Total Pageviews

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Myth of the Myth of the QWERTY keyboard

    1.    ...
    2.    ...
    3.    any invented story.
    4.    ...
    5.    Sociology a collective belief that is built up in response to the wishes of the group rather than an analysis of the basis of the wishes.
[New Latin mythus, modern variant of Late Latin mythos, from Greek: word, speech, tale, legend, myth]

Macquarie Dictionary 2007

"Absence of Evidence is Not Evidence of Absence"

"No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong."

Albert Einstein

I learned to type on an old Underwood manual typewriter in 1967 during my course to train me as a clerk in the Army.  Our instructor told the class the story that the QWERTY keyboard was deliberately designed to slow the typist down.  As I gained more experience I saw or heard nothing to convince me that he'd been wrong.

Over the ensuing years, particularly with the advent of various ergonomic keyboards, I've noticed that there has been a great number of claims that this story is a myth, an urban legend.  Some of the discussion borders on vitriolic, with people almost verbally coming to blows over the internet in defence of their position(s).  I found two things fairly remarkable.  Firstly, I am unable to come to any conclusion as to WHY this is so important, ie whether the QWERTY was designed to slow down the operator.  Secondly, and more importantly, WHY is this considered to be a myth, or urban folklore?  It would appear that proponents of the story that this is a myth are basing their stance purely on the absence of any evidence supporting the original story ... "Absence of evidence is evidence of absence".  ie if they didn't see it themselves, it doesn't exist.  Nowhere have I seen a single instance of original research to back the claim that this is urban mythery, just a universal pointing to apparent non-existence of any evidence to support the original story.

So how is this myth perpetuated?

A recent example has come to my attention.

Examination of the article reveals scarcely a scintilla of evidence garnered from original research by the author, instead just linking to existing articles.

It took only a cursory search with Google to find at least two articles from newspapers and blog spots trumpeting this amazing revelation of the ages which sprang, seemingly without checking, from this one article.

Thus the myth of myth spreads, the flame of ignorance being fanned by laziness.

In 1980 I began a small business which involved word processing of academic papers, essays, theses, dissertations, etc.  I did this for over 5 years, and in doing so I gained considerable insight into how academic work was created and handled.  The degree of scrutiny of these papers was quite astonishing, and it was not unknown for papers to come back to me for amendment half a dozen times or more.  Some theses were in my possession for 18 months.

"There are more things in heaven and earth and on the Internet, Horatio than ever were discovered simply by Googling." 
(Text from Hamlet, to Horatio 2013)

Gaining a higher education is not just about learning a series of facts.  It's about training oneself to be creative, to seek, to find, to expose that which was not known before.  In other words, how to do research.

“Smithers Pira was originally established in 1930 as PIRA, the initials standing for Printing Industry Research Association. The aim of the organisation was to be “a technical research bureau for the pooling of technical information and to conduct scientific investigation of technical problems” for the printing industry.”

This obviously would include advances in keyboard design.

In September 1977 Lillian Malt presented a paper to a conference of PIRA

wherein she stated:

“It has been said of the Scholes letter layout that it would probably have been chosen if the objective was to find the least efficient – in terms of learning time and speed achievable – and the most error producing character arrangement. This is not surprising when one considers that a team of people spent one year developing this layout so that it should provide the greatest inhibition to fast keying.”

In other words, QWERTY was specifically designed to slow the typist down.

The point of the present missive is not to defend the accuracy or otherwise of Ms Malt's statement, but merely highlight its existence, to point out that since 1977, there has been a solid piece of evidence, a refereed academic paper, presented to an organisation created specifically to research this field, and thus would prima facie, be considered credible experts. If Ms Malt had said something which was incorrect, these would be the people to nail her hide to the wall.

In short, this document completely demolishes the myth that the story of the QWERTY design is a myth, or urban legend.  The single experiment Einstein spoke about.

So just how difficult is it to find this absent evidence, especially today because of (or maybe in spite of) the existence of the internet and search engines such as Google?

Here is one way.  (There are others).

Step 1: Open my search engine (I'm using Google).  Enter the key word phrase "ergonomic keyboard".  Immediately I see a series of images, one of which is of a grey keyboard of a most unusual looking design.  Expanding the image one can see that this is the Maltron. 

