Dvorak. Not exactly a common name.

There are a few famous folks with that name. Antonín Dvořák composed the New World Symphony during a visit to the United States in 1893 (but I can’t hum a single theme from it). There’s also Dusty Dvorak, a gold-medal-winning U.S. volleyball player in the 1984 Summer Olympics (I wasn’t born yet). Some people might think of Ann Dvorak, the American actress from the early 20th century (I haven’t seen any of her movies). If you’re into technology like I am, you probably have seen John C. Dvorak’s columns in PC Magazine or InfoWorld (I tend to disagree with his opinions).

The Dvorak that I am most thankful for is August Dvorak, the educational psychologist and professor at the University of Wisconsin. You probably haven’t heard much about him. He and his brother-in-law, William Dealey, created the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard layout. What’s the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard layout, you ask? I’ll tell you. But first, a quick history lesson:

It was the late 1860s. Christopher Sholes, Carlos Glidden, and Samuel W. Soule were designing and building the first commercially-successful typewriter, the Remington No. 1. As they were building it, they noticed that when two keys near each other were pressed in rapid succession, the typewriter had a tendency to jam due to the mechanical levers that would swing up to print the letter on the page. This was a problem. They couldn’t just tell people to be more careful, so they decided to rearrange the keys so that there would be fewer jams. The keys were spread out so that common letter sequences would not be near each other. The typist could then press these two keys more rapidly with fewer jams. This was the birth of the QWERTY layout. Despite initial criticisms, typewriters were a huge success.

Back to our friend August who, while advising a student’s master’s thesis on typing errors, became interested in the subject. By the 1930s, typewriters were much more advanced, and their propensity to jam had been greatly reduced. He and his brother-in-law meticulously studied every aspect of typing, from the physiology of the hand to the most commonly used letters and letter sequences in the English language. The end result: a keyboard layout that was able to to be learned, on average, in one-third of the time that it took a typist to learn QWERTY, and consistently produced faster typists who made fewer errors.

The US Dvorak keyboard layout. (Image: Wikipedia).

The effort and attention to detail on the design of this layout is insane:

  • 70% of all keystrokes are on the home row (vs. 32% for QWERTY)
  • Most words will alternate back and forth nicely between your hands, because all vowels are typed with your left hand.
  • The least common characters are placed on the bottom row

Fast-forward to the digital age. We still type on keyboards, and we are no longer bound by the lever action required to put characters on the page, yet we are still using a keyboard layout that was designed for typewriter efficiency, not typist efficiency. Barbara Blackburn, the world’s fastest typist, uses the Dvorak layout. Other proponents include Steve Wozniak of Apple fame and Matt Mullenweg, creator of WordPress.

Before the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard layout, I was unable to teach myself to touch type. Forever bound to my lovingly-named “3-finger claw” stance, I would type three letters, then backspace two, type three letters, backspace two, and so on. By the time I finished a paragraph, my whole arm hurt. Then Dvorak found me. I was forever changed. A fresh start. Within a month I was back up to my original typing speed of 35 WPM. Within a year I doubled that. Thanks, Dvorak! (Take that, QWERTY!)