Why are Keyboard Keys Not in Alphabetical Order?


Have you ever stared at your keyboard in the middle of the workday and thought to yourself, why the heck aren’t the keys in alphabetical order? What sort of mad man designed a keyboard layout to be so inefficient and strange to use? We’ll have to give you a short history lesson to explain.

Keyboard keys were originally in alphabetical order, until people realized that common letter pairs such as “th” would cause typewriters to jam. To solve this issue, the keys were reordered so the typebars would not jam, moving away from the alphabetical layout.

While the standard QWERTY layout is not the most efficient, we still use it to this day. We’ll talk about why that is and some alternative keyboard layouts.

Keyboard Keys Were Originally in Alphabetical Order

If you think back to the days when you first learned how to type on a keyboard, I’m sure you’ll remember the feeling of being lost and navigating the keyboard with your two index fingers, scanning and trying to find that next key. So, what happened and why did we change layouts? Learning how to type on a keyboard fast is a skill that is required for many professions nowadays, so why did we make it so difficult on ourselves?

If you travel far enough back in time, you’ll see that keyboards were originally in alphabetical order. Laying out keys in alphabetical order was a logical way to arrange everything, because they are the easiest to find and type on. The first keyboard was created back in 1866, with the invention of the first typewriter by Christopher Shole, laid out the keys in alphabetical order.

The first typewriters were constructed in a very similar way to a piano, where if you hit a key, the printer bars would actuate and print letters onto the paper. They discovered very early on there were some serious issues with this design, which led to the invention of the QWERTY layout that we’ve come to know and love.

Why Did Keyboards Update to QWERTY?

The piano-like design of the first typewriters required a series of printer bars underneath the keys to move to be able to print letters on the page. This led to an issue where the bars would hit each and jam when a skilled writer would type too fast. The biggest culprit of a jammed keyboard were two letter combinations such as “th”, because they were too close together and could be typed in fast succession. To fix this issue, they designed a new typewriter that spaced a lot of these common letter combinations apart to give the printer bars more room to actuate and reduce amount of typewriter jams.

This new keyboard layout, as you could have guessed, we still use to this day. QWERTY became standard for all typewriters. When the invention of the modern keyboard came later, they adopted this same layout due to the demand for a familiar feeling keyboard. So, although QWERTY was originally designed to keep keyboards from jamming, we still use it today because it has become so common and widely manufactured.

Others have attempted to design new and better keyboard layouts, but none have taken the place of the mighty “QWERTY”.

Is QWERTY an Efficient Layout for Typing?

QWERTY was not designed to be efficient for typing fast, instead it was designed with the sole function of preventing a typewriter from jamming, and in a lot of ways it is made to be slower. While not an efficient layout, it is possible to improve your typing speed and increase familiarity with the QWERTY layout by learning skills such as how to touch type and doing regular typing speed tests.

Touch typing involves placing your fingers on the home row and committing the surrounding keys to memory so you can reach for the keys and press them quickly without needing to look at the keyboard. It’s not too crazy to see people reach typing speeds of over 100 wpm with proper practice and good technique.

While not being efficient, QWERTY is still used because the layout is so deeply ingrained in society. Most people don’t want to spend a few months learning how to type on a new layout. In addition, keyboards, phones, and computers would all need to come standard with a new layout pre-configured. To move to a new layout would require a big push at a larger scale, such as requiring kids to learn a different layout, and manufacturing the newest technology with an updated layout.

DVORAK: Alternative Keyboard Layout

DVORAK keyboard layout

For those of you that get frustrated by the inefficient “QWERTY” layout, you can rejoice, there are alternative layouts that you can change to easily in your computer settings. The common alternative layout is DVORAK. DVORAK is designed to be extremely fast to type on, the only downside is you need to learn the whole new keyboard layout which can take weeks or even months of practice.

DVORAK is a keyboard layout created 1936 by August Dvorak and his brother, originally created with the hopes of replacing the QWERTY layout, it can make typing more efficient by lessening finger motion, reducing errors, and muscle fatigue. The layout places the vowels on the left side of the keyboard and the consonants on the right side, so you alternate pressing keys with both hands in a rhythmic way. This creates a fluid typing motion that can help increase speed instead of pressing multiple keys in a row with the same hand.

COLEMAK: Alternative Layout Layout #2

COLEMAK keyboard layout

COLEMAK is a relatively new keyboard layout that came out in 2006, created and named after Shai Coleman. The main differences between COLEMAK and the standard QWERTY layout is 17 keys are repositioned to optimize and minimize finger path distance by utilizing the home row as much as possible. 

For reference, the QWERTY layout only has 32% of the typing done on the home row but with COLEMAK 74% is on the home row. the entire purpose of the COLEMAK is to make typing as fast and efficient as possible. Compared to QWERTY, finger movement is reduced by a whopping 50%.

Since only 17 keys are changed, unlike DVORAK, COLEMAK is easier to learn. Some say it only takes 1-2 weeks to learn the new layout and then an additional month or two to really increase typing speeds. Because it is a relatively newer layout, COLEMAK has not undergone any studies or nearly as much scrutiny as the DVORAK layout. So, technically there have been no studies that prove definitively that COLEMAK will improve typing speed.

Conclusion

There is a lot of cool history behind why keyboards are laid out in such a strange way. At first glance it seems as though there is no rhyme or reason to the “QWERTY” layout, but once you dig into the past, you can understand that the technology limitations were the reason behind the key placement. Who would have thought a few printer bars hitting each other would decide how billions of people type on their keyboards every day?

Although the “QWERTY” layout was not designed for the purpose of fast typing speeds, we’ve grown so accustomed to this layout that there is no reasonable way to go about changing to a more efficient layout on a large scale as a society. Thousands of keyboards are getting manufactured everyday in the “QWERTY” layout and computers/cell phones are pre-configured to be laid out in this order as well. We are stuck with the layout, and for most it makes sense to become efficient and find ways to type faster with the standard keyboard layout.

For those of you that want to try a few alternatives, it is possible to boost typing speed by moving to a different layout such as COLEMAK or DVORAK, just be prepared to spend a few months to get back up to your old typing speeds.

Jake Harrington

Jake has been an avid mechanical keyboard user for the past six years. He has a background in Mechanical Engineering and wants to apply his expertise to break down how mechanical keyboards and other tech work to show the world all of the cool aspects of the hobby.

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