Dvorak 1

Let me start with a story. Back when typewriters were first invented, the keys had a mechanism that would move them upwards to strike the paper. They were then allowed to fall back to their resting position by the force of gravity. The first typewriter keyboards also had an alphabetical layout, ABCD etc. This caused issues whenever someone pressed two adjacent keys in quick succession. They would jam against each other, typically causing the first letter to be repeated over and over again instead of different letters being used.

Some of the inventors of the typewriter sat around and rearranged keys to move common two letter combinations apart, so that there were as few collisions as possible. Their arrangement was fairly random. Near the end of the process, they also decided to move the letters for the word “typewriter” to the top row, so that salesman could show it off. Try it, if you haven’t already.

If you hadn’t guessed, they arrangement they came up with was the QWERTY keyboard layout, the same one we still use today. Or you still use, at least. There are alternatives. But that’s getting ahead of myself, I’ve not told the whole story yet. But before I go on, I want to make something clear: QWERTY was NOT designed to slow typists down, or be massively and horrible inefficient. It was designed to remove key jams by placing commonly used key pairs apart from each other. The other things are just side effects.

When the second generation typewriter was produced, it included spring loaded keys that would snap back into place, essentially eliminating jams. However, people had learned to type on the QWERTY layout, and the manufacturer decided not to switch, even though the inventor himself came up with a much more efficient design.

Typewriters quickly caught on and became ubiquitous. In 1932, a man named August Dvorak became fed up with the inefficient design, and set out to design his own layout. Note: He’s a distant cousin of Dvořák the composer. He spent a lot of time studying typing and methods of making it more efficient. Within a year, he had designed his own keyboard layout, the Dvorak layout. I’ll talk a lot about it in tomorrow’s post, I’m just writing the history here.

Anyways, this layout was crazy more efficient. Dvorak trained some students with his layout and found that it took about 1/3 of the time to learn Dvorak than it did for them to learn QWERTY. His students started winning so many typing speed competitions that they were quickly banned for “cheating”. The Navy conducted a study and found that they would regain the costs of buying all new typewriters and retraining all of their typists to Dvorak within months. However, someone high up with a personal grudge against Dvorak stopped the transition. There are many other instances of such things happening, and things seemed to always go wrong, people seemed to always resist.

In 1975, Dvorak died, a bitter old man. Some of his last words were, “I’m tired of trying to do something worthwhile for the human race, they simply don’t want to change!” In 1982, his keyboard layout was officially standardized by the ANSI, and it now comes as part of the software on all major operating systems. It’s incredibly easy to switch.

I’ll talk about how to switch as well as how much better the Dvorak layout actually is, tomorrow. Until then, you can always Google it. 🙂

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