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Many of us remember the original Speak & Spell from 1978:

Speak & Spell handheld console

Image source: Wikipedia

One of the interesting things about this early handheld educational game console is the keyboard. It's not normal! The letters are in alphabetic order rather than the then-typical QWERTY keyboard layout or any of its competitors.

Why was this done? An article on Tedium mentions that "Early on, the device had an A-to-Z keyboard, reflecting its status as a device that predated most home computers. But by the late 1980s, the QWERTY layout was common on computers, and the later models of the Speak & Spell adapted to this market shift.", but I find this explanation less than satisfactory. 1978 was the middle of the golden age of electromechanical typewriters (which were mostly QWERTY in the English-speaking world), and the QWERTY layout itself dates from the late 1800's, so QWERTY keyboards would have been highly familiar to most adults and many children in those days even if they weren't regularly hacking away on computers yet. The QWERTY keyboard layout also reigned supreme in the computer world at that time, for example in the infamous "Space Cadet Keyboard" of the very same year, 1978.

Is there anything specific known about this design choice? Did the designers ever specifically comment on it or are there obvious reasons evident in the development process or the system architecture that would lead to this choice?

  • Was this done for pedagogical reasons, e.g. to help children learn the order of the alphabet?
  • Was there a specific architecture reason (e.g. character set encoding) that made it easier to put the keyboard in alphabetical order?
  • Was this done to make the device feel more like a toy and less like a "real" computer or typewriter?
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    I think you are overestimating how often people saw QWERTY keyboards prior to the late 80's. We didn't own a typewriter (and even if we did, it would have been a novelty for a kid like me) and didn't have a real computer in the house until ~1982. As an educational toy, I would suspect putting the alphabet in alphabetical order would have been a relatively easy decision to make. Even with the advent of the PC I wouldn't say they were mainstream for kids to use for a while.
    – Joe
    Jul 28 at 0:06
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    I remember starting typing class in middle school on electric typewriters and the universal question was, "why the frack are the letters all mixed up? Would't it be easier if they were alphabetical?" :-)
    – Geo...
    Jul 28 at 18:16
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Was this done for pedagogical reasons, e.g. to help children learn the order of the alphabet?

Rather the other way around:

  • Pupils learn the alphabet in preschool in sequence (think the ABC song) thus this order is most natural for anyone
  • At the age for Speak & Spell (if one isn't a hacker), the question what valid letters are and how they are connected to sounds is still a riddle - otherwise a learning toy like Speak & Spell wouldn't make much sense.
  • For the common tasks on Speak&Spell to spell what has been said, alphabetic sorted keys thus build an UI fitting the target audience and its use case.

Was there a specific architecture reason (e.g. character set encoding) that made it easier to put the keyboard in alphabetical order?

Nop, it's a matrix. Encoding can be any.

Was this done to make the device feel more like a toy and less like a "real" computer or typewriter?

Why on earth would one not want it to be associated with the at the time much hyped computers?

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