Today, let's evolve a typewriter keyboard. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
My journalist father used to
work at his iron typewriter. His two index fingers
moved like pistons. You could call it hunt and
peck. But it was more like a panzer attack on the
By then keyboards had settled on the so-called
QWERTY system. Q, W, E, R, T, and Y -- QWERTY --
are still the first six letters on the top row of
your keyboard. Stephen Jay Gould, reigning expert
on Darwinian selection, asks how in the name of
sense we let keyboards evolve that way.
By 1880 the QWERTY arrangement had been around for
a decade. Most of the 5000 typewriters in use had
that familiar keyboard, awkward as it is. But no
matter! No one had learned to type yet.
There was no method. And when we all used hunt and
peck, QWERTY had one advantage. Remember what
happened when you hit two keys at once on an old
manual typewriter? They tangled and jammed. You had
to reach in and pull them apart. The QWERTY system
reduced jams by slowing you down. It was harder to
pile key strokes on top of each other.
But not even that was intentional. In 1867 a
typewriter pioneer first set up the QWERTY
arrangement so his salesman could peck out the word
typewriter quickly and easily. The letters that
spell typewriter all lie on the top row. Just
think! That's the logic that shaped your computer
After 1880 businesses saw how useful typewriters
could be. Sales rose. Then a Cincinnati
business-school teacher invented our eight-fingered
method of typing. She hadn't yet thought of
memorizing the keyboard. But a student of hers had.
He entered a speed contest in 1888 and trounced a
Never mind that eight-fingered touch-typing could
be a lot faster with a better keyboard. QWERTY won
in 1888, and we still use it. Never mind that the
much-used letter A sits under your weakest finger.
Never mind that the most-used letter E is off the
home row. QWERTY survives because it won a contest
a century ago.
For Gould, this is a metaphor for the mindlessness
of evolution. But he adds a redeeming remark. He
says, "Streamlined optimality contains no seeds for
change." Maybe our clumsy keyboard has driven us to
create better typewriter mechanisms.
But there's another reason for QWERTY's survival.
I'm fast enough on my QWERTY keyboard to make it
feel like I'm thinking my words onto the screen.
That's because I've developed my touch-typing skill
until it gives me real physical pleasure. That's
kin to the 2-fingered kinesthetic energy my father
once flung at his old manual machine. So it's clear
that more is at play in adapting a machine -- or a
species -- than cool reason tells us.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds