THE CURSE OF THE QWERTY KEYBOARD.

You, the enlightened reader, know what this article will say even before it says it. You know it because you have heard it said a dozen times before, as it has been said for more than a hundred years. The QWERTY keyboard is a pox on our intel­lectual life. This useless and counter­intu­itive system was foisted on us for the mechan­ical con­venience of the very earliest type­writer makers, and it is only by a series of random accidents that it became the world­wide standard for English-language keyboards—and, with minor varia­tions (like AZERTY or QWERTZ), the standard for other Western European languages as well. In a sane world, we would long since have replaced QWERTY with a more scien­tific alter­native, such as the Dvorak keyboard, or the Blickensderfer DHIATENSOR.

Since you know all the arguments against QWERTY already, let us assume them made, and then Dr. Boli will get on with showing you why they are all wrong.

First of all, the only basis on which one keyboard could be said to be better than another is typing speed, and in that regard there is no good evidence at all that any of the proposed alter­natives are better than QWERTY. The most studied alter­native layout is the Dvorak key­board, whose fanatical devo­tees have sponsored many experi­ments to show that typists retrained on a Dvorak keyboard type much faster than they did on a QWERTY keyboard. Of course the training here is the con­founding factor; and indeed, when typists are given similar training on QWERTY keyboards, they show similar improve­ment. We are probably safe in con­cluding that it is not the key­board layout but the training that effects the improvement.

In fact the old story that the QWERTY key­board was designed to slow us down is almost the opposite of the truth, as far as we can make out the truth through the mists of the decades. The layout was designed (according to recol­lec­tions many years after the fact) to prevent type­bars from jamming in speedy typing. In order to do that, letter combina­tions that commonly appear together were placed some distance apart. You will note that the inten­tion here was to speed up typing, not to slow it down. By spreading the keys apart this way, the QWERTY keyboard very often causes the typist to alternate hands while typing, and nothing speeds up typing more effec­tively than alter­nating hands.

Typists have set some aston­ishing speed records on QWERTY keyboards. Typewriter brands like Underwood and Woodstock sponsored speed typists to show that their machines could keep up with any­body. The speed of a fast typist has not signifi­cantly increased in the computer era: by 1900, typewriter technology had already reached such a peak of perfe­ction in the very best machines that the human typist, not the machine, was the limiting factor.

It is not likely, then, that any alter­native arrange­ment of keys will give us much greater speed. If that is true, then there is no good reason for changing the QWERTY layout. But there is every reason to keep it. The biggest advan­tage, in fact, is so obvious we are likely to miss it. The QWERTY keyboard really is uni­versal for English speakers. There are variants in the place­ment of some of the symbols, but the letters are in the same places on every key­board you come across. You can write a letter on your 1880 Remington, and then pick up your smart­phone and send a text, and you are using the same key­board. For once the invisible hand of the market has done its job. It has created a workable universal standard without the inter­vention of any committee or regula­tory body or czar or dictator­ship of the proletariat.

Like English spelling, the QWERTY keyboard survives because it does its job, because all attempts to reform it tie them­selves up in the knots of their own incon­sisten­cies, and because any attempt to replace it would require hundreds of millions of people to retrain themselves for no clear benefit. In the English-speaking world, it is likely that QWERTY will last as long as literacy itself, which should give it another five years at least.