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On the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard

This is a post that I have been meaning to write from quite some time. Long hours spent typing code on my computer left my hands fatigued, and left me with a lot of pain in my wrists and fingers. That is when I decided to use the Dvorak.

But I have got the same bad habit as Dr. Watson, to tell a story backwards. Of course, you must be wondering what the Dvorak is.

The story of keyboards starts with the invention of the typewriter. Christopher Sholes, the inventor of the typewriter, tried with a two row piano style keyboard. But then, he got into many difficulties with the design. Then he finally settled for a four row design. This was similar to the QWERTY layout that most computers and typewriters today possess. The engineers at Remington, to whom Sholes had presented his design modified the layout a little further, and then the QWERTY was born.

As typewriters became popular, people got used to the layout, and started practising touch typing, i.e. typing without looking at the keys. And the layout became so popular, that the electronic typewriters that followed, and the computers after them too had the same layout.

But there was an essential defect in the design of this layout. It was done by an engineer for his own convenience, and not for the convenience of the people using it. Also, there was the issue of typebar clashes, and the layout had commonly used letters spaced away to decrease typing speed. However, other typewriters that did not have the typebar mechanism used some alternate layouts, most popular being the Blickensderfer typewriter in 1893. It featured a type wheel instead of the typebars, and hence could afford to increase efficiency of the typist. It had a layout which had the keys DHIATENSOR on the home row, these 10 letters being the most frequently used letters of the alphabet.

In 1936, Dr. August Dvorak came up with a newer layout. His logic was to give the most frequently used letters a place on the home row, so as to prevent unnecessary finger motion. He pet all the vowels on the left side of the home row, and the consonants DHTNS on the right side. All in all, the letters on the home row are AOEUIDHTNS, very similar to the Blickensderfer, with the exception of the letter U, which was added in the Dvorak, and R which was removed. The design of the Dvorak means that most of the time, hands alternate between letters, which is a good thing, as one hand can take its position over the a letter while the other hand types the previous letter. Also, the Dvorak tends to avoid awkward hand movements like hurdles, in which one hand must go from one row over the home row to the other extreme (try typing MINIMUM on the QWERTY), while typing consecutive letters. All this reduces typing errors, and helps reduce strain while typing, and also helps the typist speed up.

Then why is the Dvorak not popular today? A simple answer is that people are resistant to change. And most do not know the reasons for the QWERTY. This reminds me of a hilarious experiment with monkeys. The experiment involves putting five monkeys in a cage, and to put in a banana at the top of some stairs in the cage. As soon as any monkey touches the stairs, spray the remaining monkeys with cold water. Soon, the monkeys realize what is happening, and beat up any monkey that tries to reach the stairs. Once this basic training has been achieved, replace one monkey with a new one, who has no idea about what happens when he reaches the stairs. At this point, he shall naturally try and reach for the banana, and the other monkeys will try and hold him back. Then replace another of the old monkeys. Then, when the new entrant tries to reach for the stairs, the other monkeys shall beat him up. The monkey previously unaware of this custom too joins in the beating up of the new entrant. Go on replacing monkeys until none of the old monkeys remain. Now, none of the monkeys are aware of the threat of the cold water, but they still shall not allow any monkey to approach the stairs. And this is how company policies are made, and why people use QWERTY.

So, how to initiate the switch from QWERTY to Dvorak? It starts with a reorganization of the keyboard layout. For this, a recommended approach is to stick labels with the new characters over your existing keyboard. I have simply removed the key caps from my keyboard and replaced them in the new layout. The next step involves changing your software to accept the Dvorak layout. In Windows, you need to go to the control panel, then in the keyboard and input methods, select the layout as USA Dvorak International. Remove the existing US layout, and reboot your computer for the settings to be applied properly. A similar thing can be done in Linux too.

The Dvorak simplified layout
The Dvorak simplified layout

Then comes possibly the most exasperating task of all... reprogramming your fingers to the new layout. A useful tutor can be found here. Of course, you are free to choose any tutor that you like.

So how do I stand? Two month into the Dvorak, I am almost as good as I was with the QWERTY. Of course, I do make some mistakes, but they are becoming less frequent as I type more. From a mere 10 words a minute, I have come up to 60 words a minute in the span of the two months, and typing long blog posts like this has become so easy. I think that switching to the Dvorak is practical and easy, and should be attempted by all, because we no longer have to think and worry about typebar jams any longer.

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