Typing Errors

The standard typewriter keyboard is Exhibit A in the hottest new case against markets. But the evidence has been cooked.

(Page 2 of 5)

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 Fable

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.

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  • youngminii||

    Worst article ever.

  • TG||

    I thought it was interesting.

  • ||

    Can you, please, elaborate more?

  • Nicholas Barry||

    Regarding the Beta/VHS conflict: It isn't just "first on the scene" that matters; it's how well something is developed. Without detailed knowledge of the Beta/VHS battle, I'll defer to someone who knows how it went down, but the lock-in argument doesn't posit that the first on the scene will automatically gain acceptance - it posits that the first to widely and successfully deploy will have a strong advantage. If Beta came first, but wasn't marketed successfully, VHS could have come along afterward and set the standard for the many more people who adopted it.

  • Bill||

    Beta was still used in the TV industry for years as the medium for storing/running commercials.

  • ||

    It seems that everyone forgot that there were two Beta systems. A Beta I and a Beta II. And therein lies the demise of the Beta system. If you bought a Beta I system (very expensive for the time) you were screwed since it was not compatible with the Beta II system. After dropping a boat load of cash on Beta I or seeing others do so, would you run out and bet the farm on Beta II? I don't think so! Most people don't like being screwed.

  • Nicholas Barry||

    The point about switching from DOS to Windows is a point in FAVOR of the lock-in argument - the whole point of the lock-in argument is that once you've adopted a certain technology or system, it's easier to stay within that system than to move to a different system.

    Of course people sometimes switch, but as this article points out, it's much easier to switch to something that's in the family than to switch to something entirely different. Lock-in occurs in part BECAUSE of this social concern, which the lock-in argument absolutely does not consider irrelevant.

  • ||

    TL;DR. Honestly, one of the most incoherent blog posts I have ever come across. Was there even a point you were trying to stick to, anyway?

  • ||

    This article is definitely more geared towards promoting a certain free-market ideology than objectively comparing the merits of different keyboard layouts. Hence the argument that the Dvorak keyboard must be a fraud because the market will always choose the superior product. I agree that much of the evidence promoted in support of Dvorak appears to be bunk. There's no way anyone will become a faster typist on Dvorak within ten days of switching, it takes months to get back to your previous QWERTY speed. I also agree that Dvorak is no faster once you have mastered it. I was just as fast on QWERTY as I am on Dvorak. The main benefit to switching in my personal experience is comfort. When I used to type for hours at a time on QWERTY my wrists would begin to ache. Since switching, typing is much more comfortable and I often type just to feel the sensation. It actually feels good to type. Of course, the fact that it takes so long to switch reinforces the point that it's not worth it for your employer to urge you to switch. They would much rather you get wrist pain and eventually carpal tunnel syndrome than have a few months of reduced productivity. So goes the free market eh Reason? ;)

  • Michael Salamey||

    @Jason Wilkens, I am a Dvorak user, too, and my experience has largely been the same. It took me about a month to return to QWERTY speed and I have gained minor speed improvement with Dvorak, but any speed is lost when I have to use an "unusual" key (such as the "\", which I often have to pause to find). The main advantage, for me too, is definitely less finger fatigue. I can type as long as I wish.

    Anyway, overall, I find Dvorak superior and would like to see actual Dvorak keyboards (although another advantage which may explain my slight speed increase is that I now know all the major keys by memory rather than half-memory/ half-sight).

    As far as markets, lock-in, etc., I agree with @Nicholas Barry... it's all marketing. Case-in-point: The Mini-Disc and Laser Disc were far superior to the CD/DVD/VHS, but the market chose the CD & DVD, for whatever reason (better marketing), and eventually chose MP3's over CD's, bypassing the mini-disc altogether.

  • Mr.Recycle||

    Laserdisc was far superior to DVD? Laserdiscs are huge (~12inch), they are analog, at high quality, they are 30 minutes to side, so if you are watching a long move, not only are you flipping the disc, you are swapping after 60min. They are also lower resolution than DVD. Not sure there is any case that they are superior to DVD.

  • ##||

    Just marketing, eh? I worked for the N.A. Phillips division that designed the Laserdisc player and I can tell you that they were in no way superior. The discs had all the problems Mr.Recycle mentions plus a tendency to skip. No one was sorry when production stopped. As for the minidisc, it originally couldn't be used for data storage and for audio recording used a proprietary compression technology no better than MP3. They also used a holder similar to a 3.5" floppy so were more expensive to produce. About the only thing going for them was size.

  • ||

    @Jason and michael
    I switched to dvorak my sophmore year of college, during a freshman comp class. I'd been touch typing QWERTY since 2nd grade, but always found my hands cramping up or feeling more like claws. Always having to contort them in odd ways was straight uncomfortable. It did take about a month to get decent at dvorak, maybe 3 months of casual typing to get back to full speeds.

