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QWERTY, DHIATENSOR, Dvorak, and… Van Sant

Wrote A.C. Van Sant in 1916:

“If the change to a better keyboard had been made, when the agitation was first begun… all our troubles of the transition period would have been forgotten. But every year the change is delayed makes it more difficult of accomplishment, and more likely that we shall go down the centuries imposing upon future generations the burden of an illogical arrangement.”

Efforts to revise the QWERTY keyboard were infrequent and ephemeral. In 1893, Blickensderfer advanced DHIATENSOR, but later offered QWERTY. In 1936, August Dvorak advanced Dovrak, garnering a modest following, but chiefly among computer users (even here, some enthusiasts are tepid!). Other arrangements never made it past the design stage.

In the end, QWERTY sufficed.

Early on, however, there were opportunities to revise the keyboard. One such effort came from Adam Clarke (A.C.) Van Sant, a stenographer and educator, who championed his own design in the early 1900s. Apart from a few notices in trade journals, though, his work had little impact. He found more success as a stenographer and proprietor of typing schools, and his contributions to touch typing were highly touted — Robert Messenger outlines Clarke’s impact here.)

Van Sant first wrote about his arrangement in 1901, using a double keyboard (as in early Caligraphs), and subsequently in 1916, employing the standard, shifting keyboard.

He presented the first row as QWFRT | HIUKJ, arguing such an arrangement was more efficient. Writing in The Stenographer and Phonographic World in 1916, he outlined its advantages:

  • The work of the hands is nearly equalized, a slight excess being assigned to the right hand.
  • It assigns a large proportion of the work to the first and second fingers.
  • It relieves the fourth fingers of almost all work on the letters , leaving them free for use upon the shift keys, punctuation-marks, and special characters.
  • It places over half of the work on the central row of keys.
  • All the vowels are arranged on one side of the keyboard, and the important consonants on the other side, producing an almost perfectly balanced action of the hands.

The Stenographer noted a month earlier that typing on the Van Sant keyboard would be faster: “150 words per will be easier on such a keyboard than 136 per is on the present keyboard,” though the journal based its conclusions on Van Sant’s own findings. It is not apparent that he ever actually modified any physical machine and seems to have offered only theoretical evidence.

Van Sant’s proposal was praised by readers who were hopeful of change. Though questioning the efficiency of Van Sant’s design, Arthur R. Bailey wrote, “I think Mr. Van Sant deserves credit for bringing this question up for argument, and I hope eventually some arrangement will be discovered that will ease up the work of the typist and give greater speed.” He related that he had made a small adjustment on his own typewriter in 1886, swapping the places of the A and K, which he said improved typing performance. He noted that efforts to persuade Remington to adopt this modification were unsuccessful.

Bailey offered his own suggestions for improving the keyboard (see below), evidencing a lively debate about the arrangement of the keyboard among professional typists.

Earlier still in the 1890s, J.L. Cobbin offered this arrangement:

Cobbin’s disdain for QWERTY was pronounced: “The same arrangement has been copied blindly by most subsequent makers. The grand mistake in this board is that the phonetic affinities of the most frequent letters are entirely ignored” (The National Stenographer, March 1893). He wrote letters to several journals, but none elicited a response from readers.

More broadly, the general public never seemed interested in this debate, and typewriter manufacturers even less so. QWERTY remained not only dominant, but singular. Van Sant, first championing his arrangement in 1901, may have been just 26 years too late to make a difference!

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© 2024, Mark Adams. All rights reserved.

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The flying Albus

The Albus was an Austrian machine, manufactured under license from the Standard Typewriter Company. Wrote Typewriter Topics in 1912, “The ‘Albus’ has already shown that it is certainly ‘on the job’ everywhere and anywhere, on earth or in the air; the ‘Albus’ is said to be the first typewriting machine which has been used with great success on an aeroplane.” Certainly one could type while flying, but how practically?

Typewriter Topics, January 1912 –

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© 2024, Mark Adams. All rights reserved.

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Dodging the typewriter agent (1903)

In the early days of the typewriter, machines were mostly sold through agents. Only gradually were machines available in department stores. So, typewriter agents could be particularly aggressive, reaching out to potential customers… again… and again… and again…

The Clay Center Dispatch (Clay Center, Kansas), June 4, 1903 –

© 2024, Mark Adams. All rights reserved.

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1877: “It makes the following characters…”

When I was a teenager, I purchased a $20 stereo for my car. This was the late 1980s and twenty bucks was a real bargain. The packaging displayed obvious features: volume control, fast forward, channel selection, tape player — which were the only features! Twenty bucks, after all.

When the typewriter was introduced in the 1870s, advertisers sometimes listed features that would seem painfully obvious to us today:

A bit obvious, though people may not have known what symbols and figures the machine made.

Some features were well worth extolling: “It does not run with a treadle, and requires no ‘winding up.’” Apparently, consumers did not like the treadle on the original Sholes & Glidden Type Writer (see here).

I’m guessing “Dinsmore” was disappointed with at least one aspect of the advertisement:

The Fall River Daily Herald (Fall River, Massachusetts), June 2, 1877 –

© 2023, Mark Adams. All rights reserved.

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Describing the newly introduced “Type Writer” in 1877, one author writes, “Alas for poor clerks and legal scriveners! With Babbage’s calculating machine perfected, and the ‘type-writer’ complete and in working order, there is only one more invention to smash this shivering universe into ‘smithereens.’ Who will win the laurel by inventing a ‘thinking machine’? — Who?”

With the introduction of AI in the 21st century, we are finally able to answer that question!

The Irish Builder (Dublin, Ireland), October 1, 1877 –

© 2023, Mark Adams. All rights reserved.

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