Step 2: Key word search "Maltron Keyboard".  Up comes a link to Maltron UK's website.

Step 3: Looking in the window I see a tab headed "Keyboard Info".

Step 4: Click on this tab and I will see a heading "Academic Papers".

Step 5: Click on this link and voila, there is the paper as presented by Ms Malt, containing the damning paragraph quoted above.  The evidence that people seem unwilling to accept exists.

Taking a different tack:  There are presently 4 widely recognised keyboard layouts available.  QWERTY, Dvorak, Colemak and Maltron.  Using Google if you enter the search term "Academic [or "scholarly"] papers [insert keyboard name] keyboard", with the exception of Maltron there is not a single primary refereed academic paper by any of the inventors/designers.  There are plenty of papers, but these are secondary, written by people who did NOT design the keyboard (s).

This is not a case of "evidence of absence", it simply means that searching with Google does not discover anything.  This is not the same as saying there are NO refereed papers.

Aside from Lillian Malt's paper, there are, on the Maltron website, three further papers by Stephen Hobday, (LMIEEE. AMIEE. MIP&I), who worked with Lillian Malt in turning her theory into the reality of the Maltron keyboard.

If anybody has any questions about the Maltron keyboard, Stephen (or his son) can be contacted through the Maltron website.

 I must say I've never heard of anybody who believes that this story is an urban myth actually contacting one of the very people involved in the story.  But perhaps there are some who would rather have their comfortable myth than the truth.

Although nowhere near as easy to find, this document

by David Gilkey, D.C., Ph.D, CPE, Director, Environmental & Radiological Health Sciences
Colorado State University

 states the following:

 The standard QWERTY keyboard layout was designed to slow users and keep them from jamming or locking the keys of the typewriter.  It was not designed to optimize human performance nor minimize the risk of injury to the [Upper Extremities].

 Given that it is demonstrably so easy to find the information in the Malt paper, one would then have to go back to the  Kanji paper

which was the basis for the Smithsonian article and ask oneself, how much credibility can one give to this research which, on my searching at least, does not even mention, to say nothing of rigorously analyse, Lillian Malt, Stephen Hobday or the Maltron keyboard itself.

Some conspiracy theorists postulate that the "slow the typist down" story was simply a ploy by Dvorak enthusiasts to try and undermine the QWERTY keyboard layout.  (Reading Malt's paper, it is obvious that she was familiar with and used the Dvorak keyboard - she even references one of his works in her paper - as well as the QWERTY keyboard in her research, and she never mentioned this conspiracy.)  I've heard it similarly argued that Ms Malt's paper was produced to try and "sell" the Maltron keyboard.   This blithely ignores the simple fact that the keyboard is the result of the research published in this paper, and not the other way round.  The paper egg came before the chicken keyboard.

As mentioned above, this article is not about whether Ms Malt was correct in her claim, but merely to disprove the myth that the myth of the QWERTY keyboard IS a myth.  There is, in black and white, concrete evidence to belie this myth.  Given that this is a refereed paper, to truly refute Ms Malt one would need to undertake diligent research in order to find some document or other which clearly states that this was NOT the case.  Simply stating that something is wrong or not true just doesn't get one anywhere.

My initial question was WHY is it so important to so many people to so vehemently deny that such a claim was ever made?   I refer the reader to the definition number 5 at the head of this article.  It would seem that perhaps this is what people WANT to believe.

On the one hand, if we assume that there is absolutely no importance attached to the notion that the keyboard was deliberately designed to slow the typist down, then one reason for the continued existence of the myth that comes to mind is that people perhaps like to think they are superior to their fellow humans by feeling that they know something their neighbour does not.

Or alternatively, there MAY be some importance in this.  If it was accepted that the keyboard was designed to slow the typist down, then by continuing to use this keyboard, could it be that there would be pressure, from peers and from health professionals to change to a safer, more "efficient" keyboard, and human nature, resistant to change, may come into play, resistant to learning to use a different keyboard?  Obviously, it would not be in the employers' interest to accept the story, since that would possibly create a legal minefield, because they were not providing a "safe" workplace, with the attendant expense of supplying employees with less dangerous equipment.  Any employee who is afflicted with a keyboard related workplace injury could possibly sue their employer.

So by denying the story, one could ignore these pressures.