    Now I do a lot of coding and stuff at my job, and i can't imagine going back. Well, actually I can, but only because I still type in QWERTY sometimes. It's not even that bad to switch. If I look at the keys I type in QWERTY, if I look at the screen I type in dvorak.

    I think one problem in the analysis is that they only looked at financial benefits to companies retraining people, not how individuals feel about switching, nor which is better to start a child on. (I certainly would start my kids on dvorak)

  • tony||

    This is very strange. There is a fact which is being underrepresented here: typing is muscle memory, and for many people, reconfiguring muscle memory is VERY hard. So hard, in fact, that after switching to Dvorak, it took me TWO YEARS to lose all my QWERTYness. the spirit of QWERTY persisted in my bones for that long, and that's considering that I switched to Dvorak completely cold turkey.

    In other words, these experiments where they have people switching around keyboards in the span of mere months are fundamentally flawed.

    If the case is simply that switching is hard, no shit. I wouldn't advocate switching on company-wide levels. It is more for individuals to decide. The easiest way to switch the world to the infinitely more comfortable Dvorak is to have it be the first layout that students learn, which would be its own challenge.

  • mnmlst||

    I switched to Dvorak about 15 years ago, but ended up working in computer support and it was too hard to type QWERTY 2/3 of each day and Dvorak 1/3; just not worth the mental effort and I didn't really type that much. I quit Dvorak for about 10 years and then went back to it a few years ago when I settled into providing remote IT support (my desk - all the time.) Even that didn't work so great as PCAnywhere, Blackberry, and other things are QWERTY only. Additionally, after a few bad experiences, my wife has forbidden Dvorak on the home PC's!

    I only do a little tech support now and a LOT of typing, so my Dvorak skill is improving. That said, like others said here, my speed is about the same as QWERTY, but the comfort is much, much better with Dvorak. I find Colemak, which only switches E and P from one hand to the other, but minimizes movement as well as Dvorak intriguing.

    At least in computer support work, I find Dvorak has helped get me labeled as a "freak" in two jobs. This has not been a good thing, though it makes it very difficult to hijack my PC from the keyboard.

    If I had it to do over, I don't think I would have bothered leaving QWERTY or consider moving to Colemak. I am not encouraging my homeschooled children to learn anything but QWERTY. That said, AutoHotkey can greatly speed your typing. Some folks claim just remapping two keys, E and something else can hugely increase your speed and comfort.

    QWERTY, warts and all, is the king. I believe this story's refutation of the Navy study based on my own experience with Dvorak. It is difficult and isolating to switch to Dvorak, and the speed really isn't there, just comfort. Plus, you really have to know both, you can't be pure Dvorak, in my experience. If you want to try, there is a great freeware Dvorak switcher I found via Sourceforge.net. Keep it on thumb drive and it seems to run EVERYWHERE you can plug into USB. If you still want to go Dvorak or Colemak, keycap sticker sets are cheap on eBay.

  • Justin||

    I think you mean Michael *Shermer*.

  • joancarlson||

    I guess the writer's plan was to bore those considering a switch Dvorak. Once tried, one sees the lunacy of using Qwerty, and further, is willing to put up with whatever small inconveniences - such as waiting for the iPad to come Dvorak ready (software, not hardware).

  • Brooklynn||

    "And switching old typewriters to a new keyboard was not particularly expensive--only $5.00 for resoldering in the 1930s."

    Uh... what about inflation? $5.00 in the 1930s was worth a lot more than it is today.* Of course, I'm not sure how relevant this is anyway, given that the Dvorak keyboard wasn't patented until 1936.

    *Just how much more depends on what measurement you're using, and what year of the 1930s. But "in 2009, $5.00 from 1936 [was] worth $77.40 using the Consumer Price Index" (see http://www.measuringworth.com/uscompare/ for more detailed analysis).

  • Lobq||

    It may be only a side effect from learning a new keyboard layout and being careful to learn it properly, but I was developing carpal tunnel and within ~1-2 months of learning dvorak my carpal tunnel vanished. I don't care what studies or individuals say pro or anti - dvorak it all seems like propaganda and people complaining, learning dvorak was truly helpful for me, and likely saved me hundreds of dollars in medical bills.

