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36

A Keyboard Whose Time Has Come

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Patricia Kaplus is an accomplished touch typist. She is, in fact, supervisor of word processing at the Oregon Public Employees Retirement System's office in Portland. But if she typed her name using an ordinary typewriter, it would come out Rakogiga Varpf;. The reason is that Kaplus, like all the typists and word-processor operators on her staff, uses a typewriter with a keyboard as different from the usual one as English is from, say, Hungarian.

The standard typewriter layout is generally referred to as the QWERTY keyboard, named after the first six letters on its second row. Designed by Christopher Sholes, the Milwaukee inventor who built the first commercially successful typewriter, it has survived virtually unchanged since about 1873. In recent years, however, QWERTY has come under increasing attack from critics who argue that it makes typing unnecessarily slow and inefficient. Most of them advocate that the keyboard be replaced with the so-called Dvorak keyboard, named or the University of Washington professor who designed it some 50 years ago.

And, indeed, these keyboard rebels have begun to make some headway. This spring, the American National Standards Institute issued a set of specifications for the Dvorak keyboard that would "increase the speed of [typists] and . . . reduce fatigue." The Oregon Public Employees Retirement System converted from QWERTY to Dvorak. But perhaps the biggest boost of all has come from Apple Computer Inc., which decided to design both its Apple III and its Apple IIe with keyboard conversion capability.

There is no denying that the QWERTY keyboard is extremely awkward to use. Sholes designed it that way on purpose. His earliest typewriters kept jamming whenever typists went too fast. So he deliberately put the most common letters in separate quadrants of the keyboard, thereby forcing typists to slow down.

As typewriter technology improved, various tinkerers began to play around with more efficient keyboard formats. The best, by common consent, was Dvorak's version. Dvorak took those same common letters and put them on the so-called home, or middle, row, making it possible to type a huge number of common English words without moving the fingers up or down at all.

Typists trained on Dvorak machines began to win speed contests so regularly that they had to be banned from competitions. A few manufacturers began offering the Dvorak keyboard as an option, but most held back, waiting to see if demand would develop. It didn't.

Dvorak died in 1975, but his keyboard lived on in the hearts and minds of an almost cultlike band of followers, including such eminent figures as Harvard University physicist Richard Land. Lately, their number has been growing, and time -- as well as technology -- may be on their side.

For one thing, more and more keyboards are hooked up to computers rather than to type bars. Changing the keyboard layout is now a relatively simple matter of replacing the keycaps and altering the program. Then, too, a lot of people who aren't professional typists are using keyboards these days, and a hunt-and-peck engineer or executive may be less resistant to change.

The arguments for the Dvorak keyboard are quite formidable. "The average typist's fingers travel 16 miles in an eight-hour day on a QWERTY machine, compared with a mere 1 mile using the Dvorak model," says Virginia Russell, a former housewife who has set up a consulting firm, Simplified Keyboard Associates in Brandon, Vt., to help businesses convert to Dvorak. Studies have shown that professional typists can adapt to the new system in a month or so. Thereafter, they will be substantially more productive and substantially less fatigued.

Even so, it may be a while yet before the Dvorak keyboard replaces QWERTY. "You still have to convince users that this screwy-looking thing is worth learning," says Paul Nelson, a Dvorak advocate who is responsible for keyboard design at Digital Equipment Corp. Nevertheless, he is encouraged by Apple's move and believes that DEC and others may eventually follow that lead.

The late Professor Dvorak no doubt would have been pleased by this prospect, even if it is a long time coming. He was, after all, a patient man. "If a man makes a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to his door," he once told a reporter. "But Emerson didn't say how long it would take."

Last updated: Jun 1, 1983




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