Just My Typ0

The first thing you learn in typing class is where to place your fingers on the keys. The “home row” is located in the middle of the keyboard, and it shouldn’t take but a hot second to realize these keys are not going to be very popular.

Virtually every word in the English language uses a vowel, yet there is only one located on the home row. Letters used all the time, like E and T, are not located under your fingertips, but in the row of letters above, while the comma and period—essential punctuation keys—are awkwardly placed in the row below.

It doesn’t take more than a casual glance at your standard computer keyboard to see that QWERTY (so called because of the 6 letters located on the top left row), doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.

It would make more sense, and be more logical if the keys were arranged alphabetically, given everyone knows the alphabet. (What if the numbers on the top row were not arranged numerically, and all mixed-up and out of order? You’d hate it.)

It would make more sense if the lettered keys were arranged by frequency of use, which clearly they are not. (How often do you use a semicolon?)

It would make way more sense if the keyboard I am writing this story on was designed to be more ergonomic and user friendly. Unfortunately, the layout is awkward, and looks more like someone randomly pulled the letters out of a hat.

Hughes Telegraph, Signed “Dumoulin – Froment a Paris”, French, Mid-19th Century located on the Paris – Milan line. From the SPARK Museum’s collection.

Yet, the QWERTY keyboard design is considered the universal standard (Latin-script), and hasn’t fundamentally changed since established by the United Typewriter Company in 1893. That is correct, the keyboard you and me and billions of people all over the world use today and every day hasn’t improved since first introduced over 100 years ago. Before the Model T, long distance telegraphy, wall outlets and air travel.

How did this happen? Who came up with this nonsensical layout, and why are we still stuck with it? Is this really the best we can do?

People have been looking for a way to transfer individual letters to paper ever since Johannes Gutenberg (1398-1468) came up with movable type and the printing press.

Mechanical writing machines date back centuries as inventors and engineers have tried to emulate the consistency and precision of the printing press, while getting the letters down on paper as fast—or faster, than by hand.

One of the first inspirations for the mechanical writing machine was the Hughes telegraph:

 “…the operator at the sending station sat at a keyboard that resembled a piano, right down to the black and white keys. Each key on the “piano” represented a character of the alphabet which, when pressed, caused the corresponding character to be printed on a strip of paper at the receiving end.”

“Sometime before the last Hughes telegraph disappeared, American inventor Christopher Latham Sholes visited a telegraph office and observed the Hughes keyboard in action.  Inspired by the machine’s ability to print characters on paper. Sholes returned to his workshop ad developed a similar but entirely different device. On June 23, 1868, Sholes was granted a U.S. patent for the typewriter.”  (Jenkins, 2009, p.75)

The early Industrial Age produced a wide and wondrous variety of mechanical devices created to get print on paper. These contraptions were often complicated, cumbersome and frequently malfunctioned.

Herein lies the answer to our question:

Colorful ad for Bar-Lock typewriters, one of the many manufactures of the era

Why is the QWERTY keyboard designed the way it is? Function, it had to work, period.

If you’ve ever seen a mechanical (manual) typewriter, you know each key is connected to a metal arm with a letter or symbol on the end. When a key is pressed, the arm swings-up and strikes an inked ribbon, leaving an impression of the image on the paper. If adjacent keys are pressed too quickly, the metal arms get tangled-up, and jam. Then the typist has to stop, and attempt to untangle the ink covered mess that was once their writing project.

Jamming was a problem, until 1868, when Christopher Latham Sholes, Samuel Soule, and Carlos Glidden addressed the issue by creating the first commercially successful keyboard design, and laid the groundwork for what would ultimately become today’s modern QWERTY keyboard.

Sholes QWERTY layout minimized jamming by strategically placing commonly used letters apart from each other. This arrangement slowed down typing speed, but it reduced the likelihood of key jams.

In 1893, America’s largest typewriter manufacturers — Remington, Yost, Densmore, and Smith-Premier — merged to form the Union Typewriter Company. They agreed that the QWERTY layout would be used as the standard for all typewriter keyboards, no matter who manufactured them.

