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Since several academic authors, including Paul David, have made reference to this Navy study, we assumed it would not be too difficult to find. But when we started to look for it, it seemed to have disappeared from the face of the earth. After trying our own libraries, we tried the Navy Library, the Martin Luther King Library, the Library of Congress, the National Archives, the National Technical Communication Service, and so forth. The librarians were more helpful than we had any right to expect, but the results of their efforts seemed to indicate that we would not find the Navy study.
Had any of the modern authors who referred to the Navy study as supporting Dvorak's keyboard ever actually read it? This appears to be one of those cases in which one author relies on another's account, who in turn is relying on another's, and so on, without any of them reading the original. Yet the Navy study is a primary source of many of the claims for the Dvorak keyboard. This is certainly not a high watermark in scholarship.
We had about given up hope when we located a copy of the study held by an organization called Dvorak International, headquartered in the attic of a farmhouse in Vermont. The report does not list the authors. The report's foreword states that two prior experiments had been conducted but that "the first two groups were not truly fair tests." This certainly raised our suspicions. Might those earlier tests have been ignored because the results were inconsistent with the results the authors desired? This suspicion was later reinforced when we read about a 1953 study for the Australian Post Office. In the early phases of the Australian study, the experiments showed no advantages for Dvorak. But then adjustments were made in the test procedure to "remove psychological impediments to superior performance." We can only guess how the proponents of the Dvorak keyboard, who conducted the experiments, might have removed those nasty impediments.
As to the experimental design of the Navy study, we can only state that if the experimental controls seemed bad in the early studies authored by Dvorak and his associates, the Navy study seems even worse.
First, 14 Navy typists were retrained on newly overhauled Dvorak typewriters for two hours a day. We are not told how the typists were chosen, although we are told that they had initial typing speeds of 32 words per minute, well below the Navy's standard of competence. Yet in spite of their poor typing skills, the typists had IQs only two points below average and dexterity skills 15 points above average. Based on these abilities, this group of typists should have been expected to type at far above minimal competency. After completing 83 hours on the new keyboard, we are told that the typing speed for this group had increased to an average of 56 net words per minute, a 75 percent increase.
A second part of the experiment consisted of the retraining of 18 typists on the QWERTY keyboard. These typists reported a 28 percent increase in typing speed from their initial speed of 29 words a minute.
Although this evidence looks like a slam-dunk for Dvorak, it is not.
First, it is not clear how the QWERTY typists were picked, or even if members of this group were aware that they were part of an experiment. The participants' IQs and dexterity skills are not reported for the QWERTY retraining group. Were their abysmal typing scores surprising, given their inherent abilities? It is difficult to have any sense whether this group is a reasonable control for the first group. Nor do we know if the QWERTY typewriters were newly overhauled. Nor do we know who retrained these typists.
Even worse, there is clear evidence that the results were altered through a series of inappropriate data manipulations. For example, the initial typing scores for the QWERTY typists were measured differently from the initial scores of the Dvorak typists so as to greatly disadvantage the QWERTY results. The report states that, because three typists in the QWERTY group had initial net scores of zero words per minute (!), the beginning and ending speeds were calculated as the average of the first four typing tests and the average of the last four typing tests. This has the effect of raising the measured initial typing speed, and lowering the measured ending speed. In contrast, the initial experiment using Dvorak simply used the first and last test scores. Using numbers reported in the footnotes of the report, we were able to calculate that this truncation of the reported values at the beginning of the test reduced the measured increase in typing speed on the QWERTY keyboard by almost half. The effect of the truncation at the end of the measuring period also decreases the reported gains for the QWERTY typists, though the size of this distortion cannot be determined from the report. The important thing, however, is that the numbers appear to be cooked in favor of Dvorak.
How can we take seriously a study which so blatantly seems to be stacking the deck in favor of Dvorak? And, indeed, there appears to have been good reason for that deck stacking.
We discovered that the Navy's top expert in the analysis of time and motion studies during World War II was none other than...drum roll please...Lieut. Com. August Dvorak. Earle Strong, a professor at Pennsylvania State University and a one-time chairman of the Office Machine Section of the American Standards Association, reports that the 1944 Navy experiment was conducted by Dvorak himself. Strong was heavily involved with these issues. He was the author of a key test of the typewriter keyboard commissioned by the General Services Administration.
As if the potential for bias were not great enough, we also discovered that Dvorak had a financial stake in this keyboard. He not only owned the patent on the keyboard but had received at least $130,000 from the Carnegie Commission for Education for the studies performed while he was at the University of Washington, a rather stupendous sum for the time.
Of course, the purported Navy results, if true, would be quite remarkable. After those first 10 days in which the investment is made and recovered, the faster typing continues every working day in the life of the typist. This would imply that the investment in retraining repays itself at least 23 times in one year. Does it seem even remotely possible that employers with large typing pools would turn down investments with returns of 2,200 percent a year?
Evidence Against Dvorak
Naturally, these false results were going to get found out. As many businesses and government agencies contemplated changing keyboards in the mid 1950s, the General Services Administration commissioned Strong's study to confirm the earlier results. This study provides the most compelling evidence against the Dvorak keyboard. It was a carefully controlled experiment designed to examine the costs and benefits of switching to Dvorak. It unreservedly concluded that retraining typists on Dvorak was inferior to retraining on QWERTY.