Saturday, May 18, 2013

Ya gotta have Oomph!

To make your argument pass muster with Deirdre McCloskey, especially if you're talking typewriter keyboards. About the argument that Paul David made in his famous AER paper in 1985, Clio and the Economics of QWERTY, that decentralized decision making drove typewriter manufacturers into prematurely standardizing the wrong keyboard, a little attention to history might matter.

Say, what appeared in the New York Times on April 26, 1959 under the byline of (in this case, the aptly named) Alexander R. Hammer: Typewriters Are Linguists Too: Special Characters Increase Volume for Producers.  The opening sentence being; Typewriter manufacturers are cashing in on a growing demand for machines with unusual characters.

It goes on to detail how profit seeking businesses respond when there is a demand for something that requires changes to that standardized keyboard. Mr. Hammer reported that manufacturers told him, About 30 per cent of the typewriters we are now delivering both for commercial and Federal Government agency use, are equipped with special keyboards or interchangeable type, or both.

Ranging from trademarks that could be typed with one stroke, such as that for the typewriters of the Coca Cola Company--cost; $50 (1959) per machine--to scientific and engineering symbols that otherwise would have had to have been drawn in by hand after a manuscript was typed.  Hammer reported that, One big chemical concern recently reported a 75 per cent saving in time when typing reports requiring diagrams of carbon, hexagons and other chemical symbols....

75% being about twice as large as the 20-40% increase in typing speed Paul David reported was available from switching to the Dvorak keyboard.  Except that David claimed that a Navy experiment demonstrating that saving was left lying on the ground unclaimed because the typing world was locked-in, path dependent on the standard QWERTY keyboard.

Other markets for these keyboards being the nation's weather bureaus, the Army Signal and Ordnance Corps, and in what would surely make Prof. McCloskey smile--she'd specifically cited insurance companies as potential adapters of more efficient keyboards in her famous exchange with Paul David on the EH.Net discussion board back in 1999--Insurance companies are also big users of unusual characters....Metropolitan Life uses the word 'age' so often in typing had keys made bearing that word for some of its machines.

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