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Monday, May 13, 2013

The Myths of the Myths 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, as used by people such as typesetters.

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.

It should be noted here that the document is simply a scanned image of Malt's paper, NOT a text document, and so therefore it cannot be searched for directly, which may account  for it not being easily found.  But it should also be noted that the document was published well before the widespread use of the internet, along with many other documents, papers, theses etc - so in my view this should not be taken as an excuse for lazy research.

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.  (In the 1990s I was fortunate enough to meet Stephen Hobday on two occasions.)

In his 1988 paper,

 Hobday states:

As is well known, the physical shape of the Scholes (qwerty) keyboard was established over a hundred years ago within the mechanical limitations of the time. These same limitations also gave rise to the letter layout in which 3 of the 10 most used letters were under the rest position of the fingers. An up, down, or sideways movement had to be made to reach the others before they could be keyed. The delay introduced by this gave sufficient time for the type bar of the previous letter to get out of the way and the arrangement overcame the type bar jamming problem sufficiently for the typewriter to achieve commercial success.

Further, Lilian Malt's US Patent (Keyboard arrangement), filed on  31 May 1978,


The standard typewriter keyboard, known as qwerty from the keys along the row above the centre row reading from the left has been in use for many years, but is not entirely satisfactory for high speed typing because frequently used letters are operated by weaker fingers or fingers in awkward positions, and frequently occurring consecutive letters are operated by the same finger which must move from one key to the next between operating the letters. For this reason, normal typing speeds do not approach dictation speeds of, say, 100 wpm.
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].

(It should be noted here that in this paper, Gilkey does NOT reference Malt's work, so he must have arrived at this point independently of Malt.)

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 keyboard chicken.

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?

Lastly, perhaps an entirely different possibility.  The myth, as stated, appears to be that "the QWERTY keyboard was designed to slow the typist down."  A quite plausible suggestion is that the original statement was "The QWERTY keyboard design slows the typist down", and it was misheard.  Not only is this an entirely different proposition, but eminently testable.   For further information, read here: