The QWERTY keyboard is slow: True/False?

When the inventors of the typewriter were faced with the problem of fast typists jamming the keys, they put letters that often appear together in English far apart on the keyboard. The result was the QWERTY keyboard (if the name looks like a spelling catastrophe, look at the top row of letter keys on a computer keyboard). Because of a quick and dirty fix in the nineteenth century, the story usually concludes, we have been plagued by inefficiency ever since. The story is true but the conclusion — perpetuated, I suspect, by two-finger typists with chips on their shoulders — is false.

The QWERTY layout of keys is not the absolute best, but it really holds its own. The only serious competition is the Dvorak keyboard developed in the 1930s after much careful analysis and deep thought — yet it is only around 5-15% faster.

How can this be if those shiftless QWERTY inventors deliberately made it slow and clunky? Though it ruins the punchline for cynics the answer is pretty obvious: they didn’t.

There are four goals an efficient keyboard layout should strive for. The left and right hands should be used roughly equally. As much time as possible should be spent in the home, or middle, row. The hands should take turns pressing keys. And using the same finger twice in succession should be avoided.

The problem solved by QWERTY wasn’t really that typists were too fast, but that fast typists jammed the keys because letters that often appear together on the page were also next to each other on the keyboard. Moving these letters far apart from each other fixed the jamming problem and — entirely by accident — produced a layout that met the last two criteria for efficient typing.

QWERTY still does dismally with the first two criteria, but well enough overall. Occasionally you’ll see some iconoclast with a Dvorak keyboard, but the difference has never been big enough to justify switching on a grand scale. The key facts are that QWERTY, while not the fastest possible layout, certainly isn’t slow, either.

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