The Dvorak Keyboard

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    :   Q   J   K   X   B   M   W   V   Z
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The Dvorak keyboard, named for its inventor, Dr. August Dvorak, was designed with the goal of maximizing typing efficiency. For over a century, typists have been using the qwerty keyboard arrangement, a hack that was implemented to work around the mechanical limitations of early typewriters.

Contrary to popular opinion, the qwerty design was not actually invented to slow typists down. Rather, the layout was intended to place common two-letter combinations on opposite sides of the keyboard. On manual typewriters, each key is mechanically connected to a lever that has the reversed image of a letter on it. If a typist were to hit two keys on the same side of the keyboard in rapid succession, the second lever on its way up would hit the first on its way down, the keys would become stuck together, and the typist would have to stop typing and unstick the keys. The qwerty layout was a clever design that minimized this problem. However, now that most of us use computers (or electric typewriters that don't use levers), the problem of keys jamming is no longer a consideration. Also, computers now enable us to switch layouts while continuing to use the same equipment.

Most people learn to type on a qwerty keyboard. New typists learn the qwerty arrangement because that's most likely what they'll encounter on the existing equipment they'll be using; new equipment is standardized to the qwerty arrangement because that's what the vast majority of us know. Most people are reluctant to switch because they're afraid of how long it will take them to learn the new arrangement, and of the additional effort of having to switch layouts on all of the equipment they might encounter.

Dvorak's Claims

According to Dvorak, prior to World War II, researchers had found that after three years of typing instruction, the average typing student's speed was 47 net words per minute (NWPM). Since typists were scarce during the war, the U.S. Navy selected fourteen typists for a 1944 study to assess whether Dvorak retraining would be feasible. Dvorak found that it took an average of only 52 hours of training for those typists' speeds on the Dvorak keyboard to reach their average speeds on the qwerty keyboard. By the end of the study their Dvorak speeds were 74 percent faster than their qwerty speeds, and their accuracies had increased by 68 percent.

Dvorak attributed the increase in accuracy to the fact that on keyboard, that the most common digraphs (two-letter combinations, such as "ed") in English would occur with a minimum of "hurdling" (having to jump over a key as if it were a hurdle), and would use stronger fingers rather than weaker ones. Dvorak estimated that the fingers of an average typist in his day travelled between 12 and 20 miles on a qwerty keyboard; the same text on a Dvorak keyboard would require only about one mile of travel. Dvorak believed that hurdling and awkward keystroke combinations were responsible for most of the common errors typists make. His list of the most common typing errors on the Dvorak and qwerty keyboards is interesting.

Unfortunately, subsequent investigation has shown that at best, the experiments in the Navy study were biased, and at worst, fabricated. See Typing Errors, from the June 1996 issue of Reason Magazine for a thorough discussion of this topic, as well as more information about the early history of the typewriter and the qwerty keyboard. In the mid 1950s, U.S. Government's General Services Administration commissioned a study by Earle Strong to confirm Dvorak's results. Strong's study, which included proper controls and which was set up to allow direct comparison of qwerty and Dvorak data, found that after sufficient training, Dvorak typists were able to match their previous qwerty speeds, but not surpass them. Furthermore, additional qwerty training for qwerty typists resulted in a greater increase in speed than additional Dvorak training for Dvorak typists who typed at a similar rate. These results would suggest that Dvorak's claims of faster and more efficient typing are bogus, and switching layouts on the basis of speed and efficiency would not make sense.

My Own Experience

Having heard Dvorak's claims, but not the modern-day scientific analysis of his experiments, I decided to switch to the Dvorak layout in the late 1980s, when computer software (specifically version 10 of the X Window System) made it fairly simple to remap the keyboard layout without making any hardware changes. It took a few months for my Dvorak speed to catch up to my qwerty speed. I found the Dvorak layout to be more comfortable and less effort.

For a period of four or five years, I used the qwerty layout at work (on a shared DOS computer), and the Dvorak layout at home, spending about half of my typing time on each. During that time, my Dvorak speed increased to 90 wpm, and my qwerty speed reached 80 wpm. My accuracy improved slightly on both layouts. On the Dvorak layout, my most common typos are reversing two letters, whereas on the qwerty layout, it's more common for me to hit the wrong key altogether. (Note also that several people have made the claim that it's impossible to be able to switch back and forth between different keyboard layouts. That certainly hasn't been my experience, and I'm always happy to demonstrate for non-believers.)

