Re: Iconoclasm (was: Chunking intelligence functions)

From: J. R. Molloy (
Date: Thu May 10 2001 - 12:46:03 MDT

Eliezer S. Yudkowsky used different fingers than I use to type,
> it? Just once in your life? Doesn't continuing to use Qwerty indicate
> that sheer mental inertia is just about the only driving factor in your
> life?

The QWERTY design is reputed to be far inferior to the "scientifically"
designed Dvorak keyboard which claimed to offer a 40% increase in typing
speed. Supposedly, the Navy conducted experiments during the Second World War
demonstrating that the costs of retraining typists on the new keyboard could
be fully recovered within ten days! According to the path dependency theories,
no producers found it profitable to create Dvorak keyboards since everyone
already knew QWERTY, and no one learned Dvorak because there were no Dvorak

This is an ideal example, which accounts for its continued use by virtually
every author looking for an example of path dependence. The number of
dimensions of performance are few and in these dimensions the Dvorak keyboard
appears overwhelmingly superior.

Yet upon investigation, this story appears to be based on nothing more than
wishful thinking and a shoddy reading of the history of the typewriter
keyboard. The QWERTY keyboard, it turns out, is about as good a design as the
Dvorak keyboard, and was better than most competing designs that existed in
the late 1800s when there were many keyboard designs maneuvering for a place
in the market.

Ignored in these stories of Dvorak's superiority is a carefully controlled
experiment conducted under the auspices of the General Service Administration
in the 1950s comparing QWERTY with Dvorak. That experiment contradicted the
claims made by advocates of Dvorak and concluded that it made no sense to
retrain typists on the Dvorak keyboard. This study, which was influential in
its time, brought to an end any serious efforts to shift from QWERTY to
Dvorak. Modern research in ergonomics also reaches similar conclusions. This
research consists of simulations and experiments that compare various keyboard
designs. It finds little advantage in the Dvorak keyboard layout, confirming
the results of the GSA study.

So on what basis were the claims of Dvorak's superiority made? We discovered
that most, if not all, of the claims of Dvorak's superiority can be traced to
the patent owner, Professor August Dvorak. His book on the relative merits of
QWERTY versus his own keyboard has about as much objectivity as a modern
infomercial found on late night television. The wartime Navy study turns out
to have been conducted under the auspices the Navy's chief expert in
time-motion studies -- Lt. Commander August Dvorak, and the results of that
study were clearly fudged. The study also appears to be lacking in anything
remotely related to objectivity. The difficulties that we had getting a copy
of the Navy study, and the fact that it is mentioned, but never actually
cited, convinced us that those economists enamored of the Dvorak fable never
actually perused a copy of that study.

Many other aspects of the received story were also erroneous. It turns out
that there was intense competition between producers of various keyboard
designs early in the history of the typewriter keyboard. And contrary to prior
claims, there were many typing competitions between touch typists on various
keyboard designs, and QWERTY won its share of such competitions. Thus QWERTY
was put through a fairly severe set of tests by the market, and the reason
QWERTY survives seems to be that it is a reasonably good design.

We published a very detailed account of all this the Journal of Law and
Economics in the spring of 1990. Yet in spite of this five year old paper,
which has not been factually disputed, economists working on path dependence
topics continue to use the QWERTY keyboard as the main example to support
their theory that markets cannot be trusted to choose products. One could
hardly find better evidence of this theory's lack of empirical support than
the continued use of a result that is known to be incorrect. The QWERTY story,
by the way, is cited in Reback's paper (his footnote 44).

Also, Dvorak keyboards are not on my favorite notebook computers.


Stay hungry,

--J. R.

Useless hypotheses:
 consciousness, phlogiston, philosophy, vitalism, mind, free will, qualia,
analog computing, cultural relativism

     Everything that can happen has already happened, not just once,
     but an infinite number of times, and will continue to do so forever.
     (Everything that can happen = more than anyone can imagine.)

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