Why keyboard keys aren’t listed alphabetically

Many of us type on keyboards on a daily basis without giving any thought to its layout. It just works, but why exactly do we use this layout? If you think it’s a carry-over from days past to slow typists down or the result of research to group commonly used keys together, it’s not true! Read on.

Most English keyboards used today use the QWERTY format, which takes its name from the first six letters appearing on the keyboard. Its design is based on a layout originally created by Christopher Latham Sholes for the Sholes and Glidden typewriter in 1873. Sholes actually began with an alphabetical layout spread across 2 rows, but jams became a major issue. When pressing certain two letter combinations (e.g., “St”) together or in quick succession, the metal arms mounting the characters would collide or become jammed.

Contrary to popular belief, no one wanted to solve this problem by slowing typists down. Rather, Sholes rearranged the layout so that commonly-used letter pairs were not close together on the keyboard, avoiding jams of the connecting metal arms, and thus allowing typists to continue typing fast.

The Sholes layout was sold to Remington later in 1873. Their engineers tweaked the layout even more to get what is almost the same as the modern QWERTY layout. They moved the letter R so that their TYPE WRITER brand could be typed using only one keyboard row, which was an impressive marketing scheme at the time!

If you look at your keyboard, you will notice that the keys are not arranged in a grid, but instead each column is slanted horizontally. This was required by early typewriters to prevent the mechanical arms attached to each key from bumping into each other.

Some keys we take for granted were not part of the original layout. Both exclamation marks (!) and the number 1 didn’t exist on some typewriter keyboards until the 1970’s. This saved production costs, as the lower case L could be used for the number 1, and an exclamation mark could be created using three keys – an apostrophe, back-space, and a period. The number zero was also initially left off, as the letter O could be used, but it was added early on.

So now you have a brief history of the QWERTY keyboard’s layout, and can correct your friends the next time you hear them say its design goal was to create slow typists. Nothing could be farther from the truth!


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