Rewind: The Simplified Keyboard (December, 1981)

We have always been told that the keys on our keyboards are placed in the most frequently hit spaces, but this article from the '80s says that is nonsense. Dr August Dvorak explores different key placement theories and claims we will soon see the death of the qwerty keyboard. 

If you were to go to another country you might find that your high-speed, accurate touch typing would suffer a terrible blow. In Australia for instance, the top row of letter keys on the typewriter is q w e r t y u i o p whereas Germany it’s q w e r t z i o p u and in France it’s a z e r t y i u o p. The strange layout of the typewriter is keyboard is often explained on the basis that the most frequently-used letters are put in most easily hit places, and the frequency of use of letter is different in differing languages.

In fact, this is nonsense q w e r t y u i o p and its variants were developed to suit the typewriter maker, whose early machines were not capable of working at speeds typists could reach. The letters were placed awkwardly to slow down typing so that type bars did not clash together.

These arrangements are obviously not the most efficient, especially in today’s electronic world. A re-arrangement of letters on a frequency basis would probably lead to tremendous productivity increases.

In the United States Dr August Dvorak has been batting q w e r t y u i o p for years. Dr Dvorak is struggling to make headway in the war on redundant production techniques, even though he has the backing of the US Navy.

His struggle against the standard keyboard invented in 1873 by Christopher Latham Sholes. Sholes with the Remington Arms Co. developed the predecessor of the modern day typewriter. The keyboard configuration, known as the universal standard, was then established.

Hunt and Seek

Dr Dvorak says it was Sholes’ aim to develop a machine that would write with print characters and could be operated at the then inconceivably dazzling rate equal to handwriting. Dr Dvorak says Sholes’ theory was that typists would hunt and seek with the first finger of each hand.

Touch typing speeds, as we know them today, were not even imagined.

Sholes’ primary problem was mechanical. To avoid the clashing of the type bars being struck in succession he sought to locate the most commonly used letters in different quadrants. Dr Dvorak says the worst possible arrangement was conceived. “It is possible to make, at random, dozens of typewriter keyboards which are as good or better than the Sholes’ universal keyboard.”

“If the letters and characters in the lower three rows of keys on the Sholes keyboard are drawn from a hat and placed by pure chance, keyboard arrangements frequently are secured on which the total hand and finger loads are more equitably divided.”

Dr Dvorak did extensive research and found that 32 per cent of typing was done on the home row, 68 per cent on the top row and 16 per cent on the bottom row. On the Dvorak simplified keyboard, this was changed to 70 per cent on the home row, 22 per cent on the third row and 8 per cent on the low row.

Studies done in the 1940’s showed that average typists could increase their speed between 35 per cent and 50 per cent after 100 hours of retraining. In other tests accuracy was quoted to be up 68 per cent and typing speeds up an average of 24 per cent.

The increases in efficiency are arrived at by better access to keys and less tiredness on the part of typist’s wrists, hands and fingers.

Other research has suggested dividing the keyboard up the middle and turning the bottom of each half outwards. This it is argued allows the hands to adopt a more natural position when held above the keyboard.

Perhaps in the coming years with virtually every keyboard being electronically operated we will see the death of Mr Qwerty.

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