By Tom Anderson
It will be of no surprise to you if I said I am writing this article on a keyboard whose first row of letters spells out QWERTYUIOP. Rather, it would be worthy of note if I was writing it through any other means. The QWERTY keyboard is one of the most ubiquitous things in modern life, whether it be the physical keyboard attached to a computer like the one I am using or an on-screen touchscreen attempt at the same. I speak of the anglophone world, but minor variations such as the French AZERTY keyboard are also the norm in other latin alphabet-based languages, with suitable additions of special characters for accented letters in those languages. QWERTY is a thread of commonality that stretches back to the late nineteenth century and the first mechanical typewriters, yet divorced from that invention the arrangement of letters seems bizarre and alien.
Alternate history writer Harry Turtledove dwells on this point interestingly in his time travel book The Guns of the South. Near the end of the book, Robert E. Lee in 1865 encounters a time traveller’s computer and dubs it a ‘qwerty’ after what he finds to be the striking feature of the arrangement of letters. But if the scene had happened less than two decades later, a man from slightly later in the nineteenth century would conversely have been shocked to see a futuristic device with an almost identically familiar layout to his Remington No. 2 typewriter at home.
It should be obvious upon a moment’s reflection that the choice of the QWERTY layout has impacted on world history. The nature of typographical errors are a clear example. The writing of this article was prompted when a fellow poster on the Sea Lion Press discussion forums took issue with the proximity of the letters U and I on the top row of the keyboard. He had been writing a number of emails related to the Covid-19 pandemic using the phrase ‘shut down’ and, well, I don’t have to draw you a picture. Why is the letter I next to U? To answer this question and many others, I embarked on some research.
From a twenty-first century perspective, the manual typewriter now lies sufficiently in the past to be a romantic object, associated with a particular era of writing, desirable by some modern writers who want to immerse themselves in that era. To us, it feels like a deliberate act of bohemian archaicism, perhaps, dismissing the convenience of writing on a computer for the analogue reality of hammering the keys (indeed, typewriter-like mechanical computer keyboards are popular with some writers). The historiography of this is fascinating, and in some ways parallels that of vinyl records. I lived through the 1990s, an era in which both typewriters and LPs were generally portrayed as archaic remnants of the analogue twentieth century, soon to be displaced by the digital revolution of the twenty-first. Today both have enjoyed something of a renaissance to varying degrees. However, at the time when they came about (the earliest records not long after the earliest typewriters) they were viewed very differently: as workmanlike, utilitarian inventions that had the power to change the world. In the context of today, we see a typewriter as deliberately embracing inconvenience for the sake of authenticity, but at the end of the nineteenth century they were conversely thought of as bringing greater convenience and placing the power of the print shop in the hands of a single individual.
Before typewriters, the only way to print typewritten text was using a printing press or related technologies. The great revolution of the fifteenth century in Europe had been the invention of the moveable type printing press (which already existed in China, but it is not clear if the two are connected). Prior to the printing press, manuscripts were either painstakingly copied by hand, or entire pages were engraved onto wood blocks, then coated with ink and stamped on paper. Though woodblock printing continued for images later on, it always suffered from the block wearing out quickly and the fact that the engraving had to be done as a mirror image. With Gutenberg’s printing press came a revolution. Mirrored letters were cast on small blocks of a lead-based metal alloy; the printer could then assemble them into words and paragraphs of reversed text on a frame. Coated with ink like the old wood blocks, many copies of a page could be printed; then when the print run was ended, the words would be broken up and the letters reassembled to make the words for a new printing. This eventually allowed, for example, daily print runs of newspapers. The printing press led to more widespread literacy in Europe and ultimately made the Protestant Reformation possible.
Yet assembling the metal type was still a difficult process, requiring professional skill. Mistakes were common, not least because printers had to think in reverse when assembling their type. One theory says that the English saying ‘mind your ps and qs’ comes from the possibility of mistaking one lowercase letter for its mirrored counterpart, and accidentally printing that the qrince and the pueen odserveb the oqening of qarliament. (‘Uppercase’ and ‘lowercase’ certainly derive from the physical cases used to contain the type for the different letters to keep them separate). However, many etymologists consider this origin unlikely, not least because the box of Ps would be much bigger than the box of Qs. It was around this time that printing led to more observation of which letters were most common in a language, which ultimately led to a number of decisions on spelling and abbreviations which persist to this day. The Welsh language today lacks the letter K and spells hard K sounds with a C, as in the Welsh word for Wales, Cymru, which is pronounced Kumry using English orthography. Though this looks odd to English-speakers, in fact the reason for the universal C is because early Welsh printers had to use English typesets, with numbers of letters based on their frequency in English. K is a very uncommon letter in English (though not all contestants on America’s Wheel of Fortune appear to have realised this) and so Welsh, which previously had used Ks, ended up using Cs for everything. Conversely, the Finnish language had a type orthography developed by the Lutheran bishop Mikael Agricola in the 1500s, which drew more on Swedish and German norms, so did use Ks. Centuries later, J. R. R. Tolkien was able to give his Elvish languages a distinctive look due to taking his original inspiration from K-using Finnish, but using the very different orthography of C-using Latin and Welsh (for two different linguistic forms, Quenya and Sindarin).
