Science stories to 
reflect on the history and future of science & society. By P. Gomez-Romero
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 Our technological evolution at your fingertips

Who controls our technological evolution?. At first sight we could think that we live in a society with a rational development of technology. For instance, all in a car seems to be in place and made to the human scale and needs. Also the ergonomic design of our houses and cities. And contrary to biological evolution, which has to manage with whatever is at hand, our social evolution can indeed be made to go backwards or change in any given way. Thus, the streets in a city can be changed with some effort to a more desirable configuration. And of course if an industrial design is defective or just perfectible, the almighty laws of the market will take care of replacing or improving it.
Wouldn't they?
It's true that our cultural and technological evolution rests on different basis than the well known biological evolution, which in turn is clearly different from chemical evolution (see metaevolution). But it's also true that this social evolution shares some features with biological evolution. A characteristic balance between chance and necessity plays an important role in both of them.

Thus, if we analyze in some detail certain examples of technological evolution we could be surprised. There are objects already part of our everyday life which seem very normal to us but which raise intriguing questions when we look at them in some depth.
For instance, who and how designed the original configuration of your computer keyboard?. Is that arrangement of letters and optimal design?
Obviously, computer keyboards evolved from their ancestors the typewriters. But the question remains; what mechanism of technological or social evolution led to the present (maybe optimal?) arrangement which is universal today?

 Anyone who has suffered typewriting training can rightly guess that the arbitrary positioning of keys on our so called QWERTY keyboards is not optimal. An objective analysis will confirm their guessing : With the exception of A, all vowels are located on the upper row, far away from the rest position of the main (middle) row. And letter A itself being located at the leftmost key of the middle row must be hit with our weakest pinky finger. In modern keyboards this might be a minor problem, but in those old mechanical machines that feature must have been torture for typing hands.
 On the other hand, in the old times of prehistoric typewriters there were other designs, like DSK for example (Dvorak Simplified Keyboard) introduced in 1932. That design could be justly considered superior since most of the successive world's records for speed typing have been held by DSK typists rather than QWERTY. How then did QWERTY appeared and, more intriguing, how did it survive competition with superior competitors?.

 The origin of QWERTY could be an archetypal example of historical and technological evolution. Those who used or knew those old mechanical typewriters will undoubtedly remember their defects. One of the most typical was the jamming of two or more typebars caused by too rapid typing. Thus, in those old times, during the initial stages of development of the different machines, maximum speed was not equal to maximum efficiency. Furthermore, the first QWERTY prototype, a machine invented by C. L. Sholes in 1860, did not have the paper visible in front of the typist but hidden beneath the machine itself, held by a flat carriage. With this design the risk of ruining a whole typing session due to a non-detected jam was especially high and made even more important to make every effort to get a design which would minimize clashes. QWERTY resulted in fact from trial and error modifications of an originally alphabetical arrangement in order to minimize those clashing and jamming events. To accomplish this goal the keys were actually dispersed to avoid fast typing! (Note that the sequence DFGHJKL found on the middle row is an important fragment of thew alphabet with the vowels E and I removed). A compromise between speed and efficiency in a dull design tailor-made for the first QWERTY machine

 On the other hand, if that design was really so bad how could we explain that QWERTY could survive after the introduction of the roller-platen and frontal typing and eventually predominate over other more rational and efficient keyboard arrangements in machines less prone to jam?
 Once again the history of QWERTY's survival is a good example of haphazard behind our technology, an illustration of how unpredictable combinations of events can lead to unexpected final outcomes
 To begin with, Sholes and his QWERTY machine found the support of Remington (a famous arms manufacturer) who decided to fabricate it. But in those shaky times that seems hardly enough to ensure predominance over a variety of superior competitors. But somehow QWERTY also found support from a key player in this business: the users. In 1882 a fine entrepreneur lady, Mrs. L. V. Longley, the head of a Cincinnati school for stenographers, saw a new business opportunity in the teaching of eight-finger-typing methods which would eventually end with the "hunt-and-peck" approach used by typist up to then. Mrs. Longley just happened to chose QWERTY machines for her classes. Not surprisingly, QWERTY were also the typewriters used in typing schools established at the time by Remington. But QWERTY head start with the hardware (the first machine) and "software" (the users) could have been easily upset by daily hand to hand competence with better keyboard layouts during those hard times when the typing standards were in the making.
 Possibly, the final boost to QWERTY came from an unexpected source, thanks to a crucial event that took place in 1888. Mrs. Longley was challenged to prove the superiority of her eight-finger method on QWERTY keyboard. The challenger was Louis Taub, another typing professor, also from Cincinnati, who worked with four fingers on a non-QWERTY machine (though probably also suboptimal , with six rows and no shift key). Among claims from both sides of producing the world's fastest typing, the contest was highly publicized and Mrs. Longley got the services of a Frank E. McGurrin, a QWERTY typist, of course, but a unique one, for McGurrin had developed his own approach to typing. He had memorized the entire QWERTY keyboard and was probably the only one at the time who could write without looking at the keybord; he was effectively the precursor of "touch-typing". Thanks to this and probably not so much as a result of keyboard design, McGurrin defeated Taub in the famous contest. The public in general and typing teachers in particular took good note of that result and of the apparent superiority of QWERTY typing. A truly meaningful test should have maintained all parameters (number of fingers, number of rows...) identical except for the keyboard layout in order to determine the real impact of the latter on typing efficiency. But little mattered that properly balanced tests or contests never took place, QWERTY had had its final and definitive impulse and the strength of massive use was setting it as the standard of the new century. At some point, rival manufacturers understood that it was easier to change their machines layouts than to change people's minds and converted to QWERTY or got extinguished.
 Had the first typist who memorized a keyboard not used by chance a QWERTY machine, or if Sholes had not gotten Remington's support; or if Mrs. Longley had not been so committed to proving the superiority of her teaching methods; or if any of a thousand other contingent events had or had not happened, then the keyboard just in front of you might not have this arbitrary QWERTY look. Maybe we would be calling it DHIATENSOR.

P.S. Many similar episodes could be tracked down through history. Among the most recent we might remember competing video systems (VHS vs. beta videos, today obsolete) or the Mac vs. PC antagonism. Finally, the proliferation of new standards in the world of computing and internet, standards which try to prevail by the force of users who can download them "for free" from the web, could be the closest, most recent example. Watch out, The QWERTY syndrome is probably at work right now not far from you.

 -------THE END-------

A somewhat expanded account of this fascinating episode of technological evolution  can be found in the book by S.J. Gould  "Bully for Brontosaurus. Reflections in Natural History" W.W. Norton & Company. New York 1991. The original, more technical account corresponds to an article from Paul A. David "Understanding the Economics of QWERTY: The Necessity of History" (Economic History and the Modern Economist, W.N. Parker (Ed.) Basil Blackwell, New York, 1986, pp. 30-49)


Dr. Pedro Gomez-Romero (b. Almansa, Spain) (B.S., M.S. Univ. Valencia, Spain) (PhD Chemistry, Georgetown University, USA) is a scientist at the Materials Science Institute of Barcelona, (CSIC), Spain, where he works in the field of solid state chemistry, materials for rechargeable lithium batteries and related topics. Member of the American Asociation for the Advancement of Science, the American Chemical Society and the Electrochemical



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©Pedro Gómez-Romero, 2001