What Is a QWERTY Keyboard?

By: Chris Pollette  | 
keyboard on tablet or phone
QWERTY keyboards are standard on computers, tablets and smartphones. pictafolio/Getty Images

If you were to look at the standard keyboard layout for a computer or phone, you would immediately see that the keys are not arranged in alphabetical order. In fact, the top row of keys has the letters Q, W, E, R, T and Y. The QWERTY keyboard is so-called because it's named for those six letters or keystrokes. But who came up with that order? And is it really the best one to use?


History of the QWERTY Keyboard Layout

QWERTY keyboard arrangemen
An example of the standard QWERTY keyboard arrangement. Common two-letter combinations were on opposite sides of the keyboard. Wikipedia

In 1874 Remington & Sons manufactured the first commercial typewriter, called the Sholes and Glidden Type Writer, or Remington Number 1. This typewriter used a mechanism designed by Christopher Latham Sholes and Carlos Glidden. The two men and Samuel Soule patented the design. Later, looking for funding to continue their work, Sholes contacted a former business partner named James Densmore. He encouraged Sholes to improve his designs while buying out Glidden and Soule's shares in the venture when they left.

To manufacture the new device, Densmore and his associate George Washington Yost reached out to E. Remington and Sons, which was looking for new sources of income after the American Civil War when the need for firearms began dropping off. The company had already started making sewing machines, and soon agreed to manufacture the new typewriter, too. Perhaps uncoincidentally, it looked a lot like a sewing machine.


But the QWERTY keyboard design wasn't used on the first machines. Originally, the inventors planned to use a two-row keyboard with the letters in alphabetical order. The QWERTY keyboard layout wasn't patented until 1878, after Remington's first typewriters were already on the market.

The Sholes and Glidden machines used a mechanism in which each key on the keyboard connected with a metal bar with the corresponding letter. When a key was struck, a linkage swung the bar into a tape, or ribbon, coated with ink. The character hit the ribbon and created an impression of the character onto the paper, which was positioned behind the tape. The bar then settled back into place until the key was pressed again.

Unfortunately, as Sholes realized, typewriters using this design had a significant problem. The faster someone typed with these machines, the less time each letter bar had to return to place before another rose to strike the ribbon. They often collided with each other and jammed the machines. The popular story goes that Sholes created the QWERTY keyboard with the most common letters in hard to reach spots, to slow typists down and try to avoid this problem.

That may be the story, but as it turns out, Densmore was probably the one who came up with QWERTY. The layout was probably created so that common two-letter combinations were on opposite sides of the keyboard or between the typist's two hands for efficiency. But it wasn't long before people started analyzing the QWERTY design to see if there was an alternate layout that was better.


The Dvorak Keyboard Layout

Dvorak keyboard arrangement
An example of the Dvorak keyboard arrangement. This layout tries to minimize the distance traveled by a typist's fingers. All the vowels are on the left. Wikipedia

August Dvorak, formerly the director of research at the University of Washington and by the 1940s a Lieutenant Commander with the U.S. Navy Reserve, worked with a group of engineers to analyze 250 keyboard variations, including QWERTY, which they decided was among the worst designs. More than 50 percent of typing on the QWERTY keyboard falls to the left hand and many common words are typed with the left hand alone. Of course, most people are right-handed, so in Dvorak's view the keyboard gave too much work to the non-dominant hand.

The engineers also noted how often the typist's fingers had to leave the home row of keys to reach other keys. More than 3,000 words are typed by only the "weaker" left hand.


To improve efficiency over the QWERTY keyboard, Dvorak created his own design. He said it was based on scientific evidence of how often certain letters are used as well as how frequently some common words are typed. Dvorak patented his Dvorak Simplified Keyboard (D.S.K.) design in 1936. The Dvorak keyboard layout tries to minimize the distance traveled by the fingers. It also tries to distribute the work equally between the typist's hands as possible for efficiency's sake.

On the Dvorak layout, the most commonly used letters are in the home row so the typist's fingers don't have to move as much while typing. The left hand has all of the vowels and some nearby consonants and the right hand has only consonants. There are very few words in the English language that can be typed with only one hand on the Dvorak keyboard (two are "papaya" and "opaque"). Both "pumpkin" and "minimum" can be typed with one hand on a QWERTY keyboard — give it a try.


Is the Dvorak Better than QWERTY?

In his article "There is a Better Typewriter Keyboard," Dvorak refers to the established QWERTY layout "the so-called Standard Keyboard." If he were around today, he might be sad to learn that the American National Standards Institute has, in fact, certified the QWERTY layout as the standard for computer keyboards. Perhaps adding insult to injury, the International Organization for Standardization keyboard has a slightly different layout – but the QWERTY keys are (usually) in the same order or have additional keys for frequently used diacritics (like accent marks).

Some argue the Dvorak keyboard is no more efficient than QWERTY. A 1956 report by Dr. Earl P. Strong, sponsored by the U.S. General Services Administration, concluded that typists re-trained on the D.S.K. were only faster and more accurate than QWERTY typists in longer exercises they used in the experiment. Strong concluded that switching to Dvorak-keyboard typewriters was not worth the investment in new equipment and re-training QWERTY typists.


If you want to see for yourself, you can switch your keyboard to a Dvorak configuration just by changing a setting on your computer's operating system. Depending on your keyboard, you may even be able to switch the keys to rearrange them in the Dvorak layout.


Who invented the QWERTY keyboard?
In 1874, Remington & Sons came up with Remington Number 1, the first commercial typewriter. It was invented by Christopher Sholes who implemented the QWERTY keyboard on it.
Why is the QWERTY keyboard arranged the way it is?
Sholes’ early prototype had an issue where the bars used to collide with each other. So he arranged the keys in a pattern where the most commonly used letters were spread apart.
Is Dvorak better than QWERTY?
While Dvorak is said to be more ergonomic, typists have approximately the same speed whether they’re using QWERTY or Dvorak keyboards.
What keyboard was used before QWERTY?
The early typewriter utilized a mechanism with characters placed at the bar’s end region. Whenever a key was pressed, the linkage would swing the bar into an ink-coated tape. The characters’ impression was applied to the paper, which was positioned behind the tape.