This is a great question. You may have looked down at the keyboard after learning how to type and realized that while you know where every key is by heart, it’s not in alphabetical order.
It’s even weirder when you use a streaming device connected to a TV that uses a remote with only a few buttons and the on-screen keyboard is in alphabetical order.
I’m Aaron, a technology enthusiast, expert, and amateur historian. I love funny tidbits about why computers are the way they are.
Let’s dive into an explanation about why the keyboard isn’t in alphabetical order and why it’s not even optimally configured to type.
Table of Contents
- The keyboard uses Qwerty layout because it became popular on typewriters.
- Qwerty became popular on typewriters because of telegraph operators.
- That was preserved on computer keyboards to more easily integrate them into the corporate environment.
- Other layouts exist, which are faster, but haven’t been widely adopted.
Why the Keyboard isn’t in Alphabetical Order
The computer’s provenance hails from many different technologies like mechanical adding machines, which paved the way for vacuum tubes and wires, and eventually microelectronics.
The computer keyboard hails from a similar provenance and was designed based on its mechanical counterpart: the typewriter.
The Typewriter and How It Dictated Keyboards
Commercial typewriters became available in the US in the 1860s. Prior to that, typewriters were available as early as the 16th century, but were bespoke machines that met specific needs. Most communication happened by handwriting or the printing press.
In the 1860s, however, the Sholes and Glidden typewriter became widely produced and available. That typewriter operated with a mechanism where key presses lifted arms with letter stamps on the end to press ink onto paper.
A common story about the origin of the Qwerty keyboard is that it was designed to slow typists to prevent mechanical jamming. Typing too fast would foul the mechanism in the Sholes and Gildden typewriter and lock the typing arms.
If you’ve ever used a mechanical typewriter and jammed down on the keys, that’s exactly what you see: the arms come up and meet in the typing area. They then tangle and need to be unwound.
The theory, then, is that the popularity among telegraph operators and other typists of the 19th century propelled the popularity of Qwerty through commercial adoption.
Why Keyboards Remained Qwerty in the 1980s
I picked the 1980s as a benchmark for when the Querty keyboard could have been phased out because of the rise in the commercial popularity of personal computers in the 1980s. The computer, as it existed in the 1980s, was the product of decades of development in the 20th Century.
Throughout that time, computers didn’t always have keyboards. In fact, most computers of the 1950s and 1960s were designed to work off of punch cards, which were an analog form of digital storage.
The continued selection of the Qwerty keyboard was intentional. The personal computer in the 1980s was marketed towards businesses, most of which employed typists and Word Processors. Those individuals would have been used to using keyboards with a Qwerty layout.
As a result, computers still largely have Qwerty layouts for physical typing needs.
Keyboards Aren’t Optimally Configured
Despite a clear preference for a Qwerty layout dictated by organic use and commercial marketing, the Qwerty isn’t an optimal configuration. There are other configurations that provide faster typing speeds.
One such layout is Dvorak. Dvorak is designed to position the most used characters in the center of the keyboard and the less frequently used characters at the periphery. There is a left-and-right-handed Dvorak layout.
Colemak is a modern spin on Dvorak. It rearranges and replaces some of the common Dvorak letters. The result is a much more optimized and faster typing keyboard layout.
Despite the efficiency bonuses of Dvorak and Colemak, neither is very popular today. Certainly, neither has made a dent in the ubiquity that is Qwerty.
Is there a Keyboard in Alphabetical Order?
There are commercially available keyboards that let you swap the keycaps on the keyboard so the keyboard can be rearranged however you want. Additionally, you can customize your keyboard layout online and download the configuration to your computer.
So with a little work, you can make an alphabetically ordered keyboard.
Keyboards have historical reasons for not being in alphabetical order. Like many inventions that develop over time, people found something convenient that worked for them and eventually that gained popularity.
Do you have some fun computer facts? Leave them in the comments below!