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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 (email@example.com) is professor of managerial economics at the University of Texas at Dallas management school. Stephen E. Margolis (firstname.lastname@example.org) is professor of economics at North Carolina State University.