Column: From ABC to QWERTY, learning the alphabet isn't what is used to be

Learning the ABCs was the way most English-speaking Americans began their journey in formal education.

We were taught to sing the “Alphabet Song” before we were potty trained. The ABCs ran, in order, across the wall above blackboards in nearly every first-grade room, under a faded picture of an approving George Washington.

From libraries to phone books to filing cabinets to telephone dials to seats at the baseball park, our world was in alphabetical order. Learning the alphabet was our first step in opening an information portal leading to successes of every kind.

Alphabetical order was king — at least the kind of order that started ABC and ended in XYZ.

A guy named Christopher Latham Sholes began the process of knocking alphabetical order off the throne in 1874. Our computer age is in the process of completing the abdication.

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Sholes invented QWERTY. Sholes was a newspaper editor in Kenosha, Wisconsin, who spent years trying to invent a writing machine to speed up his work. He finally came up with a somewhat primitive typewriter but struggled to arrange the letters on the keyboard in a way that improved typing speed.

Finally, he settled on QWERTY — named after the order of the first six letters on the top row of his keyboard layout.

Better at inventing than marketing, Sholes sold the patent on his machine in 1878 to what was to become the Remington and Sons Typewriter Company. They made a couple of minor adjustments to Sholes’ keyboard layout — and a fortune selling the machines all over the country.

Remington salesmen sold the typewriters by pointing out the devices saved time, therefore money. Not only was typing faster than writing everything in longhand; cheap labor was the clincher. The salesmen pointed out the “smaller, more delicate” hands of women were God’s gift to typing and profits.

Not only were female hands more efficient than those of the male clerks and secretaries, women could be hired for a fraction of the pay of men. And women, unlike men, were simple-minded creatures. They could sit joyfully for hours pecking on the keyboard without boredom, distraction or complaint — and then go home and clean the house while their husbands relaxed with a couple of beers.

At first, the men were upset and claimed women were taking their jobs. Office work had always been the work of men. A man began as a clerk or secretary and worked his way up to higher positions. However, the men calmed down when the bosses quickly changed the rules, making the new female typing pools dead-end jobs with little or no opportunity for advancement into management.

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The situation was a win-win-win. Businesses made more money, women got jobs in offices and rising juvenile delinquency could be blamed on the women for neglecting their children by going to work.

In any case, QWERTY began to take over as typewriters conquered the business world.

Today, that once-revolutionary keyboard arrangement is our new “alphabetical order.” It is a gateway to every computer, nearly every electronic device.

Few of us scan through the ABCs to locate a library book or make a phone call or write a text or order a can of beans from the grocery store. We use QWERTY to say what we want and the computer finds it for us.

Children learn to use a computer “touch screen” before they are potty trained. Then they learn to spell words and write sentences on keyboard screens with QWERTY.

Teenagers secretly text each other in class at high speed from cellphones hidden in their laps without ever looking at the tiny keyboard (or the teacher) because QWERTY is second nature.

As an immigrant to — rather than a native of — the computer age, I am not really sure how I feel about QWERTY taking over. I guess it is the future of written communication and is on the way to replacing our need to learn our ABCs.

I just wish the “QWERTY” song were easier to sing.

Bud Herron is a retired editor and newspaper publisher who lives in Columbus. He served as publisher of The Republic from 1998 to 2007.

This article originally appeared on The Herald-Times: Column: Tracing the evolution of communicating through writing