Time To Ditch QWERTY Keyboards?

This wee on Radio 4 Stephen Fry took a look at the QWERTY keyboard and discussed whether it should be abandoned for being an out-dated, irrational system that is designed to slow typing down and causes repetitive strain injury. So, why do we use the QWERTY layout and what alternatives are there?

In 1873 the QWERTY keyboard layout was developed. It was developed by Christopher Sholes who first invented an alphabetical typewriter but found that an alpha layout resulted in too many mechanical failures as different sections of the machine would clash when two letters were typed in quick succession. So he designed the first QWERTY keyboard.

The QWERTY keyboard was designed to prevent the typewriter mechanics from clashing when typing. If in a alphabetical order the clashing of keys would be very frequent which slows typing down. But was QWERTY designed to slow down typists to help the mechanics? If so, why not update our keyboards?

As well as the mechanical advantages of QWERTY further compromises were developed to aid typing, for example T and H are on seperate halves of the machine, so in different parts of the type basket, but close on the keyboard. More compromises followed, for example the I was moved to be near the 8 and 9 to make typing dates easier (the I looking the same as a 1 on the old keyboards). This of course is not so relevant today as dates start with a 2, and most people know not to use I instead of 1 as in common type faces they look too different.

In 1873 Remington started making typewriters after their main business of arms production was no longer required after the American Civil War. They decided on the QWERTY system and were always looking to standardize the keyboard.

Teaching QWERTY

A teacher of touch typing to primary school children beleives that children should learn to type as soon as they can read and write. One 6 year old can type 30 words per minute with 7 year olds typing 60 words per minute. To train the children are not allowed to look at the keyboard at all, all is learnt by trial and error. Some people can type 100 words per minute. So the system is fast if learnt properly.

Is Typing at the Speed of Speech Possible?

Steno Machines are designed to allow typing at the speed of speech. Often called “Stroking in syllables”. 180 words per minute is the speed of speech, and the Steno machine layout combines keys to produce letters allows typing close to this time. These are used in courts to ensure that everything spoken is recorded accurately. However, it takes much much longer to to master typing on a steno machine.

Voice Recognition?

Although there are some good voice recognition programs available now, the main problem is the social problems associated with people talking into computers. A majority of people work in offices with other people and if everyone was talking at the same time it would make working and communicating very difficult. Also, researchers have found that people actually prefer to think and type rather than think and speak. Often people find it harder to think and speak, as by typing that separate the thought process from the communication process. One of the main problems with any voice recognition system is editing what has already been written.

August Dvorak’s New System

The Dvorak layout is a logical and efficient keyboard layout. Dvorak allows you type to with a more steady and rhythmic way. It is argued that this aids typing, puts less strain on the hands and makes typing a smoother operation. How long will it take an average person to move from QWERTY to Dvorak? If you train full time then you can learn to type in a few weeks, maybe a couple of months if you do not type all the time.

The Dvorak system is widely available, with many keyboards on the market. Maybe it is time to take the plunge and try a more efficient system of typing?

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