Typing With a Ball Peen Hammer

By The Metric Maven
Bulldog Edition

There is an old, old joke that refuses to exit my mind when I think about metric and international standards. It goes like this:

A man is walking along a street when he encounters another man with a ball peen hammer, who is repeatedly hitting himself in the head with it. The man exclaimed with alarm “What are you doing?”

The man with the hammer looks at him with annoyance and says “I’m hitting myself in the head with a ball peen hammer.”

“Why on earth would you do such a thing?!”

The man with the hammer is again annoyed at what to him is the obvious nature of the question and states “because it feels so good when I stop.”

This brings me to typewriters. I recall a time in the US when every office one entered was permeated with the staccato of one or more typewriters. There is even a musical composition by Leroy Anderson called The Typewriter. When I took a class in typing, only women were encouraged to take it. My earliest memory of a typewriter was not as something women employed, but what my Father used in his work.

Mechanical Typewriter

My Father worked as a radio dispatcher for Iowa Police Radio. In those days it was required that all verbal radio conversations be documented, and this was accomplished with a typewriter. As my father spoke with Albert Lee Minnesota or others, he had to type his conversation verbatim, and that of Albert Lee, in real time. This was done on a purely mechanical typewriter. The typewriter rested on a rubber pad so the impact of the keys would be reduced and to decrease the fatigue of typing. When my father typed, it sounded like a machine gun.

Another radio operator was not so fortunate, he like most of his male counterparts at the time, had never taken typing. He used two fingers. Often, when radio traffic was very busy, he would have to write down his conversations on paper, by hand, as quickly as he could. Sometimes he would have to remain 30 minutes or so after his shift to finish typing up the radio traffic.

We make choices as a society about what information is mandatory for public schools to teach, and what is not. It is mandatory to teach a pupil to read and to do basic mathematics. From the 1940s to the 1980s it was not mandatory to teach students in public schools how to type. Typing was a choice, and was mostly embraced by women. There appeared to be no need for typing—by men. Only women would be asked how many words per minute they could type. This idea was so prevalent that when some computer lists were lost at my fathers business years ago, and he offered to type them back in from paper copies, the women in the office were incredulous. They were certain it must be a joke when my father asked them to read the lists to him so he could type them as quickly as possible. A man?—type from dictation?—hilarious. My father was working in Graphic Arts (printing) by then,  and none of them knew about his work as a radio dispatcher.  I knew better and said “my father can type faster than anyone in this office. Does anyone want to make a bet with me?”

But as fast as my father can type, he is forever handicapped because of a choice randomly made in the 19th century, that still causes inefficiency to this day. The choice of the QWERTY keyboard layout is the inherent problem. This mapping of fingers to keys was done to slow down the speed at which a person would type, in order to prevent jamming of keys. It is anything but optimum. The original QWERTY typewriter did not allow one to see the copy as it was typed. The keys struck the paper from the bottom side. Worse, is that the design is prone to keyjams. It also had the added disadvantage that one could not generally sense that key jamming had occurred. The QWERTY arrangement was developed to minimize the affect of these technical problems inherent in the design—by handicapping the typist..

Jared Diamond in an excellent article entitled The Curse of QWERTY,  discusses the design of the QWERTY and Dvorak keyboards. Time and motion studies by Frank and Lillian Gilbreth revealed that poor placement of letter location on a keyboard is proportional to typing errors, fatigue and slow typing. They also demonstrated that typing on the home row is fastest and  bottom row typing is the slowest. Diamond points out that:

Only 32 percent of strokes are on the home row; most strokes (52 percent) are on the upper row; and a full 16 percent are on the bottom row, which you should be avoiding like the plague. Not more than 100 English words can be typed without leaving the home row. The reason for this disaster is simple: QWERTY perversely puts the most common English letters on other rows. The home row of nine letters includes two of the least used (J and K) but none of the three most frequently used (E, T, and O, which are relegated to the upper row) and only one of the five vowels (A), even though 40 percent of all letters in a typical English text are vowels.

