QWERTY and the search for optimality
By: Neil M Kay (University of Strathclyde Business School, Department of Economics)
Abstract: This paper shows how one of the developers of QWERTY continued to use the trade secret that underlay its development to seek further efficiency improvements after its introduction. It provides further evidence that this was the principle used to design QWERTY in the first place and adds further weight to arguments that QWERTY itself was a consequence of creative design and an integral part of a highly efficient system rather than an accident of history. This further serves to raise questions over QWERTY’s forced servitude as “paradigm case” of inferior standard in the path dependence literature. The paper also shows how complementarities in forms of intellectual property rights protection played integral roles in the development of QWERTY and the search for improvements on it, and also helped effectively conceal the source of the efficiency advantages that QWERTY helped deliver
Circulated by NEP-HIS on: 2013-11-22
Review by Anthony Gandy
The paper reviewed here is another instalment in Neil Kay’s systematic exploration of the history of the QWERTY typewriter (see also Kay 2013a and 2013b). Through his work Kay questions the QWERTY typewriter as the primary example of how inferior design can become establish and create a path of dependency which will always be sub-optimal. The case Kay makes both in this paper and in earlier ones is that the design was in fact near-optimal for the state of knowledge at the time. In this paper he produces further knowledge that the designer made later efforts to refine the design using principles which show the designers’ advanced understanding of the concepts needed to produce an efficient design given the outcomes required (later definitions of efficiency were based on a different concepts and on different technology capabilities).
Kay studies the work of designer Christopher Latham Sholes and how he refined his own design of typewriter designs. In 1872 he and his associates created the familiar QWERTY layout which is so familiar in many Western and English language countries. The design was bought by Remington in 1873 in a deal arranged by Sholes’ business partner James Densmore who also retained a financial stake in the QWERTY keyboard after Remington bought it. Kay shows the deliberate design concepts which lay at the heart of the QWERTY keyboard which then refutes some earlier works (such as David 1985) which claimed the design process for QWERTY and the eventual lock-in created was generated by random events and that the design was effectively accidental and a sub-optimal standard. The path dependency concept based on network externalities (typist unwilling to face conversion to another standard even if it were more efficient) maybe fair, but the design was not at that time accidental or sub-optimal. Kay shows by inference that Sholes work was more deliberate than may have been understood, primarily because Sholes was protecting his trade secret which was his understanding of how to avoid frequent letter pairs from occurring and jamming the early typewriter technology. In this paper he explores two patents issued to Sholes after his death and finds them as evidence that Sholes continued to improve his basic understanding, but continued to protect his knowledge.
Like Kay’s earlier work this paper is highly detailed, looking at the available evidence, and analyzing the likely approaches used. It considers how, after Sholes sold his rights to the QWERTY typewriter, he continued to use his principles to develop an improved “perfect” typewriter, and how this was evidence that he knew more about the underlying principles than others have given credit to.
The real challenge at the time was typebars jamming. Using a keyboard layout of ABCDE, it was known that too often there would be pairs of letters used which would jam the typewriter. The goal was to reduce these pairs to reduce jamming risk.
Kay shows (2013a) that when typing the book Life of the Mississippi by Mark Twain, the Sholes Qwerty typewriter would have created 146 events where letters next to each other in the “typebasket” would have occurred and jammed. Others have argued (David 1985) that later designs of typewriter such, as the 1936 design by August Dvorak, were more efficient because they were faster. However, Kay shows that in the Life of the Mississippi test, the Dvorak design would create 2358 conflicting pairs. Kay points out that the comparison needs to be in era context. While later development was based on ten figure typing and efficiency focused on speed out output, Sholes’ era was one where two fingers of each hand was seen as optimal (and the reviewer here is certainly in this camp!!!) and the real challenge was one of the mechanical jamming or letter pairs.
This paper extends Kay’s research to the period after the Remington company purchased Sholes’ design and when he then went on to try to develop the “perfect” typewrite. Frankly, these are detailed and intricate discussions. Kay studies two patents issued after Sholes’ death to show he was working further with infrequency principles for his improved QV typewriter, the ultimate version of which would have reduced the incidents of jamming pairs by 97.7% compared to the QWERTY design. It is the evidence presented by the “jigsaw” of the two patents supporting the QV typewriter which is the core the Kay paper, combining them to show Sholes had an advanced knowledge of the processes required to reduce conflict between letters. Kay believes Sholes split the patents into two separate ones so as to protect his trade secret as to how to prevent conflict through infrequency principles, a concept which in itself could not be protected under copyright.
While the paper is maybe too detailed for most, and on occasion difficult to read without prior understanding of the issues, it serves as an interesting discussion paper on both how intellectual property was protect, even when the underlying principles could not be copyrighted and a lesson not to infer the efficacy of a technological solutions in the light of later technological capability. While the case for path dependency has been well made over the years and clearly make a great deal of sense, paths which have been founded on technology that is at its origin less than optimal are rare, maybe this is the reason the QWERTY keyboard has been so popular as an example as the thesis that its development was less than deliberate suggests it may have always been less than optimal. Kay’s forensic disputes this very. Kay generates evidence of a deliberate process by Sholes and his associates and while clearly the design could be refined (as Sholes tried) or replaced (as advocates of the Dvorak would argue for), it was nevertheless close to the optimal design at the time of development.
For those interested in what has been a very long running debate about QWERTY, optimality and lock-in, a more in depth review of Kay’s work and the prior debate has been produced by Jean-Philippe Vergne (2013) in the journal Research Policy which certainly seems to have dedicated its existence to discussion the QWERTY typewriter!!!
Kay’s other QWERTY Papers
Kay, N. M. (2013a) “Rerun the tape of history and QWERTY always wins” Research Policy, 42:1175-85.
Kay, N. M. (2013b) “Lock in, path dependence, and the internationalization of QWERTY. Strathclyde Discussion Papers in Economics, no 13-10, http://www.strath.ac.uk/media/departments/economics/researchdiscussionpapers/2013/13-10FINAL.pdf (accessed 14 April 2014).
Jean-Philippe Vergne’s excellent review can be found in Research Policy:
Vergne, J. P. (2013) “QWERTY Is Dead, Long Live Path Dependence!” Research Policy, 42: 1191-1194. See also http://www.academia.edu/3495369/QWERTY_Is_Dead_Long_Live_Path_Dependence_