[HEUNGBO'S GOURD]English typing is qwerty hard

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[HEUNGBO'S GOURD]English typing is qwerty hard

The hands almost seem to fly around the keyboard, moving sometimes with stroboscopic jerkiness between the rows and sometimes with ballet-like delicacy as the fingers of one hand (usually the left) dance sur les pointes from letter to letter, often forming an entire word without the help of the other hand at all. There is a sense of considerable energy being expended as we watch a fast touch typist at a computer entering English text on the standard "qwerty" keyboard, named for the first six letters on the upper left of the keyboard.

It's all very impressive, but if we compare our English typist's performance with that of a similarly adept Korean typist working at a standard Korean computer keyboard, we notice quite a difference. The Korean typist seems almost relaxed. The hands move off the home row much less often than those of the English typist, and the hands share the work in a much fairer division of labor.

At first one might be tempted to ascribe the difference between these two typing styles to the differences in the characteristics of the two languages. Logical though that may seem, it is the wrong explanation. The "flying fingers" impression given by the English typist is caused by the inefficient arrangement of the keyboard.

Although several attempts had been previously made to invent a "writing machine," resulting in contraptions the size of a piano or devices that operated excruciatingly slowly, it was not until 1867 that the American inventor Christopher Latham Sholes came up with the first practical solution. After working out many improvements over the next six years, Sholes finally signed a contract with E. Remington and Sons in 1873, and the first Remington typewriters were available the following year.

The keyboard was not designed with touch-typing in mind because no one had even come up with such a concept yet. Indeed, there were no real "typists" at all. Users just hunted and pecked with two fingers. The type was held in a small circular tub and popped up to strike the paper from underneath the platen. (It must have been terribly inconvenient to have to lift up the carriage from time to time in order to see what one was typing.) Even hunting and pecking could be too fast for this early typewriter, so in order to keep the keys from jamming too easily, Sholes placed the most frequently used letters on opposite sides of the tub, and this is how he came up with the qwerty arrangement of the keyboard. There is also a story that Remington wanted salesmen to be able to impress prospective buyers by typing out the word "typewriter" with fair ease, so all the letters in this word were placed on the top row, but this could be apocryphal. Vestiges of the straight alphabetic arrangement of keys are also apparent on the qwerty keyboard.

Just five years after the introduction of the Remington, 10-finger typing was introduced at a school for stenographers in Cincinnati, and not long after that, a federal court clerk named Frank McGurrin became famous for typing without looking at the keyboard when he won a contest as "the world's fastest typist." Sholes himself realized that the qwerty arrangement was not really very good for touch-typing and in 1896 received a patent on a better keyboard layout, but it was too late. Qwerty inertia had already set in and businesses didn't want to spend the time and money on retraining typists and having existing machines modified.

In 1936, a professor at the University of Washington, August Dvorak, designed and patented a layout that would truly maximize efficiency. An initial show of interest by the U.S. War Department eventually petered out, and Dvorak's invention fizzled. So nearly 130 years later, we still use the abominable qwerty keyboard.

Koreans have been luckier in this regard. Practical typewriters were not made here until the early 1950s, and a number of competing keyboard arrangements were available. The choice of layout depended on whether one's priority was ease of typing or esthetically pleasing print. With the coming of the computer, Koreans could have both, and an ergonomic keyboard layout was adopted.

English-language typists, thanks to computers, can also easily dump the qwerty layout and switch to the Dvorak keyboard, but very few do. It may be too much trouble for most qwerty typists to change their habits, but it seems a shame to deprive children and newcomers to English typing of the benefits of Dvorak. If you have new typists among your family or friends, tell them about Dvorak before it's too late.

* The writer is a columnist of the JoongAng Daily. His e-mail address is gary@korelore.com.

by Gary Rector

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