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Origin myths: QWERTY and Dvorak

On 12 May 1936, Dvorak and Dealey received a patent for their keyboard. It did not displace QWERTY. Why?

Once upon a time, my husband converted the keyboard on his desktop Windows computer to the Dvorak layout. It’s a simple matter to change the mapping, a more difficult one to change the hints on the keys or the “muscle memory” of the fingers.

He did that because we (erroneously) believed two stories:

  1. That the QWERTY keyboard was developed to slow down typists, to keep the keys on ancient mechanical typewriters from jamming.
  2. That the Dvorak keyboard was more efficient because it was designed to make typing faster.

Let’s take them apart, chronologically.

Origins of the QWERTY keyboard

The QWERTY keyboard is named for the first six letters of the top row of letters (the second row of the keyboard).

Christopher Latham Sholes (1819-1890) was a printer, newspaperman and inventor of the typewriter and the QWERTY keyboard.

On 23 June 1868, Sholes, along with Carlos Glidden and Samuel W. Soulé, received U.S. Patent No. 79,265 for a typewriter that used six piano keys in its design.

1868 typewriter
This Sholes, Glidden, & Soule typewriter patent model was awarded patent number 79,265 on June 23rd, 1868. Image: CC, Smithsonian.

That doesn’t look anything like your mental model of a typewriter, does it?

By 1893, the typewriter had morphed into a machine with a keyboard that is a bit more familiar looking:

Remington typewriter
The first Sholes & Glidden model typewriter made by Remington; Wisconsin Historical Museum. Image: CC, Wikimedia

What happened in-between?

Although Sholes and Glidden entered into a contract with Remington (yes, the gun-maker) to produce the typewriter in 1873, he kept fiddling. In 1878, Sholes received U.S. Patent No. 207,559 with the QWERTY keyboard layout.

By 1890, there were more than 100,000 QWERTY-based Remington produced typewriters in use across the country. The fate of the keyboard was decided in 1893 when the five largest typewriter manufacturers –Remington, Caligraph, Yost, Densmore, and Smith-Premier– merged to form the Union Typewriter Company and agreed to adopt QWERTY as the de facto standard that we know and love today.

There’s a common origin story about the QWERTY keyboard: that it was designed deliberately to slow down a typist, to keep the keys from sticking. The “machine over man (or women)” theory of design.

However in 2011, Japanese researchers argued the keyboard was not designed to slow down typists; that was a myth. They wrote: “The early keyboard of Type-Writer was derived from Hughes-Phelps Printing Telegraph, and it was developed for Morse receivers.” The keyboard was “incidentally changed into QWERTY.”

Their research suggests that the QWERTY keyboard may be an early example of user-centered design rather than one intended to create inefficiency!

[T]he QWERTY system emerged as a result of how the first typewriters were being used. Early adopters and beta-testers included telegraph operators who needed to quickly transcribe messages. However, the operators found the alphabetical arrangement to be confusing and inefficient for translating morse code. The Kyoto paper suggests that the typewriter keyboard evolved over several years as a direct result of input provided by these telegraph operators (emphasis added).

Context of use is a key principle of user-centered design. Using that lens, the development environment 1800s looks quite different, doesn’t it?

Origins of the Dvorak keyboard

In the early 1930s, August Dvorak, educational psychologist and professor of education at the University of Washington, and William Dealey, his brother-in-law, studied how to making typing more efficient. It was the tale-end of the age of efficiency.

On 12 May 1936, Dvorak and Dealey received U.S. Patent No. 2,040,248 for a keyboard that they claimed required less finger motion and consequently reduced errors.

Dvorak keyboard
Modern Dvorak keyboard. Image, Wikimedia.

Despite their claims – and the apparent logic of placing most-used keys on the home row – researchers suggest that the Dvorak layout improves efficiency only by about five percent.

Why do we still use the QWERTY layout?

Flash back to the late 19th century.

First, an early monopoly in manufacturing: in 1893, the five largest typewriter manufacturers merged, and Remington “controlled the trust.” In 1913, the Union Typewriter Trust reorganized as the Remington Typewriter Company.

Second, an economic principle known as path dependence also played an important role.

By the late 1930s, businesses had extensive investment (sunk cost) in typewriters with QWERTY keyboards. Even factoring in accounting magic (depreciation), replacing existing machines would be expensive. Such an investment would require a far greater performance improvement than offered by Dvorak.

In addition, typists knew QWERTY. They did not know Dvorak. One reason for this knowledge or skill was Remington’s marketing model:

Remington didn’t just produce typewriters, they also provided training courses – for a small fee, of course. Typists who learned on their proprietary system would have to stay loyal to the brand, so companies that wanted to hire trained typists had to stock their desks with Remington typewriters.

In combination, the design (QWERTY) is entrenched in our culture. As such, it was, and is, difficult to displace.

My husband eventually returned to QWERTY.


#scitech, #society, #computing (112/365)
📷 Apple
Daily posts, 2022-2023

By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

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