Soukie's Place

keeping track of random thoughts

Of Keyboards and Men
The Inventors

One thing that children do very well is asking questions. “What is this?” “What is that?” The most difficult and important questions start with ‘Why.’ “Why are the letters on the keyboard arranged like this?”

Glad you asked. There are many detailed accounts of the history of the typewriter and its keyboard layout, and at least as many myths. The typewriter that became wildly used was invented by Christopher Latham Sholes in 1867.

Initially, the mechanism relied on the gravity to return the heads of the keys after imprinting the letters on the paper. This lead to jamming of neighboring keys, so Sholes experimentally modified his alphabetical layout to distance common letters into what we now accept without much thinking as the keyboard. (It was not to slow down typists as is often said because there had not been any typists then.)

When the typewriters were upgraded with springs to return the keys faster, Sholes actually wanted to update the so-called qwerty layout to make it more efficient but the manufacturers were against changing the (barely) established standard.

By the time August Dvorak, professor at the Seattle’s University of Washington, scientifically approached the problem in 1932 and proposed a ‘simplified’ layout with his brother-in-law, the standard had really been established. Dvorak’s Simplified Keyboard was based on the analysis of English language, and took into account how typists learn and the ergonomics of the movements during touch typing.

Although Dvorak’s pupils were achieving faster typing speeds with less typos, the biggest argument against the new layout at that time was the cost of converting the physical typewriters and retraining of typists. The fact that ‘Simplified Keyboard’ is demonstrably easier to learn and faster was not sufficient.

Despite Dvorak’s efforts, his invention has never succeeded. Because of this, it became a favorite example of how a better standard can lose to a worse — but more established — one. If any ‘invisible hand of the market’ exists it must be responsible for the destruction of a fair number of superior alternatives, aided by corporate greed and the reluctance to change of the masses.

Twist of the Wrist

Another unfortunate legacy of the old mechanical days which is almost never mentioned is the staggered position of the rows. While this progressive offset to the left allowed the mechanical parts of the typewriter to fit in easily, it has no function today and forces the hands and fingers to twist asymmetricallyThe right hand movement is more natural. But the same-finger keys for left hand, e.g. W-S-K for the ring finger, are difficult..

A Better Keyboard

Without going overboard with the design, a mainstream, simple keyboard should have long looked something like this:

TypeMatrix keyboard with straight columns and Dvorak layout

Physical layout

  • The rows are not staggered, so the keys are easy to reach up and down for both hands
  • Enter and Backspace are moved to prominent positions (they should not be an after-thought pasted at the edge of the 19th century)
  • Caps Lock is outcast to the fringe, awaiting extinction.

Dvorak vs. qwerty

  • Frequently occurring letters are on the ‘home row’ (70% vs. 32%)
  • The “work” is distributed graduallyChart showing the even distribution of DSK versus QWERTY between the fingers; the right hand has a slightly more demanding job
  • The typing alternates better between hands (‘same-hand’ probability of 23% vs. 36%)
  • The least frequently used keys are on the lower row which is hardest to hit (8% of typing vs. 16%)

Unfortunately, even most keyboards that label themselves as ‘ergonomic’ and ‘natural’ do nothing about this. While the vast majority of ‘split’ keyboards offer a more comfortable angle for the arms, they keep the offset on both halves in the same direction. The offset, if any, should be mirrored, otherwise the left hand is left strained. The industry assumes that everybody prefers to slavishly bend to a 150-year-old design, even though it takes no more than 15 hours to get completely used to a normal (straight column) layout.

Changing both the layout and positioning of the keys leads to a faster typing with significantly reduced movement, which also reduces the risk of repetitive stress injuries and carpal tunnel syndrome. It is a sad fact that until now, the rather arbitrary and inefficient qwerty keyboard continues to dominate our computers to the point where most users are not even aware of better alternatives.

Should You Switch?

Adults tend to ask markedly different questions than children. One of the less flattering ones is: “Why should I bother?” If you are considering moving away from qwerty, I have the following recommendations:

Dvorak is an obvious choice for anyone who would like to learn touch typing. Do not waste your time with a slower and uncomfortable layout that is more difficult to learn. You do not need a new physical keyboard — you should not be looking at the keys anyway, so only change the software keyboard settings and start practicing. Good online exercises are at abcd.

The more difficult question is whether to learn Dvorak if you can touch type qwerty. I would say that unless you type more than 60 words per minute, switching to Dvorak is worth it: You should get to your original speed within a month. Dvorak is also much more comfortable so it is a superior choice even if your goal is not to write faster.

Take Action

If you wish to help promote better standards, these are some of the things you can do:

  • Demand alternatives from manufacturers of keyboards, laptops and mobile devices.
  • Purchase products that already provide them.
  • Link to this article or donate to the campaign promoting Dvorak.

The switch to a non-staggered layout is easy and does not require re-learning, and it will bring benefits to people who touch type (the “hunt and peck” does not suffer from the staggered layout). So even if you decide you do not wish to learn the Dvorak layout, you could still benefit from a keyboard with a design that is not bound by no longer existing mechanical parts.

Christopher Sholes died in 1890; typewriters were on the rise and opening good employment opportunities for women. August Dvorak died in 1975, his contribution doomed and used by maybe two thousand people; it was two years before the home computers would allow switching keyboards at will. It is time for the next step. Even if you decide to stay with the good old keyboard, give your children the chance to break away from the bad standard. My Grandma’s typewriter was manufactured before Dr Dvorak’s wonderful invention, so I was out of luck.

This is the second article in the series Of Keyboards and Men. The first, titled Childhood, described my encounter with the typewriters and was filed in the Life category. This one, The Inventors, is filed under History, while the final one, Dvorak vs. Colemak, concentrates on the Technology.

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