Why isn’t the keyboard just in alphabetical order? Or some other order that makes sense?
Hunt… and peck. Hunt… and peck. No, it’s not the first robin of spring out looking for worms. It’s what most of us do when we have to type. Whether it’s a devar Torah, a project for school, or an invitation to a special event, hardly anyone can get by without typing. And unless you put in a lot of time learning, you’re probably like most people — hunting for the keys you need.
Why isn’t the keyboard just in alphabetical order? Or some other order that makes sense? Why put common letters like E and A around the edges and less-common letters like K right in the center?
You might have heard rumors that old typewriters used to get jammed, so they scrambled the letters on purpose to slow people down. But that’s not the whole story….
From Handwriting to Print
Up until the 1800s, if you needed something written, you did it by hand. That’s how the Rambam wrote the Mishneh Torah in the 1100s, and for most of history, there was no other way. But that changed in the 1400s when Johannes Gutenberg invented his printing press.
The printing press used movable type. That meant you could arrange individual letters to create whole pages. Before that, if you wanted to print a page many times, you had to carve out all the letters (in reverse) from wood. It’s easy to see why it was usually easier to copy the pages out by hand!
Movable type made it fast and easy to arrange letters into sturdy metal blocks of text that could be used over and over, making it possible to print hundreds, or even thousands, of books, posters, and newspapers.
It’s hard to imagine how incredible this was. Before this, most homes didn’t have a siddur or Chumash. The first Hebrew book ever printed, in 1483, was an edition of Maseches Berachos, and many printed seforim followed soon after, including a Shulchan Aruch published in 1574 during Rav Yosef Karo’s lifetime. Soon after came printed editions with the Rema’s commentary, suddenly making learning far more accessible.
But still, for people writing books, articles, or letters, the only way to do it was to write them by hand.
The Communication Revolution
Life in those days had a slower pace. Most businesses were small and local, and nobody really needed to write much, or fast, or neatly. All of that changed with the industrial revolution.
In the late 1700s, people started inventing machines that took over many tasks that until then were done by hand. It started with fabric manufacturing, but quickly spread to newer ways of making metals, chemicals, glass, cement, and paper — the latter of which was especially significant because when paper was handmade, it was very expensive.
It’s no coincidence that the late 1700s is when the United States was also starting to invent machinery. Europe was overpopulated, so labor was cheap. Before the invention of photocopiers, law firms needing multiple copies of important court documents would hire “scriveners,” people who sat and wrote copies. (In poorer countries today, some people are still paid to read and write letters and other documents for people who can’t.)
However, the United States didn’t have so many people. And after the American Revolution in 1775, Americans were desperate for more efficient ways to work. That led to advances in farming, factories, transportation, and communication, including the telegraph, the telephone, photography, the gramophone… and the typewriter.
By the late 1800s, many inventors had tried creating a typing machine. Finally, in the 1860s, Christopher Latham Sholes from Wisconsin, along with two friends, heard about British attempts to build a “literary piano.” Early typing inventions not only had keys, like a piano; they were also enormous! Sholes wanted to create a smaller machine that could be mass produced.
In 1868, Sholes created the first practical typewriter. It wrote faster than a pen, and it was small enough to be mass produced and used in offices and factories. He signed a contract with New York gun manufacturer E. Remington and Sons, who started selling Sholes’s typewriters in 1874.
The QWERTY Layout
So who chose the keyboard layout we all love to hate — and why?
The most common English keyboard layout is known as QWERTY from the first six letters on the top row. But why didn’t Sholes just put the letters into alphabetical order?
One legend says he created the QWERTY layout to slow typists down. To prove it, people point to the fact that some common letter combinations are at opposite ends of the keyboard. But if that’s true, why are ER and ED, commonly used together, right next to each other?
Those first typewriters definitely did get jammed. Obviously, Sholes wanted to prevent jamming if he could. But the main way he did that was not by scrambling the keys but by having telegraph operators test typewriters and find ways to improve the design.
One early Sholes design actually did lay the letters out in alphabetical order. But to attract customers, he shifted the design around to be similar to layouts used by similar machines. For instance, Morse code operators needed to be able to easily reach the E, Z, and S keys — so those keys were placed conveniently together.
A simpler reason was that Sholes and Remington weren’t legally allowed to use keyboard layouts that had been patented by other companies. So they made small changes to previous keyboards to come up with QWERTY.
Does that mean we’re stuck with QWERTY? A few people have tried to do better. The most famous is Dvorak, patented in 1936, which places all the vowels on the home row (the middle row). Some say it makes typing faster, but this has never been proven. And if you learn another layout, you’ll have trouble switching if you ever need to use a standard keyboard.
Typewriter Evolution… and Extinction
Along with the awkward QWERTY layout, many features from those first typewriters became universal: the round cylinder to hold the paper in place, the carriage return to bring the writer down to the next line, and the inked ribbon that moved along as a person typed.
But there were also continuous improvements. In 1878, Remington introduced the Shift key; earlier models could only type in upper case.
Soon, every office, factory, school, and even many homes had typewriters. Thomas Edison actually had invented an electric typing machine in 1872, but the first successful electric typewriter was IBM’s Selectric in 1961, which sold until 1986, when it became clear that typewriters didn’t have much of a future.
