Committed to Past Constraints: QWERTY

Something I’ve never thought of reading before: the history of the QWERTY keyboard:

With the assistance of […] Carlos Glidden and Samuel W. Soule, [Christopher Sholes] built an early writing machine for which a patent application was filed in October 1867. However, Sholes’ “Type Writer” had many defects, [including] the tendency of the typebars to clash and jam if struck in rapid succession.

Sholes struggled for the next six years to perfect his invention, making many trial-and-error rearrangements of the original machine’s alphabetical key arrangement in an effort to reduce the frequency of typebar clashes. Eventually he arrived at a four-row, upper case keyboard approaching the modern QWERTY standard.

As Donald Norman says in The Psychology/Design of Everyday Things, “We are committed to it, even though it was designed to satisfy constraints that no longer apply, was based on a style of typing no longer used, and is difficult to learn.”

It made me think: what other ‘everyday things’ are committed to past constraints, and in my work do I design to any?



One response to “Committed to Past Constraints: QWERTY”

  1. Weird. Just working on the next Januarist piece and came across this piece twice. Once through the Google and once in my RSS reader.

    Mildly obsessed with past constraints ever since I read The Fountainhead and discovered that Doric columns are based on the properties of wood (or something like that, it was a long time ago…)

    There’s some neat pictures of typewriters here: It’s amazing how much they’ve aged. Did you see the recent Cormac McCarthy typewriter auction?

    And you’ve already seen this: But the comparison is startling, I think.

    Are you old enough to remember Dennis Norden and the Microwriter? I suspect not.