The answer: False.
So why IS the QWERTY keyboard still in use? The story behind that question is, according to Guns, Germs, and Steel author Jared Diamond, a “notorious” example of society’s refusal to adopt new technology, even when the benefits of doing so are patently obvious. As Diamond tells it, the QWERTY layout employs “a whole series of perverse tricks designed to force typists to type as slowly as possible, such as scattering the commonest letters over all keyboard rows and concentrating them on the left side (where right-handed people have to use their weaker hand).” That sounds ridiculous to us now, but the typewriters of 1873 jammed quite easily if the keys were struck in quick succession, so preventing that meant slowing typists down.
And here’s where the story gets really interesting. By 1932, typewriters had improved significantly, and trials were held with new, more efficiently laid-out keyboards. According to Diamond, trials with these new keyboards “showed that it would let us double our typing speed and reduce our typing effort by 95 percent.” It made no sense to reject these new, more efficient keyboards, yet that’s exactly what happened. Diamond writes that “the vested interests of hundreds of millions of QWERTY typists, typing teachers, typewriter and computer salespeople, and manufacturers have crushed all moves toward keyboard efficiency.” Hard to believe, but true.
Diamond’s thesis in Guns, Germs, and Steel is that societies evolve in unique ways because of a specific set of factors. One of those factors is receptivity to new technologies, which he illustrates using the QWERTY keyboard. It’s a big book chock full of big ideas, and Diamond peppers it with enough fascinating stories to keep you turning the pages. He received the Pulitzer Prize for his work in 1998, but the book remains both relevant and thought provoking fifteen years later.
If there’s a “big idea” individual on your holiday list, you can’t go wrong with Guns, Germs, and Steel. And there’s an e-version, so carrying around a 500-page book is a lot easier than it used to be.
Back to that keyboard that does such a great job of slowing me down. My novel, Yard Sale, is available at Amazon.