Reading: Robert Allen (2011): Global Economic History: A Very Short Introduction, chapter 1

Reading: Paul David (2005): Clio and the Economics of QWERTY

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Paul David (1985): Clio and the Economics of QWERTY, American Economic Review 75:2 (May), pp. 332-7

These days a lot of energy and effort goes into user interface and user experience design.

And then we have the typewriter keyboard from 150 years ago.

It shows up in remarkably many places.

Is there any reason to think that it is in any sense the best way to lay out an alphabetical interface entry form?


As you read your way through Paul David, look out for the ways he uses the following concepts:

  • path dependence
  • equilibrium
  • "free to choose"
  • lock-in
  • system compatibility
  • system scale economies
  • quasi-irreversibility
  • choices made myopically
  • "QWERTY worlds"

And three more questions:

  1. In the end, does it really matter?
  2. How could we figure out how much it matters, both in particular cases and in the general case?
  3. Which do you think will be the most spoken language in three centuries: English or Mandarin? Why?

Criticisms of Paul David:

  1. All of the research on the superiority of alternative keyboards that was published was done by people who had a strong interest in replacing QWERTY.
  2. You cannot prove that QWERTY is in any sense grossly inefficient.
  3. It must not matter very much or people would have changed it.

I have not yet found anything I can regard as a successful smart and good faith effort's to set out and document any of these three lines of criticism. Why is this so? Or, alternatively, am I wrong? Is one or more of these lines of criticism actually a devastating rebuttal to Paul David?

And how might we tell?