QWERTY is the most common modern-day keyboard layout. The name comes from the first six letters (keys) appearing in the topleft letter row of the keyboard, read left to right: Q-W-E-R-T-Y. The QWERTY design is based on a layout created for the Sholes and Glidden typewriter and sold to Remington in the same year, when it first appeared in typewriters. It became popular with the success of the Remington No. 2 of 1878, and remains in use on electronic keyboards due to the network effect of a standard layout and a belief that alternatives fail to provide very significant advantages. The use and adoption of the QWERTY keyboard is often viewed as one of the most important case studies in open standards because of the widespread, collective adoption and use of the product, particularly in the United States.
Keys are arranged on diagonal columns, to give space for the levers. This layout was devised and created in the early 1870s by Christopher Latham Sholes, a newspaper editor and printer who lived in Milwaukee. With the assistance of his friends Carlos Glidden and Samuel W. Soule he built an early writing machine for which a patent application was filed in October 1867.
The first model constructed by Sholes used a piano-like keyboard with two rows of characters arranged alphabetically as follows:
His “Type Writer” had two features which made jams a serious issue. Firstly, characters were mounted on metal arms or typebars, which would clash and jam if neighboring arms were depressed at the same time or in rapid succession. Secondly, its printing point was located beneath the paper carriage, invisible to the operator, a so-called “up-stroke” design. Consequently, jams were especially serious, because the typist could only discover the mishap by raising the carriage to inspect what he had typed. The solution was to place commonly used letter-pairs (like “th” or “st”) so that their typebars were not neighboring, avoiding jams. While it is often said that QWERTY was designed to “slow down” typists, this is incorrect – it was designed to prevent jams while typing at speed, yet some of the layout decisions, such as placing only one vowel on the home row, did have the effect of hobbling more modern keyboards.
Sholes struggled for the next five years to perfect his invention, making many trial-and-error rearrangements of the original machine’s alphabetical key arrangement. His study of letter-pair frequency by educator Amos Densmore, brother of the financial backer James Densmore, is believed to have influenced the arrangement of letters, but called in question.
In November 1868 he changed the arrangement of the latter half of the alphabet, O to Z, right-to-left. In April 1870 he arrived at a four-row, upper case keyboard approaching the modern QWERTY standard, moving six vowels, A, E, I, O, U, and Y, to the upper row as follows:
In 1873 Sholes’s backer, James Densmore, succeeded in selling manufacturing rights for the Sholes & Glidden Type-Writer to E. Remington and Sons, and within a few months the keyboard layout was finalized by Remington’s mechanics. The keyboard ultimately presented to Remington was arranged as follows:
After it purchased the device, Remington made several adjustments which created a keyboard with what is essentially the modern QWERTY layout. Their adjustments included placing the “R” key in the place previously allotted to the period key (this has been claimed to be done with the purpose of enabling salesmen to impress customers by pecking out the brand name “TYPE WRITER” from one keyboard row but this claim is unsubstantiated). Vestiges of the original alphabetical layout remained in the “home row” sequence DFGHJKL.
The QWERTY layout became popular with the success of the Remington No. 2 of 1878, the first typewriter to include both upper and lower case letters, via a shift key.
Much less commented-on than the order of the keys is that the keys are not on a grid, but rather that each column slants diagonally; this is because of the mechanical linkages – each key being attached to a lever, and hence the offset prevents the levers from running into each other – and has been retained in most electronic keyboards. Some keyboards, such as the Kinesis, retain the QWERTY layout but arrange the keys in vertical columns, to reduce unnecessary lateral finger motion.
The QWERTY layout depicted in Sholes’s 1878 patent includes a few differences from the modern layout, most notably in the absence of the numerals 0 and 1, with each of the remaining numerals shifted one position to the left of their modern counterparts. The letter M is located at the end of the third row to the right of the letter L rather than on the fourth row to the right of the N, the letters X and C are reversed, and most punctuation marks are in different positions or are missing entirely. 0 and 1 were omitted to simplify the design and reduce the manufacturing and maintenance costs; they were chosen specifically because they were “redundant” and could be recreated using other keys. Typists who learned on these machines learned the habit of using the uppercase letter I (or lowercase letter L) for the digit one, and the uppercase O for the zero.
In early designs, some characters were produced by printing two symbols with the carriage in the same position. For instance, the exclamation point, which shares a key with the numeral 1 on modern keyboards, could be reproduced by using a three-stroke combination of an apostrophe, a backspace, and a period. A semicolon (;) was produced by printing a comma (,) over a colon (:). As the backspace key is slow in simple mechanical typewriters (the carriage was heavy and optimized to move in the opposite direction), a more professional approach was to block the carriage by pressing and holding the space bar while printing all characters that needed to be in a shared position. To make this possible, the carriage was designed to advance forward only after releasing the space bar.
The 0 key was added and standardized in its modern position early in the history of the typewriter, but the 1 and exclamation point were left off some typewriter keyboards into the 1970s.