Few people in the U.S.- or for that matter in the entire world – have ever stopped to ask themselves the question: How did the ‘standard’ keyboard get invented so that the letters caused ‘touch keyboarders’ to memorize that ‘qwerty’ are the letters of the top row of letters on almost all keyboards?
The first practical typewriter was patented in 1868 by an American, Christopher Scholes. This early model established the standard typewriter keyboard layout which has remained unchanged for over 100 years.
Learning this layout and to adjust the human mind and body to conform to the original typewriter’s shape did not happen by accident! A lot of effort went into the task of inventing a mechanical keyboard. To link the key tops with letters on them to ‘hammers’ that flew up and hit an inked ribbon with 3-D letter shapes so as to transfer ink to paper and cause the carriage to move to the next equidistant location to be ready to get hit with the next letter, be it narrow or wide, it was necessary to build shaped pieces of metal beneath the keys that connected them to the ‘letter hammers’. Unfortunately, this mechanical linkage created a problem, one that bothered Shoales for over a year. He found by trial, that people could learn to press the keys fast enough to cause the hammers to ‘jam’ at the point where they hit the ribbon. This made the operator stop and manually reach up and pull the keys apart. This was messy, as ink tended to get on the hammers and fingers, and time-consuming.
To help improve the performance of his machine, Shoales hired a team to study for over a year the way the alphabet worked with language, and the team was assigned the task of finding out where to put the letters in a way that would slow down the operator and minimize those pesky jams! Of course, this meant making the fingers travel as far as possible to slow the throughput to a more optimum speed. As a result, our hands are forced to crowd together to get all of the letters in front of the fingers; and the fingers must be trained to move in a diagonal fashion to reach up or down as required.
All of this contributed to the limitations that Lillian Malt found to be troublesome to her career. As a skills analyst, she was interested in finding ways to maximize keyboard productivity.
She found that in spite of her best efforts to teach proper posture, reading habits, and keyboard finger dexterity, she could not overcome the fact that the mechanical design and layout limitations made it impossible to obtain any new or dramatic improvements. The invention of the electric typewriter did little to improve throughput although it did reduce the effort required to ‘stroke’ the keys. The IBM Selectric ‘bouncing ball’ offered some improvements in productivity as the ‘jamming’ problem was eliminated. The arrival of the electronic keyboard as a device to drive a computer took the industry a step further, but it left an even greater sense of urgency for a better design. The only remaining problems relating to fatigue and the resultant loss of productivity have become more serious. Carpal tunnel syndrome was not known fifty years ago as a concern for keyboarders. Today it is the second leading cause of workmen’s compensation claims. Experts agree that a keyboard that doesn’t jam, has no lever for a carriage return, and lets you a key for long periods with your hands in an awkward position, is dangerous.
When Lillian Malt decided that it was time to invent a better keyboard, she enlisted the help of Stephen Hobday, an engineer with the PCD company in England. His Maltron project eventually combined with his taking over the name of the company so as to create PCD Maltron, Ltd. Together they designed and built the first Maltron keyboards with keys arranged in a way to fit the human hands.
The shape finally established has produced the production of hundreds of copies of the design that have been sold to individuals who wanted and indeed needed to change to a shape that gave them relief from pain. Most of these people were willing to pay as much as $800 to obtain such a keyboard so that they could return to work! At the same time, Lillian Malt perfected the other part of her work, aimed at solving the other half of the ergonomic equation. How do you get the letter layout to eliminate the many problems that the standard ‘qwerty’ layout generates?
Some of the problems involved such factors as ‘left brain-right brain’ confusion or frequency of character use relative to the key’s location. Putting the ‘qwerty’ keys into a better shape helps, but if the second set of key top letters is engraved on the bottom half of each key top, and made active with a switch, then a user can learn to be much more productive and learn faster to do so. For most current Maltron users, the common ‘qwerty’ keyboard layout of the past is already known and it is often easier to just be thankful that one’s hands are again productive without trying to learn a new touch system. So the advantage of a more productive layout has been largely ignored by people, who are mostly interested in, and willing to pay a premium for, the escape from pain.
For students and others interested in learning a superior layout that is able to provide an ergonomically correct solution for the mind as well as the body, the Malt layout is a great idea! However, to this point in time in 2004, it has been necessary to buy two-unit, one for the PC and one for the Mac, to be sure that you can carry the lightweight unit to any computer and be able to connect to it! That is now changed as the new Ergomatic unit has been designed to have a cable end to fit both PC and Macintosh computers and talk to it in both ‘qwerty’ and ‘Malt’ layouts. With a carrying case and cables to connect, it can travel with ease to wherever a user needs to use their superior skills in ergonomic comfort.