Remington also sold typing courses, and soon the QWERTY layout was taught in business schools all over the country. Game over, or was it?

Was there no one couragous enough to challenge this powerful conglomerate of typewriter manufacturing mogels? Was there no one with a more logical, ergonomic or efficient design?

The answer is a big YES, and his name was Blickensderfer.

In 1893—the same year the Union Typewriter Company was formed—the Blickensderfer Model no. 1 & no. 5 typewriters were introduced to the general public at the 1893 World Columbia Exposition in Chicago.

Invented by George Canfield Blickensderfer (1850–1917), his machines were intended to compete with larger Remington, Hammond and Yost typewriters. They were remarkable for several reasons.

First, the Blickensderfer typewriters were a much simpler, less complex design, using a fraction of the parts needed for standard typewriting machines. Since there were so many less parts, the Blickensderfer appears less cluttered, more elegant and graceful.

Another fantastic innovation was the Blickensderfer typewheel, a rotating ball that allowed for more durability and greater typing speed, because there were no keys to jam-up or stick together.

The Blickensderfer typewriter No. 6 with a DHIATENSOR keyboard, advertised as the “five pound secretary”. From the SPARK Museum’s collection

(Anyone old enough to have typed on an IBM Selectric typewriter —considered the greatest electric typewriter ever—will recognize the similar “ball” design. Blickensderfer introduced the interchangeable typewheel 70 years earlier.)

The first laptop!

In 1910 George Blickensderfer introduced the Blickensderfer No.6, which was cast in aluminum instead of iron, making it a lighter version of the No.5. The aluminum version also appeared as the Blickensderfer Featherweight. These typewriters weighed only 5 pounds and were widely marketed as “The Five-Pound Secretary”.

But what made Blickensderfer typewriters truly remarkable was their claim to produce the healthiest, most “scientific” typewriter on the market.

Where the QWERTY keyboard was designed for purely mechanical reasons, the Blickensderfer’s DHIATENSOR keyboard was advertised as more “scientifically” safe, efficient, functional.

Blickensderfer determined that 80% of words in the English language contained these ten letters:


By placing these top 10 letters on the bottom row, the typist can minimize extraneous hand movement, and increase efficiency. People loved his portable typewriters, especially travelers. Blickensderfer sold tens of thousands of his typewriters world-wide, a remaining a popular contender in the typewriter industry up to the First World War.

Unfortunately for Blickensderfer, the QWERTY challenge was too popular and widespread. All that competition, all those business schools and typing classes soon overwhelmed the market with QWERTY converts.

Typing 101

In a desperate attempt to stay competitive, Blickensderfer was forced to produce both the QWERTY keyboard design along with his own DHIATENSOR version, required anyone who purchased his typewriter using the “inferior QWERTY design”, to sign a disclaimer stating the Blickensderfer company was not responsible for any health risks.

Soon, DHIATENSOR became a dinosaur, and the quirky QWERTY keyboard went on to dominate the world market for the next 100 years and beyond.

Is this really the best we can do? Apparently so.

Other inventors and manufacturers have introduced alternative keyboard layouts since, most notably the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard. Yet, despite these challenges, and the advancements in keyboard technology, we seem to be stuck with QWERTY mainly because it works. Not great, not the most logical, but it works, and no one has the energy to take it any further.

And even though the QWERTY layout is less than ideal, it’s still pretty efficient. With a little training, most people can average 40-60 wpm, no problem. Reminds me of my old typing teacher, Chuck Kelso, who could type like a jackhammer.

Chuck was a very big man, and had thick fingers like sausages, which he turned into blurry pistons as he tapped-out 90 plus words a minute on an old Smith Corona Sterling. No musician has ever played their instrument more skillfuly, and I think of dear Chuck every time I put my fingers on those keys that make absolutely no sense whatsoever.

Stay grounded.


Jenkins, John D. Where Discovery Sparks Imagination: A Pictorial History of Radio and Electricity . SPARK Museum of Electrical Invention, 2009.