Today, typewriters have completed their historical mission and, apart from being collectibles or for appreciation, they have basically lost their practical value. However, the keyboard that evolved from them remains an integral part of our lives. Even smartphones, which don’t have physical keyboards, still feature the ancient QWERTY keyboard layout on their virtual keyboards.

Keyboard is a rather great invention, almost instantly recognizable by anyone who knows how to read. A skilled typist using a typewriter could produce about 40 words per minute. This speed surpassed the average speed of writing in English.

Since then, typewriters unquestionably became part of the arsenal of writing tools. They were not only used to print documents, but people also used them to write letters to their families. While the mechanical structure of typewriters continued to be modified by inventors, specific technological innovations were no longer in the limelight. This was because the focus had shifted from the typewriter itself to its keyboard layout, particularly the peculiar QWERTY keyboard, which has been the subject of a love-hate relationship for over a century.

“Why aren’t the letters on the keyboard arranged in alphabetical order?” Although I have no evidence, I estimate that this question ranks among the top 100 most common questions for modern people.

My daughter has asked me this question, and so has my nephew. In fact, I asked the same question when I was young. As long as you’ve encountered something with a keyboard, it’s easy to have such a question. Why would a perfectly fine alphabetical order be disrupted, and what on earth is this strange QWERTY?

I remember my junior high school labor class teacher couldn’t answer this question. This peculiar question haunted me for many years. It wasn’t until 2012 when I read a great book titled “Complexity”. It’s a book by computer scientist Melanie Mitchell exploring the general principles of complex systems. In this book, Professor Melanie specifically introduced the story of the QWERTY keyboard.

The book explains that the QWERTY keyboard was designed by an engineer named Christopher Sholes. His initial intention in designing this keyboard layout was actually to solve the problem of typewriters jamming at the time. As typists became more skilled, their typing speed increased, causing the metal bars of the typewriter to easily jam together. To address this issue, Sholes boldly changed the layout of the keyboard, separating adjacent letters and slowing down the typing speed of typists. It was this bold design that successfully resolved the typewriter jamming problem. However, as typewriters gradually exited the stage of history, this less efficient QWERTY keyboard became deeply ingrained in people’s habits and could no longer be changed. People had to coexist forever with this keyboard, which significantly slowed down typing efficiency.

Professor Melanie’s explanation, circulated widely with the bestselling book “Complexity”, has been widely shared by many well-known media outlets and science popularizers.

For example: Luo Zhenyu’s “Logic Thinking” Episode 48 “Future Brain World”:

“For example, our computer keyboard, which is called the QWERTY keyboard, you see, the letters on the top left are Q, W, E, R, T, Y, right? Arranged like this, it’s called the QWERTY keyboard. Why is it arranged like this? No reason. Of course, maybe someone will tell you that this way of typing is most ergonomic. Rubbish, there’s no such thing. The fundamental reason is that in the beginning, the old-fashioned typewriter, its metal wires were afraid of entanglement, so it separated the commonly used letters on the keyboard, fearing that the wires would entangle. Later, as technology improved, this problem no longer existed, but the keyboard layout itself remained unchanged. In fact, in history, many people have tried to come up with a more optimized and human-friendly arrangement of letters, but it has never been successful. This most unreasonable, or rather, most senseless keyboard layout, has been fixed in this way and will not be changed anymore.”

In addition, there are also:

  • Wan Weigang’s “Elite Daily Lesson 3” “Harmony is Valuable”
  • “Wang Shuo’s 30-day Cognitive Training Camp” “Innovation Must Speak Politics”
  • “141 Lectures on Economics by Xue Zhaofeng” “Network Effects and Path Dependence”
  • “Xu Lai’s Guide to Children’s Natural Science” “Why is the keyboard so difficult to use?”

All have made similar points.

(I may have noticed that all the examples I cited come from the same well-known learning platform, which is only because it’s convenient to search for them, not a deliberate choice.)

I even saw an article saying “The QWERTY keyboard layout is the most anti-human design in history,” summarizing the following major charges against this keyboard layout:

  1. The keyboard was designed from the outset to slow down typing, making it inefficient;
  2. Commonly used letters and symbols are marginalized and assigned to weaker fingers such as the little finger and ring finger;
  3. The middle golden area is filled with less commonly used letters;
  4. The fingers constantly move up and down among the three rows of keys, further reducing efficiency.

To be honest, I used to firmly believe in these views, until I started writing this article today.

The point of doubt came from a piece of information I found: In 1878, the first mass-produced typewriter, the Remington No. 2, was born. It was manufactured by the famous Remington Arms Company, and its biggest mechanical improvement was to help Sholes completely overhaul the internal structure of the typewriter, eliminating the problem of adjacent keys jamming.

And the keyboard layout used by this typewriter is precisely the QWERTY keyboard that Sholes finally settled on after several improvements, which is almost identical to the modern keyboard we use now.

Seeing this information, I was very surprised because the root of all the charges against the QWERTY keyboard came from the fact that “Sholes originally designed it to solve the problem of typewriter jamming”, and this basic argument turned out to be untenable, which is interesting.

I carefully recalled my few impressions of using a typewriter, and it seemed that none of the typewriters I had used had ever jammed, unless deliberately induced, of course, which could be attributed to my lack of professionalism and slow typing speed. But soon, driven by doubt, I found in the book “The Origin of All Things” by [English] Graham Lawton (Hunan Science and Technology Press) such a story:

“In July 1867, Christopher Sholes, the inventor of the QWERTY keyboard, came across an article while reading Scientific American. This article introduced some machines specifically designed for typing, stating that these machines could print neat and beautiful text at a speed not lower than the average writing speed. This article gave Sholes considerable inspiration, and he secretly determined to make a typewriter that could print.