To return to the typewriter, the device suddenly put the ability of a basic print shop in the hands of one person. The cast letters were now attached to arms which could lash out and strike the page when the corresponding keys were struck, collecting ink from an ink-soaked ribbon that was moved along to keep it fresh. The basic mechanical arrangement of typewriter keys linked to letters is quite similar to the keys of a piano linked to hammers striking strings, albeit as David Macauley observed in The Way Things Work, a typewriter is always played fortissimo! Rather than having to painstakingly arrange letter blocks to create a single page copied from a handwritten original, a writer could type their thoughts directly onto the page, the machine ‘assembling’ each letter in turn. This does beg the question of why typewriters did not emerge earlier, and indeed there were many earlier attempts, but ultimately typewriters could not succeed as a business proposition until they were at least as fast as handwriting. The concept of hitting a key to produce a letter already existed; to try to simplify the process of sending telegrams (where letters had to be converted to Morse code or similar), Royal Earl House developed the Printing Telegraph in 1846. To our modern eyes, this device looks suspiciously like the result of a time traveller describing computer keyboards to a confused gentleman of the 1840s who misunderstood: it is a literal keyboard, as in piano keyboard, with letters and numbers on the black and white keys!
The first successful typewriter was Denmark’s ‘Hansen Writing Ball’ of 1865, which though a moderate commercial success at the time (first manufactured 1870), is more of a curiosity and a side-turning in the history of the typewriter. Looking nothing like the typewriters we know, the Writing Ball provides ample inspiration for alternate history authors looking for a way to make everyday items in an allohistorical world look different. The Ball’s inventor, the Revd Rasmus Malling-Hansen, developed the original to help deaf-mute people communicate, and such aid for disabled people had been the primary inspiration for most of the earlier typewriter designs. The Writing Ball, however, was sufficiently well designed that it was actually faster than writing by hand in the hands of a capable operator. Hansen reportedly experimented with different placements of the keys to find the fastest and most efficient writing speed. If history had gone differently, today we might be talking about the XWULRGFZ keyboard layout as the norm!
But it was not to be. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, United States, a different approach to the typewriter was taking shape. This was known as the Sholes and Glidden typewriter after two of its inventors, the printer Christopher Latham Sholes and Carlos S. Glidden, though others were involved. Glidden had read an article in 1867 in Scientific American magazine which described an invention by John Jonathon Pratt called a ‘Pterotype’. Glidden and Sholes felt the machine could be improved upon. Together with fellow printer Samuel W. Soule and a German clockmaker named Mathias Schwalbach, they developed a machine with the original intent of using it to print page numbers in books and dates and serial numbers on tickets. A single key mechanism was developed for the letter ‘W’, taking it from a telegraph, and tested in isolation before a full prototype was constructed.
It was at this time that Sholes developed the QWERTY keyboard, trying out different arrangements. An example from 1870 had a top row reading AEI.?YUO, (the comma is on the keyboard, not in this article!) but by 1873 it had become the much more familiar-looking QWE.TYUIOP, with only the R out of place on the top row.
Early investor James Densmore was not impressed, and felt it was only a proof of concept, but manufacturing began regardless. A few years later, and after a disillusioned Sholes was bought out, Densmore took over the interest and sold it to Remington, a US Civil War arms manufacturer now looking to find new uses for its talented machinists and empty factories in an era of peace. The typewriter was further refined and manufactured in bulk alongside the sewing machine, another huge technological breakthrough of mass manufacture, and indeed the typewriters often had a similar case aesthetic. By the time the Remington patent was filed in 1878, the keyboard looked almost identical to the QWERTY we know and love, save that the M was at the end of the second rather than third row, and the letters X and C were reversed.
There remain a number of persistent urban myths as to why the QWERTY layout was chosen. A common one is that it was selected to prevent the typewriter jamming, but plenty of other layouts could be shown to do that. (And some of us, like the author, have managed to jam QWERTY typewriters anyway!) Sometimes this is framed in terms of saying that QWERTY was selected to deliberately slow down typists to prevent such a jam, usually as part of an argument to say the layout is outdated and should be replaced in today’s era of electronic keyborads. There is no evidence that this is the case, and it should be filed under the same conspiracy theorising as advocates of the Peters world map projection claiming the Mercator projection is some sort of diabolical European imperialist scheme to make Africa look smaller than it is. (Of course, the Mercator projection was a tool of European imperialism, but for the rather more prosaic reason that it revolutionised navigation and made it easier to consistently find and sail to countries in order to colonise them!)
