Bad Habits Part 1 – QWERTY Keyboards

Humans are funny when it comes to technology. We’re eager to adopt new technologies when the difference is trivial, like camping out for days to buy the new iPhone when we still haven’t figured out the old one. But at the same time, we also have a way of getting attached to worthless technologies of the past, just because it’s too much hassle to change.

It turns out old habits die hard. And sometimes, they don’t die at all.


#5. The QWERTY Keyboard

Quick — look at the very computer you’re reading this on. Depending on your level of geekitude, you probably have a plasma monitor and a system running six terabytes of RAM powered by a flux capacitor. But in order to communicate with this futuristic device, you’re still using an archaic system that hasn’t been improved since it was introduced 130 years ago. We’re talking about your keyboard.

Why It’s Inefficient:
When you rest your hands on the “home row” check out what keys you’re touching — A, S, D, F, J, K, L and semicolon. Besides A and S, you’re looking at a line of some of the least-used letters in the English language and possibly the least useful punctuation mark of all time. In fact, your right index finger, the dominant finger on most people’s dominant hand, is sitting on goddamn J, which is worth 8 points in Scrabble for a reason — it’s the fourth-least-used letter, trumped only by the loser letters X, Q and Z.

How did we wind up with this intuition-defying random configuration? Well, back in 1868, when Christopher Sholes and a couple of other guys had just finished inventing the first typing machine, the keys were arranged in alphabetical order (our current middle row shows vestiges of this, with A, D, F, G, H, J, K and L still in order). But there was a problem: Before long, people were mashing away on these fragile early keyboards, which had a tendency to jam when two keys next to each other were pressed in rapid succession.

So Sholes consulted a buddy who had studied up on letter-pair frequency, and he moved the keys that were most often typed together away from each other. After a few other minor tweaks, like moving up the R key, allegedly so that salesmen could impress buyers by typing the word “TYPEWRITER” using only the top row, we had our current QWERTY arrangement. Never mind that the most commonly used letters (E, T, A, O, I, N and S, respectively) were randomly scattered all over, and that it took forever every time you wanted to type “ESTONIA.” Sholes wasn’t trying to make the most ergonomically sound keyboard; in fact, QWERTY is deliberately engineered to slow you down so you don’t have to worry about pesky typewriter jams.

Why We’re Stuck With It:
The only reason we’re still tying our fingers in knots more than a century later is simply because QWERTY got here first.

Since then, several more “scientifically” designed keyboard layouts have been introduced, including Dvorak, Colemak and XPeRT, which no one’s ever heard of but which has an extra “E” on the keyboard.

Now, debate rages over how much faster these alternatives are than QWERTY. But the fastest typist in the world used Dvorak to set her record, and it’s hard to imagine that a layout with a semicolon in the home row would be as fast as one with an extra freaking E.

Speed aside, countless studies show that Dvorak and others are far more ergonomically efficient, requiring fingers to move approximately a third of the distance that QWERTY requires. Oh, and QWERTY also discriminates against right-handed people. Thousands of English words can be spelled using only the left hand, while only a couple of hundred words can be typed using only the right hand. Maybe Sholes just wanted to hold his beer while he typed.

And yet, QWERTY shows little sign of going anywhere, all because of the “first mover” advantage — everybody has already grown up knowing only one way to type, and nobody wants to completely relearn how to type for the possibility of slightly increased speed and comfort, at least until they get carpal tunnel.

Part 2: Cursive writing

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