 Just publish something on the net today where you repeat this creationist "myth", and see how long before someone comes along to decry you and without offering any evidence, say you are wrong, wrong, wrong.  This is just an urban legend.

So could it be simply a case of petty personal vanity, combined with incredibly sloppy research, that has kept this myth doing the rounds?  Or fear of leaving one's comfort zone?


  1. I too was interested in finding evidence for the QWERTY myth but your blog has left me still unconvinced that such evidence exists.

    Scientific papers provide citations for each assertion precisely so that its provenance can be independently verified. This is clearly not the case here: we have no idea what team spent one year designing the QWERTY keyboard.

    To be fair, a "conference paper" to an industry body is not really the same sort of beast as a "peer-reviewed" paper in a scientific journal describing advances in genetics or biology or geology or physics and so on. I would not expect anyone at the conference to haul Lilian Malt over the coals for not chasing down another urban myth.

    For the same reason, her bald assertion has as little credence as any you might make off your own bat. You on your own standing as a blog authority can similarly say that if the QWERTY myth were false, someone would have found decisive evidence to contradict what you have published here. Unfortunately the same argument applies to little green men running the White House!

  2. Leo, You've obviously not read my blog carefully. I deliberately said not once, but twice, that I was not writing about the accuracy or otherwise of Malt's claim, but simply that the evidence existed to prove that the "myth" was not actually a myth. Whether you think "that such evidence exists", is immaterial since the paper is there for the world to read. You seem to be saying that "absence of evidence is evidence of absence."

    I see no difference between a conference paper (which is usually peer-reviewed) and any other scientific paper. I draw your attention to the brief of PIRA, which is to scientifically investigate matters of interest to the printing industry.

  3. Leo, in my blog I wrote " ... I am unable to come to any conclusion as to WHY this is so important, ie whether the QWERTY was designed to slow down the operator".

    Since you obviously think it IS important enough to write a comment, perhaps you could take advantage of this platform to answer my question. Why do YOU think it is important whether or not QWERTY was designed to slow down the operator?

  4. The claim, that "QWERTY was designed to slow down typists", is a hoax *by default*, unless it is supported by substantial evidence (e.g., inventors' patents or publications). However, no such evidence is known; BTW authors of the PreQWERTY paper have a neat archive of historical publications and correspondence on their website.

    If there *is* anything known about the design principles, well, I recommend reading Neil Kay's 2013 series of papers (there are at least three to my knowledge), that discuss

    * mechanical design of up-/front-strike typewriters,
    * relationship between patents and trade secrets,
    * and most importantly: combinatorial analysis of the layout and a respective corpus.

  5. David,

    It would appear that you have not only failed to read the blog closely, but you have not read the previous comments. I'll say for the FOURTH time, I am not discussing the ACCURACY of Malt's work, but its existence. No matter how loudly you yell, her paper exists.

    You say "However, no such evidence is known..."; Therefore you are not only guilty of trying to argue that "absence of evidence is evidence of absence" but also "argument by redirection" when by changing the subject of the discussion you move away from the original point which was how disinformation spreads, and why.

    Your use of the word "default" is interesting and I would apply it this way. The "Kanji.Sinbun" paper does not mention either Lilian Malt, Stephen Hobday or the Maltron keyboard. I demonstrated how easily one can find the Malt (and Hobday) papers so therefore I would submit that either the Kanji authors failed in their research to find them (despite their "neat archive of historical publications and correspondence on their website") and therefore their paper (and scholarship) are of suspect value, OR they DID find the Malt paper and chose not to respond to it, the "default" therefore being that they accepted the validity of Malt's claim. If they were aware of her work and deliberately chose not to address it, then given that the Maltron keyboard is still around and highly successful (look how many awards it has been given over the years - they are on the Maltron website), that again would make their work questionable.

    Here I willingly plead guilty to redirection. As for the Maltron keyboard itself, the Latin expression Res ipsa loquitur would apply here. The thing speaks for itself. As I said in my blog, I've been using one since 1986, and when comparing it to the QWERTY keyboard, whether by intent or not, the QWERTY design DOES slow typists down.

    I posed this question in the body of the blog, and to Leo in my previous reply(s). Why is this so important to you (given that you think it important enough to comment and use the word "hoax") that the QWERTY keyboard was (not) designed to slow typists down?