A typewriter works (roughly) like this: you press a key. On the other side of the keyboard, a key hammer, via a series of internal springs and levers, lifts to the paper. Right before it does, a ribbon with ink on it is pushed up by mechanisms inside of the machine, tied to the ones you’re activating when you hit the keys, and the end of the key hammer smacks the ink, imprinting it into the paper in the same shape as the hammer’s head, which is the same as the key you pressed.
Does this sound complicated? It is! And all of it is purely mechanical.
Initially, the typewriter’s keys were laid out in two rows, alphabetically. The design had some small updates, but it had one very consistent, very annoying issue – striking two keys next to each other with too small of a gap between the key presses meant those keys would hit each other and get stuck, which was annoying to stop and fix. The Qwerty board not only separated the most commonly used letters to avoid the keys getting stuck, it also did so in order to slow down the typist. The first iteration of the keyboard was too efficient to use efficiently!
The New Keyboard
There’s a term for using old designs for new items, or why we kept the qwerty keyboard even as computer keyboards removed the mechanical issue at the heart of qwerty design – it’s known as a skeuomorph! Skeuomorphs are items that take design features from older versions of themselves to make the newer version less confusing, scary, or difficult to learn. For example, the first phones with buttons arranged the buttons in a circle to make the transition easier from the old rotary phones.
Typists of the time were used to qwerty, and so qwerty is what ended up on the electronic keyboards in front of the first consumer computers. Specialist keyboards like stenography machines and split kinesis boards are entirely different beasts and developed on different evolutionary pathways.
Dvorak is interesting, and the most common letters are in the home row, so the hands travel less while typing. Despite this, it’s not significantly faster – it forces the typist to use both hands on almost every word, and takes practice just like Qwerty.
Colemak keyboards are much the same, in a different orientation. Even more of the typing takes place on the home row on a Colemak keyboard, so much so that it might be a disadvantage!
This leads to the Workman keyboard, which is designed not to be mostly on the home row and instead, the keys are clustered together according to commonality – this results in less movement than the Colemak keyboard. While less space between keys sounds like it would lead to less movement, it doesn’t! Not with home-row centered typing. The H + E combo on the Colemak in particular was awkward to hit. The ‘E’ key is in about the same location as the ‘K’ key is on a Qwerty board. With a bit more space between the most commonly-typed-together letters, the Workman keyboard is quickly picking up a fandom.
For now, though, Qwerty is the default!