A historical perspective of Dvorak and QWERTY keyboard layouts

This article was written in 2004, and I've only dug it out now because of a conversation I had with a friend (cbensen). If you see any relative references to time, remember this article was written in 2004.


In 1997, I bought an ergonomic keyboard, for between $70 - $90, the exact cost of which I've forgotten. The past few months, it was behaving oddly. Sometimes, certain keys would fail. I would then open it up, and fix the contacts, because the contacts were not able to touch each other, and it would work.

Yesterday, I finally got fed up with repairing the keyboard, for the umpteenth time, so I bought a Microsoft Wireless Natural Multimedia Keyboard (hmm, quite a mouthful). Basically, the MSWNMK is the only keyboard on the market at the moment that is ergonomic, in the sense that the contours of the keyboard is raised in the center of the keyboard such that the plateau is in the middle of the keyboard. This actually presents a surface with which the user of the keyboard can type comfortably for a prolonged duration, hence lessening the risk of carpal tunnel syndrome, amongst other problems.

In addition, I am using the Dvorak keyboard layout with this keyboard. The Dvorak keyboard layout was designed in the early twentieth century, about 20 to 30 years (I might be quoting the figures slightly off) later than the QWERTY keyboard layout, which was probably invented by some guy named Scholes, or Sholes (henceforth referred to as the QWERTY Inventor, or QI), in the late nineteenth century.

Now, when QWERTY was invented, the typists could type faster than what the keyboard could handle, and subsequently, a mechanical problem would cause the keyboard to jam up, due to the speed of the typing. The QI then made a study of the most frequently used words and letters in the English language, and therefore, designed the QWERTY keyboard layout in such a way as to slow the users. He succeeded. Henceforth, it would probably be very rare to find someone who could type faster than probably 80 to 100 wpm. Dvorak, however, made another study. His studies had shown that the QWERTY was inherently problematic, and he came out with the Dvorak keyboard layout, which, in his studies, gave users a productivity of more than 20% (I can't remember the actual figures). This meant that if you were to use the QWERTY, your fingers would probably have moved, say, 20-32km in a typical day, while a Dvorak user's fingers would probably have moved only, say, 2km in a typical day. Also, the Dvorak user could type faster, with speeds exceeding more than 100wpm.

For myself, in the mid 1980s, I came to be aware of the keyboard layouts, and I made a conscious effort to learn the Dvorak layout. It took me three months. I would type a bit in Dvorak everyday, and then switch to QWERTY for the rest of the day. After three months, I was in complete mastery of both the QWERTY and Dvorak keyboard layouts, and I could switch efficiently between them. While the speed of my QWERTY max-ed out at about 85wpm, the top speed of my Dvorak max-ed out around 120-130wpm.

In addition, there's an additional advantage to using Dvorak. If you're typing your password and somebody is peering behind you at the keyboard, he would probably not be able to make any sense of what you're typing, because the keys are laid out differently, thus, he would not make any head or tails of what you're typing at all.

For one thing, I type my password in Dvorak. So one day, when someone tried to use my PC, and my PC was locked, and I was far far away, at another location, that person couldn't figure out my own password, and I couldn't figure out my password myself, since I don't look at the keyboard while typing, and I couldn't even remember what the labels on the keys say.


Perspective 2014 - It is my belief that a Dvorak user suffers from less carpal tunnel syndrome, because the fingers travel a shorter distance, and they have less unnatural contortions. The onset of carpal tunnel syndrome is due more to the unnatural flexing of the wrist and fingers, and the high frequency of the fingers moving. Several months ago, I've suffered from acute pain in my left wrist, and the pain went away when I reduced the pressure over several months.

Published Wed, 5 Mar 2014 @ 11:36 PM by chuacw
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