The greatest benefit I've found from the Dvorak layout is that, in addition to feeling more comfortable, the typing-related discomfort I was beginning to experience in my wrists and forearms diminished, even though the amount of typing I was doing remained constant. Once my workplace switched from DOS to Windows and I was able to use the Dvorak layout everwhere, those problems vanished and have not returned. I believe that Dvorak's claims that his layout requires less "hurdling" over keys and less total finger travel are true, and that this is more or less directly responsible for the reduction in RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury) symptoms that I have experienced.


Was making the switch worth it? Yes, because of the ergonomic benefits.

Would I recommend it to other people? Yes, particularly if you have RSI problems from typing. When you first make the switch, the unfamiliar layout will slow you down, helping your injured arms and wrists heal. Once your Dvorak speed catches up with your qwerty speed (which it eventually will), you will likely find typing more comfortable (or at least less uncomfortable), and it may be less likely that your RSI will recur.

How to Remap Your Keyboard

Windows 95, 98, NT 4.0, 2000, and ME

From the "Start" menu, select "Settings" and then "Control Panel". From the Control Panel, double-click on "Keyboard". From the Keyboard folder, select the "Language" tab and click on the "Properties" button. Select "United States-Dvorak" and then click on the "OK" button. Windows may ask you for the installation CD to copy the dvorak driver.

Windows 3.1 and Windows NT 3.51

Select the "International" icon from your control panel. Then select "keyboard", and "US-Dvorak". This may require you to install the Dvorak keyboard DLL from your Windows install disks.


On computers running Mac OS 9.x and later, select the "Apple Menu", then "Control Panels", then "Keyboard", and then select "Dvorak". There is a second "Dvorak" layout which reverts to qwerty when the command key is held down.

Macintosh, NeXTSTEP, DOS, and handhelds running Palm OS

Note: I have downloaded the following binary files from the net, but haven't tested them. I have no idea how well they work. Caveat emptor.

X Window System

X Window System users (UNIX) can make the translation by running xmodmap on an appropriate keysym file. Here are some platform-independent ones. To use them, simply save the appropriate file and give it as an argument to xmodmap.

You're also welcome to copy and use my keymap bourne shell script, which does the dirty work for you.

For those who would prefer to purchase a hard-wired keyboard, sells a keyboard that can alternate between the Dvorak and qwerty layouts via a switch.

Teaching Yourself Dvorak via the WWW

Dan Wood has created a WWW course for teaching yourself Dvorak. Just switch your keyboard to Dvorak, go to the web site, and you're ready to start typing.


August Dvorak, Nellie L. Merrick, William L. Dealey, and Gertrude Catherine Ford, Typewriting Behavior, American Book Company (New York: 1936), p. 184, 503.

R. C. Cassingham, The Dvorak Keyboard, (Arcata, California: Freelance Communications, 1986; ISBN: 0-935309-10-1), pp. 21-26, 41-43.

Stan Liebowitz and Stephen E. Margolis, "Typing Errors", Reason Magazine, June 1996.

Other Links

Dvorak Keyboard info
Randy Cassingham's page (through Freelance Communications's This is True Web site)
Joe's Dvorak Page
Maintained by Joe Strout at the University of California at San Diego. I got most of these links from his page, and he may have more since I last looked.
The Dvorak Keyboard
Maintained by Dylan McNamee. Dylan also maintains Dvorak International's FAQ
ABCD: A Basic Course in Dvorak
Maintained by Dan Wood.
Marco's Dvorak Keyboard Layout Page
Maintained by Mark O'Bannon. Includes some comments on the Dvorak layout and repetitive strain injury, which agree with my own experiences.
KP Typing Tutor International
KP Typing Tutor serials, supporting Dvorak keyboards, for DOS and Win95, distributed as freeware. A Typing Course Generator is also available with thesis about typing course with high quality. Source code available from the author.
alt.keyboards FTP site

jcb's home page / send email
Last modified: 2003/03/07 23:13:18 by Jeff Bigler