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The typewriter keyboard is central to this literature because it appears to be the single best example where luck caused an inferior product to defeat a demonstrably superior product. It is an often repeated story that is generally believed to be true. Interestingly, the typewriter story, though charming, is also false.
The operative patent for the typewriter was awarded in 1868 to Christopher Latham Sholes. Sholes and his associates experimented with various keyboard designs, in part to solve the problem of the jamming of the keys. The result of these efforts is the common QWERTY keyboard (named for the letters in the upper left hand row). It is frequently claimed that the keyboard was actually configured to reduce typing speed, since that would have been one way to avoid the jamming of the typewriter.
The rights to the Sholes patent were sold to E. Remington & Sons in early 1873. Remington added further mechanical improvements and began commercial production in late 1873. Other companies arose and produced their own keyboard designs to compete with Remington. Overall sales grew, but slowly.
A watershed event in the received version of the QWERTY story is a typing contest held in Cincinnati on July 25, 1888. Frank McGurrin, a court stenographer from Salt Lake City who was purportedly the only person using touch typing at the time, won a decisive victory over Louis Taub. Taub used the hunt-and-peck method on a Caligraph, a machine with an alternative arrangement of keys. McGurrin's machine, as luck would have it, just happened to be a QWERTY machine.
According to popular history, the event established once and for all that the Remington typewriter, with its QWERTY keyboard, was technically superior. Wilfred Beeching's influential history of the keyboard mentions the Cincinnati contest and attaches great importance to it: "Suddenly, to their horror, it dawned upon both the Remington company and the Caligraph company officials, torn between pride and despair, that whoever won was likely to put the other out of business!" Beeching refers to the contest as having established the Remington machine "once and for all." Since no one else at that time had learned touch typing, owners of alternative keyboards found it impossible to counter the claim that Remington's QWERTY keyboard arrangement was the most efficient.
So, according to this popular telling, McGurrin's fluke choice of the Remington keyboard, a keyboard designed to solve a particular mechanical problem, became the very poor standard used daily by millions of typists.
Fast forward now to 1936, when August Dvorak, a professor at the University of Washington, patented the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard. Dvorak claimed to have experimental evidence that his keyboard provided advantages of greater speed, reduced fatigue, and easier learning. These claims were buttressed when, during World War II, the U.S. Navy conducted experiments demonstrating that the cost of converting typists to the Dvorak keyboard would be repaid, through increased typing speed, within 10 days from the end of training. Despite these claims, however, the Dvorak keyboard has never found much acceptance.
In many regards this is an ideal example. The dimensions of performance are few, and in these dimensions the Dvorak keyboard appears to be overwhelmingly superior. The failure to choose the Dvorak keyboard certainly seems to demonstrate that something is amiss. On top of all that, it's a charming tale that is easy to tell, and the moral seems easy to find.
Unfortunately, what is amiss here is not the market choice, but the tale itself. The standard telling of this story turns out to be false in almost every important respect.
Tainted Evidence for Dvorak
The belief that the Dvorak keyboard is superior to QWERTY can be traced to a few key sources. A book published by Dvorak and several co-authors in 1936 presented Dvorak's own investigations, which might charitably be called less than objective. Their book has the feel of a late-night television infomercial rather than scientific work. Consider this from their chapter about relative keyboard performance:
"The bare recital to you of a few simple facts should suffice to indict the available spatial pattern that is so complacently entitled the universal [QWERTY] keyboard. Since when was the universe lopsided? The facts will not be stressed, since you may finally surmount most of the ensuing handicaps of this [QWERTY] keyboard. Just enough facts will be paraded to lend you double assurance that for many of the errors that you will inevitably make and for much of the discouraging delay you will experience in longed-for speed gains, you are not to blame. If you grow indignant over the beginner's role of innocent victim, remember that a little emotion heightens determination. Analysis of the present keyboard is so destructive that an improved arrangement is a modern imperative. Isn't it obvious that faster, more accurate, less fatiguing typing can be attained in much less learning time provided a simplified keyboard is taught?" Unfortunately, their statement that they will not stress the facts appears truthful.
Dvorak and his co-authors claimed that their studies established that students learn Dvorak faster than they learn QWERTY. But they compared students of different ages and abilities (for example, students learning Dvorak in grades 7 and 8 at the University of Chicago Lab School were compared with students learning QWERTY in conventional high schools), in different school systems, taking different tests in classes that met for different lengths of time. One doesn't need to be a scientist to realize that such comparisons are not the stuff of controlled experiments. Even in their studies, however, the evidence is mixed as to whether students learning Dvorak retain an advantage, since the differences seemed to diminish as training progressed.
But it is the Navy study that is the basis for the more extravagant claims of Dvorak's advocates. That is the study that supposedly established that the entire retraining cost is recaptured 10 days after the start of retraining.