If you look down at the keyboard you are sitting at right now, chances are that the first six letters on top row spell “QWERTY”.
Conventional economics would tell us that the reason the keys on your keyboard are arranged in this way is because it is the most efficient. That is, it is the arrangement which allows the typist to type with the highest speed and accuracy.
Yet, there are reasons why the QWERTY keyboard may not be the most efficient. Most words in the English language require the use of vowels, and yet only the letter “A” appears on the home row of the QWERTY keyboard. In contrast, the Dvorak keyboard contains all five vowels on the home row, and claims to increase speed and accuracy, since it “reduces the amount of motion required to type common English text.”
In fact, the design of the QWERTY keyboard was not intended to maximise efficiency. It came about in a piecemeal fashion.
In the 1860s, Christopher Latham Scholes of Milwaukee was attempting to improve the design of an existing typewriter which was particularly prone to typebar clashes. These were cumbersome and time-consuming to fix. Through a process of trial and error, he arrived at a primitive version of today’s QWERTY keyboard.
In March 1873, James Densmore, Scholes’s venture-capitalist partner, managed to secure the rights for manufacturing this design with the famous arms makers E. Remington and Sons. Remington’s mechanics, William Jenne and Jefferson Clough, made modifications to Scholes’ design, including reportedly replacing where the period (‘.’) mark was with the letter R so that salesmen could easily type with word ‘TYPEWRITER’ when demonstrating the machine to prospective buyers.
So, then, how did this design become the universal standard? The short answer is an accidental series of events. Around this time, there was a proliferation of keyboard designs, and no dominant standard. In 1880, Longley’s Shorthand and Typewriter Institute in Cincinnati distributed a pamphlet on a novel eight-finger typing method (as opposed to the four-finger method which was common at the time). This pamphlet happened to be adapted to Remington’s QWERTY design. At the same time, the YMCA began to run classes training young women to use these keyboards as part of a promotion for Wyckoff, Seamans and Benedict, who had just bought worldwide sales agency rights for the Remington typewriter. Further, in 1881, Frank E. McGurrin won the first public speed-typing competition with a QWERTY keyboard. This feat displayed this particular individual’s prowess without necessarily proving the efficiency of the keyboard, but no doubt it would have piqued interest in, and increased the uptake of, the QWERTY keyboard. These, among other events, set the wheels in motion for the QWERTY design to become entrenched in the design of typewriters, and much later, computers.
While there are quibbles about certain facts and while these events need to be understood in their broader context, the history of the QWERTY keyboard reveals an interesting area of economics called “path dependence”. Path dependence acknowledges that idiosyncrasies of history can result in ways of doing things which are not necessarily efficient. In our example, the QWERTY keyboard was a part of a “technological lock-in”, where once enough firms owned typewriters with QWERTY keyboards and enough people were proficient in using them, a universal standard emerged. It made no sense for either firms or individuals to invest in using any other standard once this had occurred.
So it seems that the QWERTY keyboard is here to stay, however inefficient it may be, and even though it no longer fulfils its original purpose.
You can read more about the QWERTY keyboard and its rise to dominance in:
David, P. A., 1986. Understanding the Economics of QWERTY: The Necessity of History. In Parker, W. N. ed, Economic History and the Modern Economist, Oxford: Blackwell. Ch. 4.