Monday, January 27, 2014

The Dvorak Keyboard: Keys to the Computer Age

Three weeks ago, in my article entitled "Caps for cancer patients: Making 2014 Resolutions," I promised to reprint my old newspaper columns explaining why I can type and write without pain, in spite of having arthritis since I was young. It’s long past time that I fulfill that promise, so here is my article on the Dvorak keyboard. And I also promise that within the next two days, I’ll post my article about writing with a pen or pencil without writer’s cramp.

Imagine you've just traded in your old clunker on a brand new rocket-powered racing car. This isn't some old crate to haul you down the highway. This baby will zip you into the stratosphere. It is fast! Like, wow!!!

Isn't that what computers are supposed to do to our lives? Take us places we've barely dreamed of going? And at the speed of light? Computers take us onto the internet, which is akin to opening a door and stepping out into the universe. We also use these newfangled machines to plan the family budget and do our taxes, not to mention good old-fashioned word processing--a task once called "typing."

So you've replaced your old Smith Corona, or maybe the hammer-and-chisel you got for graduation--how many years ago was that? Of course, this new contraption's more complicated than what you're used to. Instead of rolling paper into the typewriter, words and numbers appear on a "monitor" before you print out a "hard copy" of your "data." Still, one part of the system looks pretty much like it used to in the "good old days" of typewriting.

The keyboard may no longer be part of a big box-like contraption, unless you're working on a laptop. Of course, you can do as I do and plug in a peripheral for real ‘lap’ top input. And you have to admit the detached system gives you more freedom than that old typewriter did. At least all the keys are where they used to be. And therein lies the problem.

To illustrate, let's get back to that wonderful racer in your traveling dream. When you unpack that streamlined baby, you discover the wheels are missing. To make it go anywhere, you have to use the same mode of transport your great-great-etc.-grandpa used to tool around in 125 years ago. That race-car salesman promised you'd be zooming through your universe at light speed, but the only way you can make this crate go is by loading it onto a horse and buggy and hauling it around in that old-fashioned rig. And, boy, does riding in it make your bones ache!

The same principle applies to space-age computers, if you use the same key arrangement that has been the standard for 125 years. Commonly called "qwerty," after the first six alphabetic keys on the upper left-hand corner, as the story goes, the key arrangement was designed as the most inefficient arrangement for English-language use--to slow down typists so they wouldn't jam keys on the earliest typewriters! Another reason was to split common two-letter combinations to prevent jamming as well.

As the machine's internal design improved and jammed keys became less of a problem, scattered attempts were made to improve the key arrangement, but tradition in both workplace and typing class perpetuated the inefficient design nearly a century past its useful life span. Only one streamlined layout made any headway, the American Simplified Keyboard (ASK) designed by Dr. August Dvorak and William Dealey during the 1920s and '30s. But even though the Dvorak design ran circles around qwerty in one study after another, tradition still reigns supreme.

As an example of this bias, my most recent copies of the Guinness Book of World Records, from the late '90s, didn't bestow the speed-typing record upon Barbara Blackburn, who could type rings around all comers, because she used--you guessed it!--the Dvorak keyboard. Instead, she was relegated to mere "footnote" status in that usually venerable publication.

Still, a growing "underground" of us are fed up, not only with our fingers not being able to keep up with our brains, but with the pain caused by a machine designed years before anyone ever heard of "ergonomics." In the Winter 1997 issue of "Striking Home," official publication of Dvorak International, I explained why I use Dvorak. I called the following piece, "Forget Speed--Think Pain":

The Dvorak keyboard helps me type faster,
with fewer errors, and, best of all,
no pain from either arthritis or CTS! (Source:

I had carpal tunnel syndrome before CTS was cool. By 1970 I'd figured out that wrapping my wrist with an ace bandage eased the agonizing pain shooting through my hands, wrists and arms from my work on a qwerty keyboard. Earlier, in 1966 at the tender age of 22, I was told by a co-worker that my often swollen knuckles foreshadowed painful arthritis that would probably cut short my career as a lightning-fast, super-accurate keypunch operator.

I finally had to quit full-time work in 1974 when pain, along with overwhelming exhaustion, overtook my entire body as a result of lupus, an arthritis-like disease. But pain in my hands didn't stop me from writing almost daily on my typewriter, then a home computer beginning in 1983. Still, by the late '80s I wondered how long I could continue to pursue an activity that worsened the agony in my hands and arms--even my back--with each keystroke.

I'd heard of Dvorak earlier, but not until 1989 did I meet someone who actually used the American Simplified Keyboard. With her guidance and a little persistence, I was able to locate a distributor of Dvorak keyboards and begin typing completely without pain. It was truly a miracle!

To those Doubting Thomases who say the change might only have been a fluke--after all, symptoms of lupus can appear and disappear, sometimes without explanation--a subsequent qwerty experience clinches it for me:

In 1994 my old 286 went belly-up and I had to wait a couple of weeks for the delivery of a Dvorak keyboard wired for my new AT. Meanwhile, just to keep my hand in, I slowly (for me) pecked out thoughts on my old convertible qwerty. At the end of that time, in spite of my restraint, my right arm was sprained clear up past my elbow from stretching finger and hand muscles that were not designed to move that way.

While everyone is trying to sell Dvorak on speed, which doesn't interest most people who are paid by the hour, Dvorak users should be pushing the pain-free factor. CTS is epidemic among people forced to spread their poor fingers agonizingly across a qwerty torture rack. If they only knew how good it feels to move the fingers in a completely natural rhythm over a much smaller area, they would leap at the chance to switch to Dvorak.

Then there's that last little objection: I'm too old (or just don't want to bother) to learn a new keyboard. Those mules can take one more page from my life:

I received the Dvorak instruction book three weeks before my first Dvorak keyboard arrived in 1989. Naturally, I was anxious to check out the program to make sure I'd really like the new system. For a few minutes each day I tapped out ASK strokes on my qwerty while ignoring the gobbledygook flashing on my computer screen. I also kept the book in the bathroom, the best venue for mental drill known to humans. During that time I had no confusion when I switched back to qwerty for my regular work. Then when my Dvorak arrived, I fell into the new key pattern with almost complete ease. Even better, I'm nearly 50% faster than I was with qwerty and make fewer mistakes than ever.

After a day or two on Dvorak, touch typists already proficient with qwerty usually wonder how in the world they survived that old horse-and-buggy keyboard. And with the training programs now available, new typists who bypass qwerty altogether can become extremely proficient on Dvorak in a few days, rather than the weeks or months needed with the old system.

So, forget speed and accuracy. If your qwerty is a big pain in the you-know-what, just take one Dvorak--and don't call me in the morning.

Back to the present: Several years ago, I used the web page, and without even breaking a sweat, I easily cruised well above 80 wpm with 100% accuracy. If I'd ignore those typos, I'd have gone even faster, but I'm a nut for doing things right the first time.

The internet makes it easier than ever to switch to Dvorak. In Windows, it’s found in your Control Panel under Language, International. And if you need more help, any good search engine can lead you to numerous resources which not only explain the benefits of using the more scientific keyboard design but will help you accomplish the switch for no charge at all.

So if you’ve been much too patient with pain in your paws from pecking on your old QWERTY, you have no more excuse to try Dvorak. If you’re smart enough to try it, then I wish you much faster and definitely pain-free typing on your new space-age racing computer system!


The World I Imagine: A creative manual for ending poverty and building peace and my historical mystery novel, Lion’s Pride, are available through your local bookstore. They are featured at, Barnes & Noble, and most online bookstores around the world. Both are available for Kindle readers.

No comments:

Post a Comment