QWERTY's Origin Story Is a Big Fat LieS

You use it every day without a second thought, but if you think about it for just a second, QWERTY is really, really weird. Where did something so strangely unintuitive come from? The popular story is that it has to do with typewriter mechanics and jamming prevention, and although that explanation sure is tidy, it's also probably bullshit.

The apocryphal story goes a little something like this: Early typewriters had a problem with jamming, so clever designers decided to solve the problem by inventing a layout engineered to seperate common key combinations and slow typists down. Ingenious right? Also not true. As the Smithsonian points out, the common "er" pairing is still pretty cozy. As is "ed" and "es" and "th."

The earliest typewriter beta testers, according to a paper by Kyoto University Researchers Koichi Yasuoka and Motoko Yasuoka, were largely telegraph operators who were given a standard alphabetical layout. When that format proved untenable, there were a series of revisions and QWERTY was probably born out of the eccentricities of that form. In other words, the typist formed the keyboard, not vice versa.

The QWERTY system was also—at least in part—a proprietary creation, probably intended to lock users into an ecosystem. In the early days, Remington offered classes on its QWERTY layout, and once typists gained proficiency, they'd be hard pressed to change. This became moot in 1893 though, when a five-way typewriter company merger solidified QWERTY as the standard. But up until then, it was an approach not all that different from, say, closing off your app ecosystem.

Unfortunately, history is a little hazy on the details, so it's impossible to know exactly what factors were at play. That said, there's plenty of evidence to suggest the whole mechanical design thing is a (admittedly wonderful) fairy tale, and very little to suggest it's not. So keep plugging away at QWERTY, or try some layouts with clearer histories, but jam a cork in the jamming story. [Design Decoded via The Atlantic]

Image by Juan R. Velasco/Shutterstock