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Seventy years ago, Dr. August Dvorak, an educational psychologist and professor of education at the University of Washington in Seattle, and his brother-in-law, Dr. William Dealey, designed a simplified keyboard to replace the familiar QWERTY layout.

Although the DVORAK system was widely hailed as a way to type faster and more easily, it never really caught on. Even when typewriters gave way to electronic keyboards, typists and manufacturers remained faithful to QWERTY.

We found out about the DVORAK system after posting a story about the history of QWERTY in last month's edition of this e-book.

We received this email from Mike W., a television writer and director, who says he's "a devoted Dvorak user":

After sustaining hand injuries from typing, despite an ergonomic keyboard, I switched to Dvorak. The problems evaporated. And now, I'm the worst kind of convert because I push my new love -- but many people have thanked me.

The strain of typing is reduced dramatically with Dvorak. Some stats:
70% of all strokes on a Dvorak are on the home row (2nd from the bottom), while only 32% are there on a Qwerty.

20% of all digraphs (ch, th, gh, ie, -- common pairs) are typed with adjacent fingers on Qwerty. This falls to 2% with Dvorak. Result: fewer mistakes.

Alternating hands is faster and easier when you type, yet many words can be typed with one hand in Qwerty. Not so in Dvorak. In fact, NO SYLLABLE can by typed by the right hand alone.

Best of all, the Dvorak keyboard is already built into your computer. (It's under Keyboard in the Control Panel [PC] or System Preferences [Mac].) No new equipment required! The computer also retains Qwerty in the memory, so it really is just the click of a button to switch between them.

Most keyboards also pop apart and can be reassembled into the new layout. It's five minutes work -- yet I have not done it yet because it finally forced me to learn how to touch type. Why look at the keys if they aren't helpful?

It's not terribly difficult to convert, although it does take a concerted effort. One study showed that 18 hours of practice will increase your speed 74% and cut out 2/3 of all errors.

One more stat: Only about 100 words can be typed on the row that starts asdf of the Qwerty keyboard. That number jumps to over a thousand on the corresponding row of the Dvorak. In fact "Thousand" is one of them.

Last month's story described the reason why all the letters forming the word TYPEWRITER are placed in the same line of a QWERTY keyboard. Of course they don't with the DVORAK layout.

But with the help of Anu Garg's amazing Internet Anagram Server, we found that these words can all be found on a single line (AOEUIDHTNS) on the DVORAK keyboard:


* We had to consult a dictionary to find out about astonied. It's an archaic word, meaning "deprived briefly of the power to act, dazed, filled with consternation or dismay."

Which probably perfectly describes Dr. Dvorak's feelings when his praiseworthy invention failed to make the grade.

  • The Czech composer's name was pronounced dvOr-ZAk, but his family in the U.S pronounces it dvOr-ak



The only real obstacle to our adoption of the Dvorak keyboard is that familiar fear of abandoning a long-held commitment. But if we were to overcome that fear, millions of our children would be able to learn to type with increased speed, greatly lowered finger fatigue, greater accuracy, and a reduced sense of frustration. That seems reason enough to end our commitment to QWERTY, a bad marriage that has long outlived its original justification. - Jared Diamond, in The Curse of Qwerty.



Story first posted May 2004

Copyright © 2004

Eric Shackle

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