Free Minds & Free Markets

Typing Errors

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

(Page 4 of 4)

In February 1889, under the headline "Wonderful Typing," The New York Times reported on a typing demonstration given the previous day in Brooklyn by Thomas Osborne of Rochester, New York. The Times reported that Osborne "holds the championship for fast typing, having accomplished 126 words a minute at Toronto August 13 last." In the Brooklyn demonstration he typed 142 words per minute in a five-minute test, 179 words per minute in a single minute, and 198 words per minute for 30 seconds. He was accompanied by George McBride, who typed 129 words per minute blindfolded. Both men used the non-QWERTY Caligraph machine.

The Times offered that "the Caligraph people have chosen a very pleasant and effective way of proving not only the superior speed of their machine, but the falsity of reports widely published that writing blindfolded was not feasible on that instrument." Note that this was just months after McGurrin's Cincinnati victory.

There were other contests and a good number of victories for McGurrin and Remington. On August 2, 1888, just weeks after the Cincinnati contest, the Times reported a New York contest won by McGurrin with a speed of 95.8 words per minute in a five-minute dictation. In light of the received history, according to which McGurrin is the only person to have memorized the keyboard, it is interesting to note the strong performance of his rivals. May Orr typed 95.2 words per minute, and M Grant typed 93.8 words per minute. Again, on January 9, 1889, the Times reported a McGurrin victory under the headline "Remington Still Leads the List."

Clearly, typists other than McGurrin could touch type, and machines other than Remington were competitive. These events have largely been ignored. But if we are interested in whether the QWERTY keyboard's existence can be attributed to more than happenstance or an inventor's whim, these events are crucial. The other keyboards did compete. They just couldn't surpass QWERTY. So we cannot attribute the success of the QWERTY keyboard either to a lack of alternatives or to the chance association of this keyboard arrangement with the only touch typist or the only mechanically adequate typewriter.

There is further evidence of QWERTY's viability in its survival throughout the world. As typing moved to countries outside the United States, any QWERTY momentum could have been only a minor influence, yet the basic configuration has been adopted with only minor variations in virtually all countries with similar alphabets. What's more, the advent of computer keyboards, which can easily be reprogrammed to any configuration, lowers the cost of converting to Dvorak to essentially zero (not counting retraining). Yet few computer users have adopted the Dvorak keyboard.


The vitality of markets is that they allow competing alternatives to demonstrate their capabilities. The primary players in this drama are entrepreneurs, a group largely missing from the economic theories that claim to establish the potential for this new kind of market failure. These game-theory models limit firms to an artificially narrow choice of actions, while actual entrepreneurs look for ways to overcome supposed "lock-in." In theory, for instance, there's no such thing as a training course. Entrepreneurs, as we have argued in other writings, are the ones who will bring about the demise of an inefficient standard. Producers of alternative keyboards were motivated to cash in on the success allowed in a market-based economy. That they failed suggests that the non-QWERTY arrangements held no real advantage.

The QWERTY keyboard cannot be said to constitute evidence of any systematic tendency for markets to err. Very simply, no competing keyboard has offered enough advantage to warrant a change. The story of Dvorak's superiority is a myth or, perhaps more properly, a hoax.

In April 1990, we published a more detailed version of this material in a Journal of Law and Economics article titled "The Fable of the Keys." This journal is well known and has published some of the most influential articles in economics. In the six years since we published that article there has been no attempt to refute any of our factual claims, to discredit the GSA study, or to resurrect the Navy study. Unless some new evidence is produced to support a claim of QWERTY's inferiority to Dvorak, how can it even be said that there are two sides to a legitimate scientific disagreement over the keyboard?

Yet the QWERTY myth continues to be cited as if it were the truth. Krugman's book has a 1994 copyright. Frank and Cook's copyright is 1995. In a 1992 article in Industrial and Corporate Change, Paul David cites the QWERTY example, as do Michael Katz and Carl Shapiro in their Spring 1994 article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives.

In a 1995 article on chaos theory, Michael Schermer goes on at length about the need for examples of path dependence. With that, he devotes an entire section, titled "The QWERTY Principle of History," to repeating the myth of Dvorak superiority. The Social Science Citation Index for 1994 shows a total of 28 citations to Paul David's 1985 American Economic Review article presenting the QWERTY myth (the very large majority of these are uncritical uses of the QWERTY story). And there is no sign of abatement. The Citation Index for the first two-thirds of 1995, which is all that is available as of this writing, shows 25 citations. If academics keep using a false example, authors of popular articles can hardly be held to higher standards of scholarship.

Apparently the theory of path dependence and lock-in to inferior technologies is in trouble without the QWERTY example. Apparently the cost of giving up this example is greater than the discomfort associated with its illegitimate use. Apparently the typewriter example is of such importance to many writers because it can so easily persuade people that an interventionist technology policy is necessary. How else to explain its continued use in this literature? Since an interventionist technology policy is no more likely to benefit consumers than are the myriad other government interventions in the market, we should not be surprised that good examples are largely fictional.

Stan Liehowitz ( is professor of managerial economics at the University of Texas at Dallas management school. Stephen E. Margolis ( is professor of economics at North Carolina State University.

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  • ||

    Worst article ever.

  • ||

    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.

  • ||

    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.

  • ||

    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)

  • ||

    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 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.

  • ||

    I think you mean Michael *Shermer*.

  • ||

    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).

  • ||

    "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 for more detailed analysis).

  • ||

    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 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.

  • ||

    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.

  • ||

    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.

  • ||

    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

  • ||

    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.

  • ahmed kamel||

    Eh bien, je suis un bon poste watcher vous pouvez dire et je ne donne pas une seule raison de critiquer ou de donner une bonne critique à un poste. Je lis des blogs de 5 dernières années et ce blog est vraiment bon cet écrivain a les capacités pour faire avancer les choses i aimerais voir nouveau poste par vous Merci
    اخبار مصر

  • برامج انترنت||

    Eh bien, je suis un bon poste watcher vous pouvez dire et je ne donne pas une seule raison de critiquer ou de donner une bonne critique à un poste. Je lis des blogs de 5 dernières années et ce blog est vraiment bon cet écrivain a les capacités pour faire avancer les choses i aimerais voir nouveau poste par vous Merci

    برامج 2017 برامج كمبيوتر.

  • منتديات مصرية||

    History repeats itself. See the British exit.


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