Unstoppable Inertia

Merriam-Webster defines inertia as:

a property of matter by which it remains at rest or in uniform motion in the same straight line unless acted upon by some external force.

In a figurative sense, inertia says that once we put some idea into motion, it tends to remain unchanged unless an argument can be made that some other idea is better.

That’s why we still use the Phillips head screwdriver, imperial units of measure, and dinosaur-bone-goo to fuel our cars.

Inertia is why we use the QWERTY keyboard layout.  It was set in motion long before I was born.  Good luck to anyone trying to change it now.  It would take a miracle or the Prime Dictator to make it happen.

What follows is a brief history of the computer keyboard from my memory.  I won’t access the internet for this part.  Pretend it’s 1990 and we bumped into each other on the street.  I start telling you some bullshit about keyboard layouts.  You’ll have to trust me or do your own research later at the library.  Dewey decimal system, you know?  Card catalogues and shit.  There is no Google yet.  There is not even Yahoo or Lycos.  Here we go:

The QWERTY keyboard is the layout that most English speaking countries have made standard on their computer keyboards.  It is named for the first five characters of the top row of the keyboard.

When typewriters were first invented, they were clunky, mechanical devices with swinging arms of metal striking ribbons of ink on paper.  The swinging arms struck the paper from beneath and fell back down from gravity alone (they were not spring-loaded).

The inventors were playing around with different keyboard layouts and were finding that common 2-letter combinations like “TH” or “EA” placed closed together on the keyboard were not so good.  Why the hell not?  Because the typist could type them too quickly, and those gravity-dependent arms would jam up against each other.

What could they do about it?  They went ahead and made one of the most inefficient keyboard layouts known to man.  One that would slow the typist down enough to prevent these jam-ups.  The layout we use today.  The QWERTY.

Ah, but then typewriters evolved.  They got spring-loaded arms that bounced back after each strike.  They started to become more popular.  More and more people were using them.

Meanwhile, in a city that I forget the name of, a man named… I forget his first name, but his last name was Dvorak.  It may have been John (Don’t quote me on that).  Mr.Dvorak was some kind of an expert on language.  A linguist or something like that.  He came up with a keyboard layout that would put the strongest fingers on the most commonly used letters.  He put all the vowels on the left-hand home row and common consonants on the right-hand home row.  The DVORAK layout was superior to the QWERTY in that it didn’t require as much “jumping” – the process of moving a finger from the uppermost row to the bottom row, or vice-versa.  It supported more alternating between right and left hands, which was faster.  It allowed far more common English words to be typed without moving the fingers off of the home row.

This was still in the early days of typewriters, so maybe Dvorak could convince Remmington (the big boy in typewriters at the time) to change up their layout for the good of mankind.  So he tried.

“Ha, ha, ha,” they said, “Very nice effort you put in there with all your thinking and logic, but we’re not in the making the world better business, we are in the SALES business.  We are just fine with the thousands of units we are already selling.  We’re quite comfortably igniting our cigars with one-hundred dollar bills.”

Adjusted for inflation, those are like, thousand dollar bills, today.

So Dvorak tried and tried, but it was too late.  The QWERTY layout already had inertia.  Capitalism was driving it forward.

Fast forward to modern times.  There is disagreement over the conclusions of “studies” that have compared the differences in typing speeds between QWERTYand DVORAK keyboards.  Some of the studies are flawed because the participants were not trained on the Dvorak for their whole lives.  In my brain, I know DVORAK is faster, because of basic mathematics.  To type this post on a QWERTY my hand would have to move such-and-such a distance and to do it on a DVORAK, it would be a fraction of the distance.  If it’s less distance, it has to be faster.  To say otherwise is to fly in the face of all those word-problems we learned in math (You’re on a train going 100 miles per hour…)

In order to do a proper study, you would have to take identical twins and teach one to touch type on QWERTY and one to touch type on DVORAK.  Test their speed after twenty years and see who is faster.  My money is on the DVORAK-trained twin.

Regardless of speed, there is an ergonomic advantage to DVORAK.  Many who have switched to DVORAK did so because they were experiencing pain in their extremities from doing one of the most unnatural things a human can do.  Sitting on their ass at a computer all day.  Since the DVORAK layout requires less reaching with fingers, and less movement overall, it can reduce the likelihood of repetitive-strain injury to your body.

A couple of years ago, I started learning the DVORAK layout.  I set my computer at home to use DVORAK and the one at work to use QWERTY.  I couldn’t afford the short term efficiency loss at work while I got up to speed on DVORAK.  I was gaining speed on the DVORAK as my muscle memory started to build, but then I got the opportunity to work from home two days a week.  It became too inefficient to continue using the DVORAK layout and I abandoned it.

The exception was on my cellphone.  I still have it set to use the DVORAK layout.  It does not quite build the same muscle memory because it is thumb-typing, not touch-typing, but I am as fast on my phone as anyone using a QWERTY layout.

Now that I am blogging instead of computer programming, I might try to make the switch again.  I mean, do I really need the semi-colon to be so goddamn handy on the home row?  Is “K” such a commonly used letter that I need to pound it with my strong right middle finger (I’ve been exercising this finger a lot lately), instead of “T”, the second most common letter in the English language?

If Prime Dictator wins the Twitter elections of 2024 he’s going take a baseball wand to all of these archaic QWERTY keyboards, mark my words.

So who’s with me?  Let’s break the QWERTY keyboard inertia that was set in motion when people still rode horses to work.  I haven’t been able to convince anyone yet, but in the words of Malala Yousafzai:

Let us remember: One book, one pen, one child, and one teacher, can change the world.

Maybe we should add “one keyboard” to that quote.


The DVORAK layout:


If you want to give it a try, here are some instructions to switch your keyboard layout in Windows 10.

There is a good Dvorak typing tutor here.

12 thoughts on “Unstoppable Inertia

  1. I’ve heard this story before, but only as an anecdote, never with any hard facts attached to it. Now at least I have a name I can look up, should I wish to. Thanks for the history lesson.

    I started typing stories at the age of about 11 on an old Underwood typewriter. My parents were poor but honest … ooops, sorry, wrong struggling-writer romantic trope. Anyway, this bit about the Underwood is true. You had to pound those keys awfully hard to get them to jump up, and yes, they did jam, even though it was a QWERTY. I can still remember how that thing smelled and how exciting it was to be typing like a real author.

    As for the DVORAK keyboard (isn’t DVORAK also a composer?), I don’t feel the need to switch to it. I’m a Luddite at heart, and I don’t need to be able to type faster than I can think anyway. I do remember that a friend who was writing his dissertation had carpal tunnel syndrome, and was helped by buying an ergonomic keyboard, but I think that was just a QWERTY with the two hands moved farther from each other and angled in slightly.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We had a Smith Corona electric typewriter that I used to type my science projects out on. After that I was on a computer. My grade 9 keyboarding class was on typewriters. They were all QWERTY, obviously.

      When I heard about Dvorak I was shocked. I couldn’t believe we were using an inefficient keyboard.

      Nobody seems to care. Everyone is okay using what they are used to.

      It’s weird. We’re looking for the fastest computers, the most fuel efficient cars, there quickest way to make coffee (Keurig) but we type all day in a less efficient way… Oh well… C’est la vie.

      I’ve used the ergonomic keyboard that your friend used. I liked that style as well.


  2. I knew that last name sounded familiar. I’ve run across that, before.

    QWERTY is a pain in ass. But, I do use an ergo keyboard with the altered angles.

    What? People use common sense? Please. You’d think the law of “the path of least resistance” would power some light bulbs in heads. But, no…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. You forget the biggest flaw to the qwerty keyboard: It was meant to slow people down but their brains and hands just adapted and typed just as fast as if the keyboard were more efficient.

    Liked by 1 person

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