HomeFACTSQWERTY - THE TYPIST'S BURDEN: The machine with the deliberate flaw

QWERTY – THE TYPIST’S BURDEN: The machine with the deliberate flaw

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The job of the typist is made unnecessarily difficult by a deliberate flaw in the basic design of the typewriter itself – the curious layout of its keyboard letters.
As long ago as 1714, Queen Anne granted a patent to an Englishman called Henry Mill for the manufacture of a machine ‘whereby all writings whatsoever may be engrossed on paper or parchment so neat and exact as not to be distinguished from print’.
No one knows how Mill’s invention worked, or even what it looked like, but there were others throughout the world who worked on the same idea.
The first American patent for something like a typewriter was granted in 1829 to William Austin Burt, of Detroit, for ‘Burt’s Family Letter Press’. Four years later, Xavier Projean of Marseilles in France, produced a ‘Machine Criptographique’. It would, he said, record words ‘almost as fast as one could write with an ordinary pen’. Credit for the first modern typewriter, however, belongs to Christopher Sholes, a newspaper editor who lived in Milwaukee in the 1860s. On the Sholes model, as on present-day manual typewriters, each character was set on the end of a metal bar which struck the paper when its key was pressed. The keys were arranged alphabetically.

Keys to success

But there was a snag. When an operator had learnt to type at speed, the bars attached to letters that lay close together on the keyboard became entangled with one another. One way out of the difficulty was to find out which letters were most often used in English, and then to re-site them on the keyboard as far from each other as possible.
This had the effect of reducing the speed and, by doing so, lessened the chance of clashing type bars. In this way was born the QWERTY keyboard, named after the first six letters on the top line.
Sholes was delighted with it. ‘A blessing to mankind – and womankind,’ he wrote.

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