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QWERTY Alphanumeric Layout
The most popular alphanumeric key layout in the world--by far--is the so-called QWERTY layout. This design was created by Alexander Bartholomew Qwerty in 1841... Just kidding. :^) Actually, the name comes from the first six letters in the upper left-hand corner of the keyboard.
If you've spent any time at all working on a computer or typewriter, the QWERTY design is nothing new to you. In fact, it has been the standard in alphanumeric layout since long before the PC was invented, and is used for almost all typewriters and keyboards. Of course, its universality is in some ways pretty hard to believe, when you realize just how strange the layout really is.
If one takes a critical look at the QWERTY layout, it's pretty hard to understand. The keys are arranged in a seemingly random order, and it appears that no thought has been given whatsoever to putting the more often-used keys near each other, or in places where they can be easily reached. Typing common letters and common words requires significant amounts of work on the part of the typist; a lot of finger motion relative to what one would consider optimal.
Why were the keys arranged in this manner? Well, there are a lot of theories as to the origin of the design. A popular theory goes that in the late 1860s, the inventor of the typewriter, Christopher Latham Sholes, intentionally scrambled the letters to make typing more difficult, because typists were "going too fast" and jamming the key mechanisms. However, there does not appear to be any solid evidence that this is in fact what happened, and Sholes left no explanatory notes or journals to explain his design. So the true reason for the creation of the QWERTY design remains a mystery.
What isn't a mystery, however, is that once a standard begins to snowball and picks up steam, it's pretty hard to stop. (I just realized that's a pretty bad mixed metaphor. Sorry. :^) ) Regardless of the reason for its original creation, once QWERTY became established on early typewriters, thousands of typists became accustomed to it. Manufacturers risked alienating their user base if they tried to introduce a new layout, so inertia took over, and QWERTY became the standard for future typewriters as well. Mainframe and mini-computer keyboards followed from these typewriter designs and maintained the same layout. PC keyboards followed from early computer keyboards and again, used the same layout.
By now, there are hundreds of millions of people used to the QWERTY design. As a result, love it or hate it, QWERTY is the standard in alphanumeric layouts, and not likely to change any time in the near future. Even though some people believe alternative designs, such as the Dvorak keyboard, are easier to use, most typists are extremely reluctant to go through the hassle of re-learning typing, even for the promise of faster speed and higher accuracy--especially since there are those who are quite skeptical about those claims.