Michael Herrick

August Dvorak

One of my heroes is August Dvorak. He saved my career.

About twenty years ago, I had a debilitating case of tendinitis in my hands, wrists and forearms. I couldn’t turn a key in a lock or pick up a cup with one hand. I went to physical therapy and wore a TENS Unit on my belt to deliver pain-killing electrical shocks to my damaged nerves.

Needless to say, typing on a keyboard was out of the question. Typing, in fact, was what did me in. I was working then as a graphic designer at a shop that heavily marketed its resumé preparation services. I typed a lot of resumés. Enough to disable me, eventually, by what’s called Repetitive Strain Injury. Wiggle the same muscle the same tiny bit a million times a day and after a while it stops working and you’re wiring yourself up to a little car battery just to stop the pain, which works surprisingly well.

I’d have been safer digging ditches.

I was out of work for about six months while I healed and went several times a week to see a physical therapist where I received arm massages, soaked my hands in molten wax (relaxing!) and learned about the Pain Scale (which my therapist brought down to the manageably imaginable by setting the parameters at zero for no pain and ten for a “sharp stick in the eye”). While you’re doing all this, the therapists all give you the same advice to help you avoid trouble when you go back to work: sit up straight, take frequent breaks, and above all, do not rest your wrists on the desk (crimping the carpal tunnel is just asking for misery).

When I did go back to typing work, I actually got my employer to spend money on little metal spheres (we delicately avoided the term “balls”) used for excerising my hands and a piece of software that would chime every 40 minutes and tell me to stand up and stretch. A little silly, really.

But nothing beat the spectacularly useless bit of advice I got from a doctor I visited for a second opinion. “Maybe you should consider,” he told me, “changing careers.”

Well that’s just stupid. Not that I wanted (or continued) to type resumés for the rest of my life, but it was pretty clear even then that a college drop-out wasn’t likely to make any more money in any other field than he might make in computers and besides, I like the things. I like messing around with them. And I’d do almost anything to avoid advertising or law school.

Since then, I did quite a bit more graphic design, not a few resumés, typeset a couple books, moved into Web design when the entire World Wide Web comprised fewer than 500 sites, and finally wound up in programming. Still a heck of a lot of typing.

And during all that typing, I kept fighting tendinitis. It was always there, waiting to flare up, and I was always on the lookout for new techniques and new technologies to manage the problem, because not typing just wasn’t a solution. Fortunately, workplace erogonomics was a hot topic in the ’90s, so lots of new products were developed (alongside plenty of snake oil). I experimented with a lot of split keyboard designs, which can help by separating the hands and angling the keys to line up with a more neutral wrist position. Finally, after struggling with lots of pseudo-ergonomic junk, I discovered a good keyboard from Kinesis that I like and use to this day. It’s pleasantly weird and gets lots of comments from visitors to my office.

The funny keyboard helped. Sitting up straight also helps. But the single biggest help, the one indispensible thing that made it possible for me to keep on in a career at the keyboard, was the invention of college professor in 1930s Seattle, the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard Layout.

Whenever I buy a new laptop, one of the first things I do is pull out a pocket knife and carefully pry off all the little keys and reattach them in a civilized arrangement, shown above. That’s the Dvorak keyboard layout, invented during the Great Depression by August Dvorak (distant relation to the composer) and ignored almost universally since then.

Even a casual glance, if you can just overcome the discomfort of seeing a familiar tool so disfigured, reveals an interesting difference between the Dvorak layout and what is now termed, by retronym, the Qwerty layout. On a Qwerty layout (check the upper-left corner of your keyboard if you really don’t know why it’s called that), the letters are distributed with a somewhat worse than random abandon, but the Dvorak layout groups all the vowels together on the left side on the home row, the row over which your fingers hover and to which they always (if you’re a touch typist) return while you work. And if you look over to the right side of the home row, you’ll see all the consonants that any Wheel Of Fortune watcher knows are the most commonly used in the English language. Arrangements like that make it possible to do more typing with less finger movement. It’s been said that you can type more than 5,000 English words on the Dvorak home row but only about 300 on the Qwerty home row. Less finger movement means less Repetitive Strain Injury. Which is why I’m still typing blog posts (voice recognitition is light-years improved but I still can’t dictate) 20 years after taking workmen’s compensation insurance for tendinitis.

So I’m grateful to August Dvorak, who spent his life trying—unsuccessfully—to make people accept the obvious benefits of his invention. His story is not a happy one. No one plausibly claims that Qwerty is actually the superior layout. It’s just what everyone is used to. Everyone knows that the Qwerty layout was invented to slow typists down, to prevent them from jamming the mechanical keys on those cast-iron dinosaurs you sometimes see in a movie or museum. Everyone knows, if they think about it, that we could do better. But few think and fewer care.

Dvorak cared. He believed the machine should be adapted to the man, not the man to the machine. He was a humanist in the important sense and he wanted to make tools that would serve human beings. But the humans didn’t want his help. They were happy serving the machines. So there’s a tragic and despairing beauty to Dvorak’s words given to an interviewer towards the end of his life:

I’m tired of trying to do something worthwhile for the human race.
—August Dvorak

Sometimes we hear about an inventor whose work was stolen or misappropriated. We hear stories of innovators and artists who went unappreciated and unrecognized in their lifetime, who went about, in Ayn Rand’s colorful phrase, “casting pearls before swine without getting even a pork chop in return.”

But so far as I know, August Dvorak was never looking for recognition or renown or reward. The only reward he sought was to see people benefit from from his invention.

For everyone who never said it, Thank you Dr. Dvorak.

  • Where can I get one of this Dvorak typewriter, not to be used on a computer keyboard, one using paper?

  • I'll second that thanks Michael. I'm using a Model-M with the Dvorak layout. I used to have an array of devices and pads and stuff to reduce hand/wrist pain - since switching to Dvorak they've all gone in the bin. I had nothing as bad as the horrors you clearly faced though. Many thanks Dr. Dvorak and thanks Michael for the topic. Rob

Log In

What's New

To legalize or to moot?
Ayn Rand
August Dvorak
It's a scary, dangerous world
No skating
Always know the time
The Big House, by Stephen Cox
Chickens again
Samuel Alito and gun control