  • ||

    Your post is chocked full of facts and dates and names and typing speeds. Logical reasoning, not so much:
    1. If others' use of the QWERTY story is a good argument for path dependence or not is irrelevant. Dvorak is superior to QWERTY. (see below)
    2. You offer no explanation of why QWERTY might be better -- Dvorak has the logic of finger placement, home keys, travel distance, etc. to provide some causality to its improved performance. Your QWERTY argument boils down to "no it isn't" and stops there. Not very satisfying scientifically.
    3. I'll accept that authors blindly quoted each other re this Navy Study rather than review the primary research themselves when you accept that this phenomenon goes tenfold for global warming.
    4. As a typewriter collector I would like to point out that these early machines were "invisible" -- you could not see what you were producing since the paper lay parallel to the table and the keys hit upwards. To check your work you needed to stop, lift the platen, and examine the page. The first "visible" typewriters appeared in 1984 or 1987 (claims vary). Touch typing would mean very little prior to that, it was ok to look at the keys since there was nothing else to look at!
    5. As a typewriter collector I need to point out that you left out another important dimension -- finger strength. Today's computer keyboards require very little pressure. But up to the advent of the electric typewriter (common after WWII) keys needed to be depressed with a great deal of force. Try an experiment: place three carbons in a common machine, say an Olympia, and try getting a good impression with the most common letter in the language "e". You're using the weakest fingers of your weakest hand. There is no credible argument explaining why this is "almost as good" as placing frequent keys in the home row.
    6. If Dvorak was a time and motion expert then his development of the Dvorak keyboard is in support of its design, not otherwise. Ok, even assuming he had other motives -- fame or money -- so what? Many people name things after themselves. Your byline would indicate you find those to be reasonable goals.
    7. All your arguments regarding the true percentage improvement are all made at the margin. ROI on retraining our EXISTING typists. How about all the future generations of typists that would learn sooner and type faster (whether a lot or a little is moot -- there's nothing to recoup). You have glorified the "its not raining so there is no need to fix the roof" argument. Such short sightedness is shocking in a post that goes into such detail elsewhere! You limit the business case on such a fundamental change to the first month or so? The focus should be on the investment needed to break this vicious circle.
    8. Finally, your whole argument is Aristotelian -- a logical discussion rather than a practical experiment. I've tried Dvorak and QWERTY and it seems very clear to me that Dvorak is better. And yet I do not use a Dvorak keyboard because the rest of the world does not. My computer is only occasionally used by others but I frequently use other computers. So I accept QWERTY as an unfortunate fact of life...like reality tv.

  • ||

    Dvorak v Qwerty has not been fully studied so definitive conclusions are not available.

    There is some evidence though that Dvorak users can type longer without fatigue or injury and that new typists can pick up typing Dvorak quicker.

    It is a moot point though which is 'better', because people are not logical rational beings. Analyzing human behaviour that way yields little insight.

  • IOH||

    I thought this was a great article. The ironic part of the whole thing is that the act of repeating the QWERTY myth is in many ways the same as the central thesis of the myth itself.

    I find it amazing how persistent these erroneous stories or explanations can stick around. I've heard this one forever and only today decided to research it, I'll be filing it away along with the "hump" theory of how airplanes fly.

  • Jason Foster||

    Sir or Madam,

    I thought it was a pretty weak article, with a few good points.

    The fact that DVORAK is superior, if only marginally so, is a fact. I feel the author sidestepped this fact.

    Whether this superiority warrants learning it is arguable, and in fact many points in the article show that it is not worth the effort, especially in a "re-training" scenario.

  • Onkudraku||

    The authors' "logical argument" appears to go something like this: Cowboy boots predate running shoes. The average person can only run a little faster for a short distance in running shoes, than they could in cowboy boots. Therefore, any superiority claimed for running shoes is a myth.

    Get real. This article has less to do with comparing keyboards than it does to "refuting" an analogy that free-market ideologues find inconvenient.

    I have osteoarthritis in both hands, diagnosed many years ago, due to years of metal-working. Since I switched to Dvorak boards, typing doesn't give me flare-ups. I too have had my share of adult children claiming that I only use this board to be different, or because I'm weird. I used to try to be polite. Now I tell them to stop being such a pussy and learn to use a modern key-map, which is about all these naysayers deserve.

    World Record for typing in English: Barbara Blackburn, 212 WPM, on a DVORAK KEYBOARD. Suck on that.

  • قبلة الوداع||

    thank u

  • Rick G||

    The QWERTY layout was designed for a mechanical typewriter in the 1870's. The Dvorak layout was designed for the human typist. Nearly all of the articles and comments I have read by people who have switched to Dvorak find it more comfortable. In my opinion, this article is biased in favor of the QWERTY by and author who is anti-Dvorak.

  • ||

    All people who switch from Aspirin to Tylenol find Tylenol better... that's why they switched! Obviously people who find QWERTY better, good, or OK would never have the thought of switching to begin with. That's the problem with anecdotal evidence.

  • ||

    I agree with George Rivas, except he must have been using the wrong keyboard and transposed "1984 or 1987" with the actual late 1890s dates.

    I learned Dvorak, and it is indeed more comfortable. And like others here, I abandoned it due to ubiquity of qwerty. With computers, it is very easy to simply turn on Dvorak (except for what's on the physical keys), so maybe I'll do it again. Someday.