At first, computers used heavy, mechanical keyboards (some even included a bell that would ring if there was a problem). In contrast, today’s keyboards are light, easy to plug in or move around, and quite standardized.
Computer keyboards borrowed some keys from typewriters, including Shift, Caps Lock, and the Space bar and added special keys like the Control key (Ctrl or ⌘ on Apple computers), that provide convenient access to common functions.
Not every development has been positive. In the 1980s, trying to make a childproof keyboard, Atari created a completely flat “membrane keyboard.” Without the feel and sound of pressing keys, they were nearly impossible to use and caused lots of mistakes.
Today, most computer keyboards actually are membrane keyboards — with keys on top to make typing easier (full-sized keys on a desktop or “chiclet” keys on a laptop). However, people who type a lot prefer keyboards with mechanical switches to customize the keys’ pressure, feel, and sound — in some cases making them more like typewriter keyboards!
What about Hebrew?
Are Hebrew speakers just as confused by their keyboards? Yes! After Remington released its English keyboard, Yiddish writers started clamoring for a keyboard of their own. Remington produced its first Yiddish typewriter in 1903, placing the most common Yiddish vowels were in the center — ayin, alef, and yud — along with special keys for writing in Yiddish, like the common double characters, (two vavs and two yuds), along with kamatz-alef.
Typewriters were a big part of spreading Yiddish culture throughout Europe and the US in the early 1900s. Over time, as more people started writing in Hebrew, the Yiddish keys were exchanged for Hebrew. In 2016, the Standards Institution of Israel introduced a new layout to make the keyboard less confusing — but hardly anybody has switched. One thing does make learning to type in Hebrew much easier than English, though — there are no capital letters, so you hardly ever need the Shift key!
The Future of Keyboards
Now that so many people spend so much time typing, companies have introduced some bizarre-looking keyboards, usually created to prevent wrist strain and make typing easier. Some are split in the middle; some bend or come apart completely, so you can rest your hands comfortably. If you don’t have much desk space, there’s a laser projector keyboard that shines an image of the keys down on any tabletop. Or, for a challenge, try the orbiTouch Keyless Keyboard; just wiggle its two domes to choose what letter you want to type, which may help people with disabilities. They’ve even made keyboards for children with letters in alphabetical order. But if you learn to type that way, you may have a hard time switching.
If you’re like most people, though, you’ll just stick with the keyboard that came with your computer. So try it out before buying. Look for raised bumps on the F and J keys (even if you don’t touch-type, those help you find your way around) and feedback in the form of a “click” when you press. That will keep you from making mistakes.
The biggest modern development has been voice typing. Programs to translate speech into text have been around for a while; for at least half a century experts have predicted that reliable speech recognition is around the corner. In 2011, Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon introduced products that let people talk to computers and they have improved steadily ever since.
Does that mean that soon we’ll all be talking instead of typing? Probably not. Voice recognition is still far from perfect. For one thing, most of these programs can’t handle “foreign” words, so dictating a shopping list can get complicated: think “good filter fish” instead of gefilte fish and “other scandals” instead of Shabbos candles. However this technology is already making life easier for people with disabilities who find typing difficult or impossible.
Meanwhile, if you’re stuck with the classic QWERTY layout, hopefully its long, long history — going all the way back to Gutenberg — will inspire you. With a little hunting and pecking, your keyboard can help you communicate with distant relatives, create a fabulous book report, send a letter to a local politician, or make a gorgeous sign welcoming guests. Typewriters may have faded away, but their descendants are still changing lives every day
5 fascinating keyboard facts
When early typing machines were first invented, like the Hughes-Phelps Printing Telegraph in the late 1800s, they had ebony and ivory keys like a piano. Many early typing devices were built into wooden cabinets, just like pianos.
Typewriters were banned in the Ottoman Empire from 1901 to 1929. The sultan feared that typewriters might let citizens plan a revolution to overthrow the government.
Did you know you can spell TYPEWRITER using only the top row of keys? Try it! Some people say this was put in as a feature so salespeople could show them off in the store….
Typing created cleaner, safer jobs for women. Sholes designed the early Remington typewriters to look like sewing machines to make them friendlier for women, and until computers became common, men would often dictate letters for women to type up.
The first book written completely on a typewriter was Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi in 1883. He wound up hating that “newfangled typing machine” so much that he tried to give it away — but none of his friends wanted it either!
Typing Classes in the 1980s
Growing up before computers, I never thought about typing. But in eighth grade, my mother said I had to sign up for typing class. I protested: “What am I ever going to need that for?” The typewriter desks were arranged in a half-circle amphitheater with the teacher’s desk at the bottom. Of course, there were no letters printed on the keys. In fact, the typewriters weren’t even electric, so you needed strong fingers — and the keys kept getting jammed, so we’d have to call the teacher over.
As she prowled the room behind us, we spent our time typing rows and rows of “big fat dog” “cute cut cat” and the names of European capital cities (Amsterdam, Brussels, London, and most obnoxiously, Graven-Haag — which most people know as The Hague.). When the teacher wasn’t looking, my best friend and I wrote a serial novel starring all our friends. So even though I was constantly in trouble, I actually did learn to type. And now that I make my living typing — as a journalist and writer — I thank my mother every day for making me learn. Even if at the time I thought there was no way I would ever, ever use it!
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 893)
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