Typing wars

Toby Howard

This article first appeared in Personal Computer World magazine, October 1997.

IF THE FIRST ROW of letters on your computer keyboard spells QWERTYUIOP, you're using a layout designed by Christopher Sholes of Milwaukee in the late 1860s. After 130 years, its days may finally be numbered.

The seemingly arbitrary QUERTY layout has its origins in the mechanics of the first typewriters. The hammers were arranged in a circle and struck the paper from below. Because they were prone to jamming, Sholes arranged his keys such that pairs of letters which a typist was likely to press in quick succession would not use adjacent hammers.

QUERTY became standard for typewriter keyboards, and inertia has meant that it's remained so. But there's increasing interest in an alternative keyboard layout, which has its basis in ergonomics, not mechanics. It's called Dvorak.

The Dvorak keyboard has been around about half as long as QUERTY, but it has remained a curiosity, largely unknown to most typists and computer users. Invented in 1932 by August Dvorak of Washington University, the key layout is derived from studies of language patterns and typing habits. It's quite different from QUERTY, as the diagram shows (punctuation and non-alphabetic keys are omitted here for clarity):

        QUERTY                        Dvorak
   Q W E R T Y U I O P                P Y F G C R L
   A S D F G H J K L            A O E U I D H T N S
   Z X C V B N M                  Q J K X B M W V Z

In Dvorak's layout, the most commonly used letters are all in the same row, the "home" row, which is the centred position for the typist's hands. As the table below shows, with Dvorak 70% of all keystrokes take place on the home row, compared with 32% for QUERTY, where most typing occurs on the top row:

          QUERTY    Dvorak

Top row:    52%       22%
Home row:   32%       70%
Bottom row: 16%        8%

Also, unlike QUERTY, the vowels fall naturally under the left hand, the consonants under the right. When you touch-type on Dvorak, your hands naturally alternate. The net result is that your fingers do far less travelling when typing on Dvorak -- 37% less according to a 1993 study.

As for speed, there are no universally accepted results to indicate that typing with Dvorak is fundamentally any faster than with QUERTY. The principal claims for Dvorak are that it's more comfortable to use, and that it may help reduce typing injuries. Both claims remain controversial.

Sholes often gets a bum rap for his QUERTY legacy, now seen as increasingly irrelevent as the mechanical typewriter fades from memory. But he was only doing his best. His goal was not, as often quoted by some pro-Dvorak campaigners, to slow typists down; rather, it was to enable them to type as fast as they could without jamming the keys. In fact, as faster key and hammer mechanisms were developed, Sholes revised his QUERTY keyboard, patenting an alternative layout, which, like the Dvorak design, split the vowels and consonants between the hands. But QUERTY was already well-established, and his revised design didn't catch on.

The QUERTY vs Dvorak debate continues to rage, especially on the Web, and for every article extolling Dvorak, you can find another gleefully pulling the arguments to pieces. Currently, there's a stand-off between the two camps. Much like PCs and Macs, each has their own advocates who are dying to convince you that the opposition is a load of rubbish.

But you can easily decide which is better for you. In the Windows 95 Control Panel select Keyboard, then Language, and hit the Properties button. This brings up a selection box in which you should find "United States - Dvorak" (Windows 3.x and Macs have similar support). Your existing QUERTY keyboard will now behave as if it's Dvorak: type an "R", for example, and a "P" should appear on the screen.

Of course you'll need to change the letters marked on the keys. If you don't want to buy a special Dvorak keyboard, you can try customising your existing QUERTY. You can stick new letters over the keys, or, if you're feeling destructive, you could try levering off the tops of the keys and shuffling them around. I'm actually typing this article on a standard QUERTY keyboard made into Dvorak with little yellow stickers.

So what's the bottom line? Is Dvorak better than QUERTY? On this question, passions ride high: "It's about time the QWERTY keyboard is exposed for the cruel joke that it is", says Steve Ingram, President of Dvorak International, a non-profit volunteer organisation devoted to evangelising the alternative keyboard. But the QUERTY enthusiasts reply that Dvorak is not demonstrably any better than QUERTY: it's just different.

It's said that a monkey randomly hammering on a typewriter will eventually type the entire works of Shakespeare. Dr Lee Arnould of the University of Tasmania has set a program running which simulates a monkey hitting a keyboard of lowercase letters. The idea is to see how long it takes to produce the sentence "to be or not to be that is the question". At the beginning of August 1997, the virtual monkey had been typing non-stop for 5 weeks, and his best score so far was 30%, having correctly generated 12 letters of the phrase in the right places. For this he's earned two bananas. Look in on him to see how he's doing.

Dr Arnould doesn't say whether his monkey is using QUERTY or Dvorak, but even proponents of Dvorak will admit that in this instance it doesn't really matter. But using Dvorak, they say, the monkey is sure to feel better about his typing, and be less likely to suffer Repetitive Strain Injury. The pro-QUERTY lobby, however, says the the jury is still out.

Toby Howard teaches at the University of Manchester.