(Note: Have we adapted technology to best suit our needs?  Are we in a position of ultimate control of our destiny, with our technology and tools subject to a rigorous evaluation and shaping to aid in human betterment?  Or are we merely drifting along, at times subordinate to the most bizarre quirks of technical development?   In forming your opinion, consider the story of the QWERTY keyboard in front of you.)

"Things are in the saddle, and ride mankind"  Ralph Waldo Emerson

Dvorak History

John W. Shipman

Here's a brief summary of the history of the Dvorak keyboard.

The Dvorak keyboard is an offshoot of the work of Frank Gilbreth, the father of time and motion (efficiency) study; see the popular book "Cheaper by the Dozen" by Gilbreth and Carey for part of Gilbreth's story.

Once Gilbreth began to make a name for himself, he hired some other folks to use his methods to look for places where efficiency could be improved.

In about 1930, Dr. August Dvorak, an American from Seattle (I've heard that he is distantly related both to Antonin Dvorak the composer and John Dvorak the iconoclastic computer columnist), undertook a study of efficiency in the office. He almost immediately discovered the awful history of the QWERTY keyboard.

Christopher Sholes, the inventor of the typewriter (ca. 1870), invented the QWERTY layout by trial and error. In his early typewriter, the type slugs hit the bottom of the platen and then fell back down. Because Sholes didn't think of putting return springs on the type slugs, he had trouble getting any speed out of the machine because the type slugs would jam. So he moved the characters around in a way that made the most common combinations hard to type, in order to SLOW THE TYPIST DOWN so that jams would not occur.

In practical terms, then, Sholes anti-engineered the keyboard. Dvorak found that the QWERTY arrangement is actually considerably worse than a random arrangement!

After uncovering this horror story, Dvorak started an intensive study of keyboarding. He made movies of people typing, and analyzed them to find out what operations slowed them down. He experimented with a large number of alternative arrangements, arriving at what he called the American Simplified Keyboard (ASK), after about ten years of work.

Dvorak spent decades trying to promote his arrangement. At the end of his life (he died in the 1970s, I think), he was a very bitter man, because he got nowhere fighting the huge inertia of the organizations that make and use typewriters.

The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) actually approved a version of the Dvorak layout as an "alternative" standard at one point in the 1970s; I can probably dredge this document up if anyone is interested.

I first read Dvorak's story in an article in "Computers and Automation" magazine in 1971 (again, I can dig up the citation if anyone wants it), in an article aptly titled "The Dvorak Simplified Keyboard: Forty Years of Frustration." This article has the whole sad story of Dr. Dvorak's quixotic battles, and a lot of detail about the advantages of the keyboard.

I don't type for a living, but in my work writing programs and documentation I probably spend at least a couple of hours a day keyboarding. In about 1980, I had been touch-typing for 18 years on QWERTY and could do about 35 words per minute. After 14 years on Dvorak, I can do about 80 wpm, and I can still do about 30 on QWERTY when I use unconverted equipment. Not only do I go much faster on the DSK, but my error rate is much lower, because there are much fewer awkward strokes. I find that the DSK is much less fatiguing. Although I have no proof, I feel that because of the greatly reduced finger motion, a DSK user will be much less prone to repetitive strain injuries. I think this would be a good thing to study.


John W. Shipman, Zoological Data Processing, 507 Fitch Avenue NW,
Socorro, NM 87801; phone, (505) 835-0235; e-mail, js@minos.nmt.edu