Having said that, QWERTY is also not some perfect state. Near the end of his life, Sholes worked on a new, unrelated typewriter with a keyboard layout that began XPMCHRT. Clearly not even the architect of QWERTY was convinced of its universal applicability. So why has QWERTY become so universal to this day?
The first Remington typewriters were not commercially successful, in part because they could only print capital letters; then as now (witness ‘shouting’ in capitals on the internet) people found this vulgar and unrefined. However, Remington determinedly kept on promoting and refining the device, making improvements such as adding lowercase letters and making the paper visible as it was printed on (though competitors got there first). The improved Remington No. 2 shot to widespread success, bringing the QWERTY keyboard with it. One consequence of the association of typewriters with sewing machines, as well as the tone of the marketing campaign, was that becoming a trained typist became a new major area of employment for women. Throughout the twentieth century this association continued, and though it eventually became a target of feminist criticism (associating women with lower-paid secretarial jobs) in the shorter term it made it possible for millions of women to make an independent income in a respectable occupation. This ultimately paved the way for related sources of mass female employment in skilled technical occupations, such as telephone exchange operators and computer terminal operators in mainframes. In the 1970s, my father, who then worked at the Inland Revenue, was once asked by a visitor from headquarters who had the most important role in the office, perhaps expecting him to say the boss. My father astonished him by stating it was the lady who operated the computer and switchboard, because the office had continued fine when the boss was on holiday, but when she had been unexpectedly ill the entirety of business had ground to a halt. A similar factor was used in fiction in the sitcom As Time Goes By, in which a young soldier in the Korean War (Geoffrey Palmer) and a nurse (Judi Dench) meet again decades later, a missing letter having led both to believe the other had broken off their relationship. Palmer’s character has to adapt to the fact that Dench’s built a career from her first typing job and now runs an entire secretarial agency, while his own attempts at farming in Kenya were rather less successful.
In the 1890s, as was common in the US at the time, a number of companies came together to form a ‘trust’ or price-fixing cartel, in this case Union Typewriter Company. (American Progressive politicians at the time were known as ‘trustbusters’ as they campaigned against this, and the passage of the Seventeenth Amendment to make Senators directly elected was in part motivated by the idea that state legislatures could be bought out by the trusts). This cartel used Remington’s QWERTY keyboard layout, and this cemented it as the norm. Quite possibly folk of the 1890s would be surprised to find the keyboard still in use; as people have been trained generation after generation to use that keyboard, it has been retained on teletype terminals, word processors, computer keyboards and more. It is now a self-perpetuating entity, and despite reform attempts like the Dvorak keyboard, it is unlikely it will ever significantly change again. Remnants of vanished technologies continue, like the fact that the Enter key is still sometimes called Return (as in Carriage Return, moving to the next line on a page) and the Shift key once literally shifted the ribbon so that the uppercase rather than lowercase part of the hammer would strike it. Incidentally, the BBC Micro computer of the 1980s, which I learned in part to type on, had a Shift Lock as well as a Caps Lock key, in case one wanted to use the symbols on the row of numbers without having to hold Shift; to this day I still reflexively wonder where it is on my PC keyboard. Peculiarities due to arguing over international keyboard standards are also the reason why some Americans think the # symbol is called the ‘pound sign’; on one version of American keyboards the British pound sign £ was the shifted key of the number 3 (as it still is in Britain) but it was then changed to the hash sign or square sign #.
But what about the question we began with: just why is the letter I next to the letter U? Well, according to research by Koichi and Motoka Yasuoka, it appears Sholes made this decision because of its proximity to the number 8 on the row of numbers above the first row of letters. Looking at early Remington typewriter keyboards, one notices that this row of numbers is incomplete, starting with 2 rather than 1. The reason for this is that telegraph operators of the day routinely used the capital I interchangeably to stand for 1. In the 1870s, of course, everyone was constantly having to type dates that started with 18... So naturally Sholes put the I right below the 8, allowing typists to learn a quick little flourish to dispose of those two numbers easily. To be charitable, one could argue this was still relevant for dates starting with 19... for the following century, but we are now 20 years into this no longer being relevant. Yet I suspect my colleague will still have to resign himself to apologising for misspelt ‘shut down’, as I doubt we are going to see the letter O or P replaced with the number 2 to facilitate the typing of 21st century dates.
I leave you with a final observation: consider the number of science fiction and fantasy authors who have created alien or fantastical names. Even if it is not their intention, how many of them have been influenced by the layout of the keyboard? Not that I would ever do this, says the creator of alien words such as tyuidf and Ghujil...
Tom Anderson is the author of SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions, Cometh the Hour), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, The Surly Bonds of Earth and Well met by Starlight.