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Quirky Qwerty

“Every time I look at the keyboard, I see that U and I are always together.” I have absolutely no idea who to blame for such a shameless abuse of the notion of romance (Google doesn’t know either), so I figure we can blame Qwerty instead. Some may argue that it’s not really a word at all, but it’s one that is in fact worth a respectable 21 points on the Scrabble board.


The Qwerty keyboard, so it goes, was designed by a Milwaukee newspaper editor, port official and senator by the name of Christopher Sholes, who patented the legendary layout in 1867. Typing devices had been in existence in various forms for at least 150 years prior with differing mechanised writing machines developed by independent inventors across the globe, but what many of the designs had in common was a jamming of their keys – especially when typing was conducted at high speed. It was believed that Scholes looked to solve the problem by arranging the letters in a way which made it harder to type, thus slowing the user down and thus preventing the keys from clashing. Remington were the first company to adopt the design, in 1873, and it soon became the go-to layout for most European- as well as English-speaking nations. But not all are convinced of this reasoning behind the key positioning.


A paper published by Kyoto University, titled On the Prehistory of QWERTY, argues that the layout was perfected, rather than invented, by Scholes, from a system formed over time through the transcribing of Morse code. “The researchers tracked the evolution of the typewriter keyboard alongside a record of its early professional users,” reports The Atlantic. “They conclude that the mechanics of the typewriter did not influence keyboard design. Rather, the QWERTY system emerged as a result of how the first typewriters were being used. Early adopters and beta-testers included telegraph operators who needed to quickly transcribe messages. However, the operators found the alphabetical arrangement to be confusing and inefficient for translating morse code. The Kyoto paper suggests that the typewriter keyboard evolved over several years as a direct result of input provided by these telegraph operators.”


“T and H is the most frequently used letter pair in English,” Professor Koichi Yasuoka, co-author of the study, tells the BBC. “In fact in Scholes’s typewriter, the typebar of T and H are located on opposite sides.” He feels the letters were actually parted to speed things up, while the proximity of the E and R points to inefficiency. There was, therefore, no motive to slow things down: “Ergonomics were not a characteristic of mid-19th century design.”


Half-a-century later, US educational psychologist Professor August Duvorak created an eponymous keyboard with a far simpler — and perhaps faster — layout, but Qwerty was already so entrenched in the global psyche that it never quite caught on. With no more need to fret about jamming keys, Qwerty remains the standard a century-and-a-half later. “Imagine you’re on the maiden flight of that new ultra-modern aircraft. the Dreamliner, and you notice it’s being towed to the runway by donkeys. Better still, camels,” muses Stephen Fry in a BBC4 radio show studying the origins the keyboard. “In exactly the same way, the Qwerty keyboard is an ancient system attached to our most modern devices. And like the metaphorical camel, it was designed by way of a series of compromises.”


One interesting theory as to Qwerty’s omnipotence is that it was in Remington’s financial interests for this particular keyboard to become the norm. “Let me explain,” writes Ian D Watson in his book The Universal Machine: From the Dawn of Computing to Digital Consciousness, “Remington didn’t just sell typewriters to businesses; they also ran very lucrative training courses for typists. If a woman (and typists were nearly all women) had been trained on a Remington QWERTY keyboard they would not be able to use any of the competitors’ typewriters without retraining, since they had different keyboard arrangements. Moreover, if they went to work for a new business… they would naturally insist on a Remington.”


There is also evidence that the Qwerty keyboard can affect how we perceive the meaning of words. “We found the predicted relationship between emotional valence and QWERTY key position across three languages (English, Spanish, and Dutch),” reads a study published in the Psychonomic Bulletin and Review. “Words with more right-side letters were rated as more positive in valence, on average, than words with more left-side letters: the QWERTY effect.” The reason being that most people favour their right hand side.


“As we filter language, hundreds or thousands of words, through our fingers, we seem to be connecting the meanings of the words with the physical way they’re typed on the keyboard,” study co-author Kyle Jasmin of University College London tells Wired. “If it’s easy, it tends to lend a positive meaning. If it’s harder, it can go the other way.”


It may have even altered the way we choose names for babies. Researchers at the University of Chicago examined 788 names given to at least a hundred children for the years 1960 to 2012 and found that from around 1990 — when keyboards were becoming more commonplace — favoured names came from the right-side keys. Names invented post-1990, they conclude, “have significantly higher RSAs [right side letters] than names used during the previous three decades.”


“Technology changes words, and by association languages,” Kyle Jasmin concludes. “It’s an important thing to look at.”

Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces