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A Brief History of Typing–and Why The Dvorak Layout Won’t Heal/Prevent RSI

Posted Dec 29 2008 7:01pm

I once read an account of the peace negotiations following the Second World War. Secretaries stayed up all night, painstakingly typing and retyping official documents. Since this was before the computer era, they used typewriters, and had to retype any page where edits or errors were made.

On reading the historical accounts, my wrists twinged and I wondered, how come repetitive stress injuries weren’t an issue then?

The History of Typing

The common keyboard layout we’re familiar with is called QWERTY, because those are top left set of characters in the system. Developed for early typewriters in the late 1800s, QWERTY was later carried over to computers because it was already familiar to users and manufacturers.

A look at QWERTY shows us how inefficient it is — some of the commonest letters are just out of reach, making it slower to type and more hazardous for fingers that must continually reach for those keys.

In fact, the system was designed to be inefficient, in order to compensate for the slow speed of typewriters that would jam and stick if typists moved too fast. The layout actually makes typing slower. Add to this the extra careful posture and movement the typewriter required, and you can see how typing on a typewriter was in some ways slower and less repetitive than today–meaning those early secretaries were less at risk than modern typists.

Suparna Damany, MSPT, and Jack Bellis describe these benefits in their book, It’s Not Carpal Tunnel Syndrome! RSI Theory and Therapy for Computer Professionals:

RSI wasn’t as much of a problem with typewriters because typewriters had steeply stepped rows of keys, requiring you to hold your hands up. This meant that you couldn’t rest your arms on the work surface, so there were no pinch points. There was also a lot more variety of motion using a typewriter, correcting mistakes, rolling the plates back-and-forth with one hand, swinging the carriage return lever with the other hand and changing paper. These factors combined to provide more exercise — invigoration is the best word — for your arms that you get using today’s “efficient” computer keyboard.

What’s Dvorak and Why Doesn’t Everyone Use It?

Enter the computer era; since everyone was used to the QWERTY system, it was kept–even though a more streamlined, efficient system had been developed as early as 1936 by a man named August Dvorak. Dvorak studied the QWERTY system and created one according to human factors, rather than the machine’s limitations. A quick look at the Wikipedia page shows the Dvorak layout: commonly used keys were put right on the home rows, meaning the vowels all sit directly under the left hand and common consonants under the right hand.

The system takes a few dedicated hours to learn to touch type and is quite easy and comfortable to get used to. (I was forced to learn by a geeky boyfriend who used it on the only Internet-enabled computer in our house for a time, and after that voluntarily stuck with it for a while.) But problems remain with the layout (which is why I now just use QWERTY).

First off, visitors to your computer won’t know how to type. Also, the new layout makes it even more awkward to use simple, common keyboard shortcuts like Ctrl-C for Copy or Ctrl-Z for Undo. In most offices today, these shortcuts are necessary tools. According to keyboard manuals accompanying the Kinesis Advantage, and alternative ergonomic keyboard made by Kinesis Corp., the shortcuts already put hands at risk when people press two keys with one hand at the same time. Reaching further to make those shortcuts will increase the risk.

The Risk in Typing

Three factors commonly play into Repetitive Stress Injuries, and it’s important to understand them when evaluating possible solutions:

1) Speed — Doing anything too fast puts a strain on your muscles and ligaments and can cause you to compensate with the wrong muscles. It can weaken and strain muscles.

2) Force — If you press too hard, you add pressure to joints and muscles.

3) Posture or Motion — If you reach too far, or use the wrong posture for a task, you can cause a range of problems, from pinched nerves to strained or compressed muscles, to injury caused by using the wrong muscles to compensate.

The Dvorak layout helps solve the problem caused by the posture of using the QWERTY keyboard and reaching for the common keys all the time, but increases the risk of a posture injury if you reach for the keyboard shortcuts.

The benefit you may or may not get is that you can end up typing faster on the layout without violating the first rule — because your speed isn’t caused by quicker movement, just a more efficient layout. Your fingers can do more, within the same amount of movement, which is the theoretical benefit of the system. However, if you factor in the hours to learn to type in Dvorak, and the time it takes to get up to speed, you may find not much benefit at all. At my best, I was typing about as fast in Dvorak as in QWERTY. I used one at home and one at work, and my fingers could fluently switch between them–but I was still having pain symptoms at that time.

At least from a health perspective, our hands might be happier if we’d stayed with the typewriter — but then again, we can at least be thankful that a slight manuscript edit means just a few extra letters to type — not retyping an entire page or manuscript.

Possibly related posts:

  1. Improve Your Mousing Style: How to Click and Point More Comfortably
  2. A Comprehensive List of Alternative Ergonomic Keyboards
  3. Quasimodos of the Future–Unite!
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