Disappointingly the tale that the QWERTY keyboard arrangement was invented to slow typists down so that those long spider-like arms carrying the types wouldn’t get entangled turns out to be untrue. The Digital Reader alerts us to a Japanese research paper which debunks the attractive idea.
The real reason is more prosaic but much more credible. The machine was invented to transcribe Morse code transmissions, and the keyboard layout was dictated by the needs of that medium. They put letters together and moved them apart in order to make quite obvious the distinctions between different letters with similar Morse patterns. Slowing down the operator would definitely not have been a motive: you would want to have your receiver transcribing at the same rate as the sender, not slower. As far as I can tell the early machines with QWERTY keyboards didn’t have those long wiggly arms which would wobble their way up to the platen when you depressed a key, so obviously the layout couldn’t have had anything to do with an as yet uninvented technology. (See the original patent drawing at my earlier post on vertical ellipsis.) As well as adjusting for Morse code confusion, a couple of layout tweaks were made, appropriately for a late-19th-century business story, for no “better” reason than to avoid patent infringement.
The old idea of forcing a slow-down is intuitively so attractive that it’ll no doubt take years for it to be debunked. Here’s expert Naomi Baron recently quoted in the New Scientist to the old, wrong effect: “If you look at the origin of the QWERTY keyboard, it had nothing to do with emotions,” she says. “It had to do with not getting the keys entangled with one another.” Well she is right about it having nothing to do with emotions. The New Scientist‘s focus is on the intriguing idea that the keyboard layout has influenced the way we use words. It sounds pretty far-fetched, but the evidence cited in their earlier article does seem at least not immediately nonsensical. But surely this has got to be nothing more than a coincidental effect. One wonders if Linotype operators with their ETAOIN SHRDLU keyboard would have had different emotional responses to the same words!