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.

(To see his beautiful creation, click here. To see the same principles in starker form, look at his keyboards for those who type with one hand.)

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.

Still, unfortunately for August’s dream, limited gains and quirky records haven’t translated into revolution. Nearly everyone learns to type on Qwertys, and a whole infrastucture from books to tutors depends on that system. Moreover, tossing out one’s old keyboard for a 5 or 10 percent jump doesn’t have mass appeal—particularly given the inevitably aggravating transition. It took me two weeks of slogging to feel at all comfortable and another two weeks to regain my original speed.

Probably the biggest blow to Dvorak came in 1990 when economists Stephen Margolis and Stanley Liebowitz excavated the original pro-Dvorak research. Frequently cited by Dvorak advocates, those studies claimed that switching over could quickly speed typists up by about 75 percent and cut finger motion by over 90 percent. But as Margolis and Liebowitz demonstrated, the methodology was unscientific, uncontrolled, and basically unreliable. Dvorak himself had conducted the studies, he hadn’t used equally capable subjects on the boards, and he had a financial stake in the outcome.

Margolis and Liebowitz didn’t show any Qwerty superiority; they just showed the kludginess of Dvorak’s original studies. But critics pounced on that story and later iterations and savaged Dvoraks. They moved with particular relish because numerous liberal academic icons—including Paul Krugman and Stephen Jay Gould—had trumpeted the Dvorak keyboard as a metaphor for how inferior but entrenched technologies can prevent market efficiencies.

Further fueling the detractors, the keyboard has always stumbled, even when a boom looks near. The Washington Post,for example, ran a breathless front-page story in 1985 proclaiming that Qwerty’s demise was nigh, reporting that officials in Oregon’s state government were switching over with the help of an organization called Dvorak International. Today, not a trace of the Oregon experiment remains, and Dvorak International’s former Web page now summons a porn site.

Still, regardless of past failures and August’s cooked books, Dvoraks do work better. They’re a little faster and much more comfortable. Using a Dvorak after a lifetime of banging on a Qwerty is like removing a tiny pebble from your shoe. Writing a word such as “the” gives me a buzz as I roll my fingers to the left in a fluid, natural motion. The the the the.

For musicians, think about trying to play “Blowing in the Wind” starting with a B-flat ninth. That’s a Qwerty board. Now think about starting on a G chord. That’s a Dvorak board.

Because of its legitimate superiority, Dvorak has a small chance of escaping the bayou where it languishes with other once-promising washouts, such as Esperanto and the Earth Shoe. But to win mass approval, a new technology doesn’t have to be just better than an entrenched competitor; it has to be so much better that switching over outweighs staying put. Measuring distances in feet and inches instead of meters and centimeters makes little sense, but switching would be ghastly.

With Dvorak, the transition period is legitimately frustrating, and typing faster or more comfortably doesn’t light most people’s engines. Even boosters haven’t wanted to give it a go—not Krugman, nor Ralph Nader (who has blasted Qwerty), nor even Jared Diamond, who wrote in 1997 that Dvoraks are “infinitely superior.”

That doesn’t mean I’ve given up hope. Computer companies have done a good job of making it easy to switch, and although there are only small scraps of scientific evidence, Dvorak could well help the growing legion of people suffering arm and wrist pain from repetitive strain injuries.

But deep down I know that it’s safer to bet on the Red Sox. Given that voice-recognition software may soon swing around the bend, Dvorak needs to make its move. And there isn’t evidence that it will—a particularly grim reality given how easy it is to switch.

Still a passionate supporter, Myhrvold says, “We have ‘run the experiment’ by putting Dvorak in front of hundreds of millions of people without dramatic uptake. … If Dvorak was amazingly better than QWERTY, people would solve the remaining barriers and the majority of people would type that way. So, not only have I made it accessible for more people, but the lackluster results that came from this may be a damning argument against it.”

I still consider myself lucky to have traded in my anti-engineered thwunker for a graceful device. But as poor Dvorak himself once said, proposing a new key layout is akin to proposing to “reverse the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule, discard every moral principle, and ridicule motherhood.”