Make Mine Dvorak
One writer's love affair with the other keyboard layout.
August Dvorak (1894-1975) dedicated his life to destroying the keyboard that you are almost certainly using right now. He hated the design that put the letters "QWERTY" in the upper left, scattered the vowels, and put obscure letters like J and K in prominent locations. He called it "a primitive torture board" and declaimed against humanity for spurning his alternative known as the Dvorak keyboard.
Six weeks ago, worrying about my aching wrists and furious at my own keyboard, I decided to give the dead man's dream a try. I tweaked a preference in Microsoft Windows and used a black felt pen to convert my Qwerty keys into Dvorak keys. A week later, I permanently Dvorakized my keyboard, erasing the markings, popping all the keys off, and sticking them back on August's preferred way.
How well does it work? Rapturously.
As the oft-told story goes, the Qwerty keyboard's design has virtually nothing to do with modern efficiency. Christopher Sholes, the inventor, chose the layout mainly to keep frequently used letter pairs—E and D or T and H for example—relatively far apart so that typists wouldn't hit them in quick succession, jamming primitive machines. Innovative at the time of the Franco-Prussian War, that feature fetters typists today.
Dvorak used his extensive knowledge of linguistics and body mechanics to create the keyboard, which he patented in 1936. As Dvorak knew, people type fastest when able to alternate hands, typing one letter with their left hand and the next with their right. They also type fastest when depressing keys on that middle, or home, row, second-fastest on the top row, and slowest on the bottom. Dvorak took advantage of this by placing all the vowels together in the middle on the left and putting the most common consonants on the right in the middle and top rows. He then put the period, comma, and quotation mark on the top left and dumped rarely used consonants in the bottom corners.
By rejiggering the keyboard, Dvorak also solved the Qwerty board's most irritating feature: having the letter J stuck smack-dab in the middle, in perhaps the primest real estate around—where one's right index finger hits the board. How often do we use that wretched letter? Almost never. For example, George Orwell uses it a mere 29 times in his "Politics and the English Language." He uses the letter K, given maybe Qwerty's second-best piece of real estate (right hand, middle finger) a mere 170 times. By contrast, Orwell uses H and T, given the same prime spots on the Dvorak board, 1,180 and 2,258 times, respectively.
Orwell uses E more than 3,000 times, but Sholes popped that poor letter on top of the Qwerty board—perhaps merely because it allows one to pound out the word "typewriter" on the highest row.
Not surprisingly, by many standards, Dvorak keyboards work better. On the Qwerty, one uses the home row about 30 percent of the time. With the Dvorak, it's more than twice that. Dvorak users also move their fingers about 35 percent less than Qwerty users, and according to one neat little study, Dvorak can cut the finger movement to type our dozen most common words by 75 percent. Dvorak enthusiasts claim that from the home row on a Dvorak board, you can type 3,000 words; from the home row of a Qwerty board, only 300.
Overall, once someone learns the new layout, he types about 4 percent to 20 percent faster on the Dvorak, and beginners learn Dvorak much faster than Qwerty, according to Keytime, a typing school that teaches both methods. Nathan Myhrvold, Microsoft's former chief technological officer and a Dvorak user, e-mails, "I type VERY fast with Dvorak—and that has been important to my career at Microsoft. During my time there, I never knew anybody at Microsoft who could type faster." For years, before Guinness abandoned the category, the world record holder used a Dvorak board.
Nicholas Thompson is a senior editor at Legal Affairs.
Illustration of Dvorak keyboard courtesy of Microsoft.com/enable.