Object lesson No 8

25th February 2000 at 00:00
Younger readers might not remember this but before computers there were things called typewriters (ask your teacher). The keys on the first mechanical writing machines were arranged alphabetically and connected to a rack of bars carrying individual letters. However, speedy typists soon found that the type bars would jam as they jumped up to strike the paper.

So, in 1873 an American, Christopher Latham Sholes separated the type bars of the most frequently occuring letter pairs and called his keyboard qwerty, after the first six letters of the top line.

Arms manufacturer Remington marketed the first typewriter made to Sholes' design in 1874, but it was a flop. It could type only capitals and the keys struck the carriage from underneath - so you couldn't see what you were writing. Like all new technology, it was expensive to start with - the equivalent of pound;800 at today's prices.

After several modifications - a second version of 1878 added the shift bar and lower case letters - typewriter sales took off and it soon became an office icon.

There were several attempts at producing better keyboards. These included the Blickensderfer Scientific of 1889 and one invented by a professor of education, August vorak of Washington State University in 1936. His labour saving solution was to put all the vowels and the most frequently used consonants in the English language along the middle line, producing aoeuidhtns. His layout allowed you to type four times as many commonly occuring words as qwerty without leaving the "home row" and, he said, increased typing speeds by a third.

Ironically, the same claim of faster typing was the selling point of Mr Sholes' keyboard. One apochryphal tale is that the reason why all the letters of the word "typewriter" were placed on the top line was to aid more efficient demonstrations by salesmen.

But these alternatives never caught on while qwerty has, like those old typewriters, stuck. Today, there are only two manual typrewriter makers in the world, Olivetti in Italy and Godrej and Boyce in India, but the qwerty keyboard lives on in every computer - at least until voice recognition becomes general.

But if you think qwerty is quirky, spare a thought for the Chinese. Their complex written language of characters means that typewriters can be several feet wide with more than 2,000 keys - and giant centipedes are the only ones that can touch type.

Harvey McGavin


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