  • ||

    Phew! I'm glad I read the comments! There are some good points in this article, but it is severely flawed. In the end, it doesn't demonstrate the point it intends to at all. The comments point out many of the flaws very well.

    Consider this:
    1. There are at least 26! (that's over 403,291,461 million trillion) keyboard layouts. That's just for the letters. There are more if you let letters go outside where they are on a QWERTY keyboard.
    2. I think everyone agrees that the QWERTY layout was designed at least in part to prevent jamming. I don't believe for a second that it was made to "slow people down" as some say, but jamming was a real problem to be tackled.
    3. The QWERTY standard took off because it was pretty fast to use, avoided jamming and had companies backing it. Note that the Dvorak layout did not exist at this point!
    4. People were trained in using QWERTY. Thus, money had been sunk into its use, people became accustomed to it, and it was almost impossible to get people to switch. Ironically, the article hammers this home: that the switch to another layout is impractical, even if it is superior. QWERTY is everywhere now, meaning that no tests are really fair. I'd like to see a study done on children. Maybe ten-year-olds that can't type?

    The article argues for the success of the market. If the free market has been successful, then the best layout has been chosen by the market. Let me explain to you why QWERTY is DEFINITELY not the best layout:

    Look at the number in point 1 (over 400,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 possible layouts).
    Now look at the reasons for its ubiquity in points 2 and 3.
    The odds of a layout being optimal for speed and comfort, when it has not been specifically designed to be so, are effectively zero. I accept the points made about the Dvorak tests. Indeed, maybe Dvorak is inferior to QWERTY. I don't know. What I do know is that it doesn't matter. QWERTY is certainly not optimal, and that is a market failure.

    I typed this with a QWERTY keyboard and have no loyalty to it or anything else.

  • Soren Bjornstad||

    I'm surprised that nobody has linked here yet:

    Basically, it goes through a lot of the points in this article and describes the problems with it.

    The most absurd thing to me is that they completely sidestep the issue of training new typists--they say "it is not efficient for current QWERTY typists to switch to Dvorak" as if there are no people in the world who currently do not type. It would be a major stretch to claim that the Strong study that they cite applies to people who have never typed before.

    Seeing people quote and believe this article makes me sad, as a Dvorak user. I can type over 100WPM on Dvorak--about 20-30 faster than I could on QWERTY. Typing QWERTY makes my hands hurt--not so with Dvorak. No matter what scientific evidence someone shoves in my face, I'm not going to agree that QWERTY is somehow superior. (And the "scientific evidence" seems to be less than scientific, anyway.)

    I have my own website on the Dvorak keyboard if anybody cares (it's linked to my name).

  • John Lambie||

    Tedious, unscholarly, illogical, unintuitive, misinformed and plain wrong.
    QWERTY is not ergonomically superior to anything.
    QWERTY's litany of usability fails is legion.
    There's nothing sadder or more pathetic than a QWERTY apologist, because they simply don't have a usability leg to stand on
    And the end of the day, they're reduced to "'tis too!", "because, just because!" and 'coz I said so!" arguments.

    QWERTY was built around mechanics - not ergonomics, it was designed to prevent jams on an originally optimised keyboard that had the vowels on the top row and all the consonants running in an alphabetic string underneath:
    A E I Y U O
    B C D F G H J K L M N
    Z X W V T S R Q P

    The ergonomic advantages of this original layout are obvious even to the naked eye. It is was exquisitely optimised for
    1) ease of learning
    2) ease of use
    3) speed

    The machine, however, could not keep up with the humans using it and certain letter pairs when struck in quick succession would jam. So in a triumph of mechanics over ergonomics they simply rearranged the problematic pairs an et voila! the non-jamming typewriter.

    You can still see the alphabetic vestiges in 12 of QWERTY's 26 key placements:
    E O D F G H J K L V X & Z

    A truly pathetic compromise - too many letters out of order to be any use, but nearly half of them in order for no apparent usability advantage. the worst of both worlds.

  • ||

    The Idea that Markets choose the BEST solution is more complex than most people consider. Sure, you may like Devorak more than QWERTY, Mac more than PC or Beta more than VHS. But which one wins out is dependent on many many factors. Sure Beta was better picture quality than VHS but they got there by having a Beta I and then replacing it with a Beta II, screwing all the people who bought Beta I. That should have and did kill Sony's Beta system. The history of development of a product and how it is used determines who are the winners and losers. Also, as mentioned above in one of the comments, people are not necessarily rational. For example one product may win out simply because it's name sounds better. That is part of the human condition and markets have to deal with that too.

  • fumbaz||

    Not a single solid reference to back the "research" was given. This garbage should be completely removed since now it's being referenced elsewhere as some sort of scientific conclusion of Dvorak's inconclusive findings and qwerty's superiority.


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