q - w - e - r - t , y - u - i - o - p, q - w - e - r - t , y - u - i - o - p, q - w - e - r - t , y - u - i - o - p . . .
It was boring to type the letters in the upper row of my typewriter keyboard 20 times, then go on to the next row. But it was even more boring to lie in bed and do nothing. So when the chicken pox forced me to stay home from school for two weeks, I used the time to learn touch typing. At age ten I, like millions of Americans each year, memorized the QWERTY keyboard (as it is called from its starting arrangement of letters).
At the time, I didn’t wonder about its arbitrariness and never asked myself why our standard keyboard uses the QWERTY arrangement instead of alphabetical order or any other obviously advantageous arrangement. Whatever the original reasons for our adopting QWERTY, however, we now seem firmly committed to it. The typewriter, and its successor the computer, are among the most widely used office machines in the Western world, and keyboard-related repetitive-strain injuries are among our most common industrial accidents.
Commitment is incessantly urged upon us fin de siècle twentieth- century Americans. Commitment to our spouses, our children, and our careers is held to be virtuous; lack of commitment is a common criticism. Yet commitment should be seen as morally neutral. After all, what one is committed to might be either good or bad; commitment to a destructive relationship, an unsatisfying job, or alcoholism deserves no praise. Often, commitment can mean nothing more than an involvement that has outlived its original justification. All of us have at one time or another felt trapped by such a commitment, longing for a happier, though uncertain, state of existence but fearing the short-term pain required to reach it.Commitment is a big issue not only for us as individuals, but for us as a culture as well. All human societies have many apparently arbitrary practices that persist for centuries or even millennia--writing systems, counting systems, sets of number signs, and calendars, to name just a few examples. At one time there existed alternatives to the system that we eventually adopted. Were some of these alternatives better than others? Did we in fact end up committed to the best ones? Are our alphabets, decimal counting, Arabic numerals, and Gregorian calendar really superior to Chinese logograms, Babylonian base-60 counting, Roman numerals, and the Mayan calendar?
Those questions are hard to answer for some of these choices-- counting systems, for instance--to which we became committed in the remote past. But the QWERTY keyboard is a modern-day commitment, dating back only to the late nineteenth century, and thus it is one whose history we can reconstruct. We know that QWERTY is the dominant survivor of dozens of keyboard designs that competed during the early years of the typewriter. Hence we can ask, with the expectation of finding an answer, to what advantages does it owe its triumph?
Studies of the consequences of keyboard design were pioneered by the industrial engineers Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, who were made famous by a biography, Cheaper by the Dozen, written by 2 of their 12 children. The Gilbreths sought to decrease worker fatigue and increase the efficiency of many industrial processes (as well as of surgical operations and buttoning a shirt) by time-and-motion studies and slowed-down motion pictures. Applied to keyboard design, such studies showed that typing fatigue, errors, and slow speed depend especially on bad design in allocating letters among keyboard rows, among fingers, and between the left and right hands.
When you prepare to type, you rest your fingers on QWERTY’s second-from-the-bottom row, called the home row. Obviously, the more typing you can do without having to move your fingers from the home row, the faster you’ll be able to type, the fewer errors you’ll make, and the less you’ll strain your fingers. Confirming that straightforward prediction, motion-picture studies prove that typing is fastest on the home row and slowest on the bottom row.
You might then naively expect that the QWERTY keyboard was designed so that most typing is done on the home row. You would be wrong. Only 32 percent of strokes are on the home row; most strokes (52 percent) are on the upper row; and a full 16 percent are on the bottom row, which you should be avoiding like the plague. Not more than 100 English words can be typed without leaving the home row. The reason for this disaster is simple: QWERTY perversely puts the most common English letters on other rows. The home row of nine letters includes two of the least used (J and K) but none of the three most frequently used (E, T, and O, which are relegated to the upper row) and only one of the five vowels (A), even though 40 percent of all letters in a typical English text are vowels.
To appreciate the consequences of that misdesigning, just remind yourself of how it feels to type pumpkin or minimum on your QWERTY keyboard. Your fingers must not only reach from the home row to the top or bottom but must at times hurdle completely over the home row, moving directly from top to bottom and back again. Those awkward hurdles and reaches slow you and introduce typing errors and finger strain. Unfortunately, out of any 100 pairs of consecutive letters in a typical English text, six require a reach and four a hurdle on the QWERTY keyboard.
These inconveniences are minimized by any of the numerous competing keyboard designs that concentrate the most common English letters onto the home row. For instance, the Dvorak keyboard devotes the home row to nine of the 12 most common English letters--including all five vowels and the three most common consonants (T, H, N)--while the six rarest letters (V, K, J, X, Q, and Z) are relegated to the bottom row. As a result, 70 percent of typing strokes remain on the home row, only 22 percent are on the upper row, and a mere 8 percent are on the hated bottom row; thousands of words can be typed with the home row alone; reaches are five times less frequent than in QWERTY typing, and hurdles hardly ever happen.
Another easily understood vice of the QWERTY keyboard has to do with alternation of hands. Whenever the left and right hands type alternate letters, one hand can be getting into position for the next letter while the other hand is typing the previous one. You can thereby fall into a steady rhythm and type quickly. In reality, though, even a good typist’s speed is seldom steadily maintained. It repeatedly shifts between fast bursts and slow stutters within even a few seconds, and many of the stutters arise from strings of consecutive letters typed by the same hand. The longer the string, the slower the typing rate and the more frequent the errors.
Yet QWERTY typing tends to degenerate into long one-handed strings of letters, especially strings for the weak left hand. More than 3,000 English words utilize QWERTY’s left hand alone, and about 300 the right hand alone. (Try typing exaggerated and greatest, then try million and monopoly). The underlying reason for this shortcoming is that most English syllables contain both vowels and consonants, but QWERTY assigns some vowels (A and E) as well as some common consonants (R, S, and D) to the left hand, and others (I, O, and U, plus H, L, and N) to the right hand. Hence, for about half of all digraphs (two consecutive letters) in a typical English text, QWERTY allocates both letters to the same hand.