QWERTY vs. Dvorak: The Fable of the Keys?

Original QWERTY typewriter key layout

Description: Original QWERTY typewriter key layout
Attribution: U.S. Patent No. 207,559, issued August 27, 1878 to Christopher Sholes
Source: Wikimedia Commons

A few weeks ago, someone told me the QWERTY keyboard (named for its first six keys) was a mistake. There was another design that had proven more efficient, easier to use, and less likely to cause injuries like carpal tunnel. It’s called the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard and was created by Dr. August Dvorak and his brother-in-law Dr. William Dealey in 1936. Unfortunately, this miraculous invention never took off because people are resistant to change…or so the story goes.

It turns out the most favorable research for the Dvorak keyboard was conducted by none other than Dr. Dvorak himself. Later studies showed there wasn’t much to gain – if anything at all – from switching over from QWERTY. Advocates claim Dvorak has the edge in terms of ergonomic design but this isn’t clear. If a benefit exists, it appears to be a small one. Here’s more on QWERTY vs. Dvorak from The Independent Institute:

At a conference attended the other day by your reporter, a distinguished academic economist (who had better remain nameless) cited the “QWERTY” layout of the standard typewriter keyboard as a clear example of how markets “can make mistakes”. It may have been the millionth such reference. Many a textbook cites this case as proof of a certain kind of market failure — that associated with the adoption and locking-in of a bad standard. For years, if you cited an example of a “pure public good” (another kind of market failure), it had to be a lighthouse. If you needed a case of “positive externalities” (yet another), you would very likely go for beekeeping. In its field, QWERTY has achieved the same iconic eminence.

Which is only apt, because the tale of QWERTY is a myth — just like those other two cases. More than 25 years ago, Ronald Coase, a Nobel laureate, showed that when lighthouses were first built in Britain they were provided by private enterprise; tolls were collected when ships reached port. So lighthouses are not pure public goods. At about the same time Steven Cheung examined beekeeping and apple-growing in the state of Washington. He found that apple-growers paid beekeepers for their bees’ pollinating endeavours; those services were not, in fact, an unpriced “externality”…

(Read the rest at The Independent Institute)

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