Standardization of Keyboard Layouts

Having a standardized layout for keyboards is essential for maintaining interoperability among different types of computers and typing inputs. This is something that is even more important now, since through globalization, the keyboard has become part of the primary interface for interacting with the internet. Even though establishment of QWERTY as a primary layout of keyboard among many different countries with varying cultures should have been a long and difficult task, it was established somewhat easily and has been relatively unchanged, but has still had some competitors for the greater part of the past century.

The earliest evidence of the concept of a typewriter dates back to 1714, when Henry Mill filed a patent for “an artificial machine or method for the impressing or transcribing of letters singly or progressively one after another”, an idea that was never manifested in design. Pellegrino Turri invented the first working typewriter in 1808 for his blind friend Countess Carolina Fantoni da Fivizzano. However, there is no evidence of what this machine looked like. After numerous inventors’ prototypes of typewriters throughout the Nineteenth Century, Danish pastor Rasmus Malling-Hansen successfully commercially produced the “writing ball” typewriter in 1870.

Rasmus Malling-Hansen's Writing Ball was one of the first keyboards and helped the standardization of keyboard layouts.
Rasmus Malling-Hansen’s Writing Ball
Image Author: Sverre Avnskog

These models did not really catch on due to their somewhat bizarre designs that made typing difficult. In 1874, by taking different concepts that inventors had used in earlier typewriters, Remington & Sons created the Sholes & Glidden. This typewriter became the first sold in considerable numbers, and the company made about 500 of them in the five years of the model’s production. Despite being much more comparable to modern typewriters than its predecessors are, the Sholes & Glidden had a unique appearance and shared many parts with that of a sewing machine. Remington & Sons, being a sewing machine manufacturer, mounted their typewriter on a sewing machine table, with a treadle to operate the carriage return. This table also had elaborate sewing decorations on it, since it was originally marketed primarily for women.

Along with being the initial mass-produced typewriter, the Sholes & Glidden is also responsible for creating the standard QWERTY keyboard layout. The origins of this layout are somewhat fuzzy, but the popular theory is that the keyboard’s creators needed to design a model that would solve the problem of key jamming that was common in earlier typewriters. To accomplish this, they designed a layout that would appropriately spread out the keys so that commonly paired letters would not be placed on contiguous keys. However, just by looking at the keys on a QWERTY layout, one can easily see many exceptions to this idea, specifically the fact that the “e” and “r” keys are next to one another even though they are often paired with one another (7 times alone in that sentence). Another explanation is that it allowed for faster typing.

Sholes & Glidden Typewriter in black and white, the first mass-produced typewriter setting the standardization of keyboard layouts.
Sholes & Glidden Typewriter
Image Source: Smith, Clarence Charles (1922). The Expert Typist. New York: The Macmillan Company, p. 4

Somewhat surprisingly, the history of keyboards does not really include much else about the origin of the QWERTY layout. In a past post, we discussed standardization of units of measurement, which involved different processes of eliminating and adapting different units of weight and measurement that spanned millennia. For Latin-script keyboards, however, the first mass-produced model used the style that quickly became the standard in the United States and other countries. This has been almost completely unchanged, with the exception of the division between the ANSI, ISO, and JIS keyboards.

North American computers traditionally use the ANSI keyboard, while Europeans use the ISO keyboard. These two layouts are almost identical with the exception of several keys. The ANSI keyboard is set in INCITS 154-1988 [S2009] – Office Machines and Supplies – Alphanumeric Machines – Keyboard Arrangement and has 109 keys. As established in ISO/IEC 9995-2:2009 – Information technology – Keyboard layouts for text and office systems – Part 2: Alphanumeric section, the ISO keyboard has 110 keys, along with a smaller left shift key to accommodate the extra key. These two layouts are incredibly similar and still maintain interoperability between the two.

There is also a third type of standardized QWERTY layout, which is covered in JIS X 6002:1980 – Keyboard layout for information processing using the JIS 7 bit coded character set. This allows for simple typing for using both the Latin alphabet and Japanese systems of writing. It bears more distinctions from ANSI and ISO than the two layouts have with each other, but it is still very similar to them both.

Despite its status as the standard for keyboard layouts, QWERTY has been challenged throughout the time it has been used. The main criticism of QWERTY is that it can put a great deal of strain on the user’s fingers after too much typing, possibly leading to joint issues such as repetitive stress injury. In 1936, a professor of education patented the keyboard layout Dvorak, which he named after himself. The primary objective of Dvorak as he designed his keyboard was to identify all of QWERTY’s shortcomings in relation to typing error frequency, suboptimal typing speed, and finger fatigue. His finished product appears as:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 [ ]‘ , . P Y F G C R L / =A O E U I D H T N S –; Q J K X B M W V Z

This layout places an emphasis on the home row, since Dvorak’s research indicated that typing was fastest if bottom row typing was slowest. Because of this, he placed the most-common keys on the home row and the least-common keys on the bottom row. Dvorak typists have approximately 60 percent less finger motion than QWERTY typists and are less prone to injury.

More recently, in 2006, a programmer named Shai Coleman released an alternate keyboard layout called Colemak, which addresses both the shortcomings of QWERTY and the difficulty that would come from a transition from QWERTY to Dvorak. The layout of a Colemak keyboard is:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 – =Q W F P G J L U Y ; [ ]A R S T D H N E I O ‘Z X C V B K M , . /

From the 17 key changes between QWERTY and Colemak, the Twenty-First Century keyboard layout eliminates the issue of finger stretching while typing, especially with the pinky finger, and optimizes high frequency keys into the home row.

One of the biggest challenges that have prevented a keyboard like Dvorak from standardizing for so long is that people are accustomed to the QWERTY layout and have adapted to its format very well. A massive transition to an entirely different layout would be incredibly inefficient, even factoring in the time saved by switching to the optimized keyboard. This is an issue solved by the Colemak layout, but it is just ask important to ask if this transition is necessary in the first place. QWERTY is often criticized as being responsible for hand and finger injuries, and people assume that continuous typing is responsible for carpal tunnel syndrome. However, typing is rarely the cause of carpal tunnel, and constant use of a computer mouse is a much greater contributor to the problem.

Even though there is not a strong link between it and carpal tunnel, QWERTY is the keyboard layout that is most likely to contribute to repetitive stress syndrome. However, this is an issue that can really occur with many kinds of work that involve performing some task repetitively. It is important that keyboard operators take breaks occasionally to prevent any injuries and limit occupational hazards.

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