Where Did We Get Our Keyboard Layout?

(Last Updated On: September 27, 2021)

Have you ever looked at your keyboard and wondered why the keys are the way they are? In case you didn’t know, if your keyboard uses Latin script, it’s basically guaranteed you’re using a standard pattern keyboard–which is named the QWERTY layout. It’s named for the first 6 keys on the first row of letters. So where did QWERTY come from? Where did we get our keyboard layout?

The Layout Lie

One of the most common stories you’ll hear is that the QWERTY layout was designed to slow typists down. The legend is based on typewriters; they would jam if you pressed the keys too quickly. For this reason, manufacturers had to split the commonly used letters apart–this way the typewriter would jam less frequently. Maybe you’ve heard that there was some legendary, fabled keyboard layout used on typewriters before QWERTY came and mucked everything up. 

The first typewriters you’d think of when someone says “typewriter” became commercially available in the 1870s, and the QWERTY layout was basically shipped with it. These typewriters are called “Sholes & Glidden” typewriters, since typewriters or other kinds of keyboards had existed as early as the 1700s (and been repeatedly reinvented). The patent for the QWERTY layout was filed at the same time as the first commercially available typewriters. It was filed by a guy named Christopher Latham Sholes, who is credited as being one of the potential inventors of the first typewriters in the US.

When crediting Sholes with the invention of the QWERTY layout, it’s said that Sholes’ improvement to the keyboard game was to prevent keys from jamming. Common letter sequences were split up between rows, like “th” or “he.” The first time QWERTY appears in a patent is 1878, pretty shortly after the Sholes & Glidden typewriters had become commercially available. By 1893 the largest typewriter manufacturers got together and decided QWERTY would be standard. So broadly, we have QWERTY just because the people making typewriters made typewriters with QWERTY. Which is… Kind of a no-brainer. 

QWERTY Isn’t for Protecting Typewriters

In 2011 Kyoto University published a paper called “On the Prehistory of QWERTY.” They found that QWERTY separating common letter combinations was simply untrue. While the “th” and “he” letter combinations were separate, the 4th most used letter combination is “er,” two keys that are probably right next to each other on your keyboard. So if QWERTY was designed to keep letters often used consecutively apart, then its designers failed miserably. 

Here’s the other big claim: QWERTY is derived from Morse code operators. The QWERTY layout would have been used when Morse operators were sending things back and forth: specifically for receivers transcribing messages coming from senders. Receivers would need to type as fast as they were receiving messages. This means there is no reason to hamper their typing ability; engineering a keyboard layout that made them slower than the sender would simply be foolish. But it’s generally faster to type than it is to communicate through Morse code, and the researchers from Kyoto University argue that the QWERTY layout is actually optimized for quickly receiving Morse messages.

They cite E, S, and Z as one of their primary examples. It was common to confuse these 3 characters when receiving a message. Thus, E would have to be placed near S and Z–so receivers could quickly put in the applicable character once they figured out which was actually the intended letter. 

See if you know what keys are even on your keyboard here.

About the Author:

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Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.