Dvorak keyboard layout – Part I

Dvorak, composer. Not the keyboard designer.I’ve been a full-timer in the workforce a pretty short length of time. At my first job out of college, I was hired as a fresh programmer onto a team with much more experience than I had. Naturally, when I started to develop aches in my fingers and palms associated with repetitive strain injury (RSI), I was more than shocked that it could happen to someone my age. I was especially surprised that I had started to notice symptoms after only 6 months on the job. This was my first desk job, and I did not think 6 months of repetition was enough for my hands to start experiencing RSI. I was wrong.

I had be working 40 hours a week programming at a desk, then coming home to do my own projects for another 4 or 5 hours a day. It’s hard to believe now that I didn’t experience much worse RSI. In fact, my young mind-set probably only exacerbated the situation since I thought I was too young to be affected and I, therefore, paid no mind to ergonomics. It took me another 6 months before I accepted that my hand pains were a side-effect of using a keyboard and mouse for 75+ hours a week.

When I began researching ways to combat my RSI, one of the first  “remedies” I came across was learning the Dvorak keyboard layout (pronounced /ˈdvɔræk/ with a an ‘r,’ unlike the composer pictured above). The Dvorak layout was said to be more comfortable and added less strain to your hands during typing than the standard QWERTY layout. In fact, many accounts I read about people using the layout said that not only did it increase their comfort during typing, but it also increased their typing speeds substantially once they mastered the layout. The more accounts I saw confirming this, the more I wanted to try it.

What’s wrong with QWERTY?

I didn’t want to start learning Dvorak right off the bat in case it wasn’t actually helpful. I decided that before I dove into Dvorak, I would find out more about QWERTY and what was wrong with it. Here’s what I found out in a nutshell.

Think about when you first started to learn to type. Didn’t you find it strange that the letters were difficult to find, laid out all over they keyboard with seemingly no order? I remember thinking “why aren’t they laid out in alphabetical order?” Well there actually is order to the way the QWERTY keyboard is laid out, though it’s not quite obvious.

The modern QWERTY layout is a variant of the typewriter layout made popular by the Remington No. 2 manufactured and sold in the late 1800s. The majority of the layout was developed by Christopher Sholes with minor changes by Remington before its manufacture. I’m not going to dive much further into the history of the QWERTY keyboard (mainly because this is about the extent of my knowledge on the topic), but there are some key points to note about the origin of the QWERTY layout: 1 – it was originally designed for a mechanical typewriter, 2 – it was developed over 130 years ago.

Because of the mechanical nature of the typewriter, one of the major concerns that went into developing an efficient layout was enabling fast typing without jamming the machine. A common belief is that this meant spacing out the keys in such a way to slow down the typist. This is not entirely true as the goal of the keyboard layout was to enable the quickest typing within the context of the mechanical keyboard. This meant spacing out the letters of common key combinations on different rows or opposite sides of the layout to prevent levers from hitting each other during typing. This QWERTY design was meant to prevent as much jamming as possible on these mechanical typewriters.

The QWERTY layout is old. 130 years old. How many technologies can you think of have not changed in 130 years? And how likely is it that the first widely accepted keyboard layout is still the most efficient layout 130 years later? When I started thinking about it, I couldn’t help but be skeptical of the superiority of the QWERTY layout. In fact, when I learned that Remington moved some keys around from Sholes’s final design before beginning manufacture (a popular myth says the keys were moved in order to allow salesmen to type TYPEWRITER using only the top row), I was convinced that I would have rethink the way I typed.

Stay tuned for part 2: The benefits of Dvorak.

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