The most common of all English letters is e, which is typed by the weaker left hand is also on the upper row. Diamond points out that with T and A also typed by the left hand, the QWERTY keyboard is essentially a left-handed typewriter, in a predominantly right handed world.

In 1936 August Dvorak patented a simplified keyboard which appears optimum. This keyboard had existed for at least two decades before my father took typing, but instead he was taught QWERTY. Here is an old video about Dvorak’s Keyboard. After it was introduced, the keyboard clearly demonstrated its superiority. According to Wikipedia:

In 1933, Dvorak started entering typists trained on his keyboard into the International Commercial Schools Contest, which were typing contests sponsored by typewriter manufacturers consisting of professional and amateur contests. The professional contests had typists sponsored by typewriter companies to advertise their machines. Ten times from 1934–41, Dvorak’s typists won first in their class events. In the 1935 contest alone, nine Dvorak typists won twenty awards. Dvorak typists were so successful that in 1937 the Contest Committee barred Dvorak’s typists for being “unfair competition” until Dvorak protested. In addition, QWERTY typists did not want to be placed near Dvorak typists because QWERTY typists were disconcerted by the noise produced from the fast typing speeds made by Dvorak typists.


Writer Barbara Blackburn was the fastest English language typist in the world, according to The Guinness Book of World Records. Using the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard, she was able to maintain 150 words per minute (wpm) for 50 minutes, and 170 wpm for shorter periods. She has been clocked at a peak speed of 212 wpm. Blackburn, who failed her QWERTY typing class in high school, first encountered the Dvorak keyboard in 1938, quickly learned to achieve very high speeds, and occasionally toured giving speed-typing demonstrations during her secretarial career. Blackburn died in April 2008.

Diamond further stressed the differences in users of QWERTY and Dvorak:

QWERTY typists achieve barely half the speed of Dvorak typists, who hold most world records for typing speed. QWERTY typists make about twice the errors that Dvorak typists make. For a beginner to reach a speed of 40 words per minute, the person would need 56 hours of training on a QWERTY keyboard….. ….but only 18 hours on a Dvorak keyboard.

Dvorak Keyboard Layout

I had heard of the Dvorak keyboard at some point, but it was just one more half-remembered bit of information. One day while I was talking with Sven, he brought up the Dvorak keyboard. Sven explained numerous details of the keyboard design for a considerable amount of time. I remarked that he seemed to have more than a passing knowledge of the keyboard. With Sven’s typical understated way, he said “oh, I taught Dvorak to myself, and it’s all I use.” I had one of those moments of awe, envy and embarrassment that are quite uncomfortable. I was awed that he had spent the time learning, envious he had done so, and embarrassed that I was too big of a wussie to tackle this change myself. When Sven finally learned the Dvorak keyboard it was apparently like the person who was hitting himself in the head with a ball peen hammer–it felt very good to stop (QWERTY). Most modern computers offer the option of Dvorak–somewhere in the OS, but it requires effort locate it and to do so.

I wondered what might cause me to consider teaching myself Dvorak. First it would have to be mandatory for each new computer to have an icon on its desktop, or menu tray (built into the OS) that when clicked, the keyboard would switch between QWERTY and Dvorak. The icon could be one standard color for Dvorak and become another for QWERTY. This would guarantee that if I went to a public library, DMV, internet cafe, or other establishment where I might need to use an unfamiliar computer, I could switch it with the click of the mouse.. It would also be a good idea to have the key labels on the keyboard relocate automatically. This would be possible on an illuminated keyboard. The current Windows 7 OS requires navigating a considerable number of tabbed menus to change the keyboard to Dvorak. Sven tells me that it is much easier to accomplish with an Apple Computer. It should also be adopted by any Linux type OS.

The Dvorak option would need to be a mandatory requirement, with public education following its introduction.  Even entertaining this possibility, attracts those, who like metric system opponents, cite the predominant use of the QWERTY keyboard as evidence of its superiority. Certain economists are quick to assert that the utility of the Dvorak keyboard is a myth. The clear mathematical, statistical and Engineering analysis which demonstrate the superiority of the Dvorak Keyboard leaves them unmoved. They state: “….the continued use of Qwerty is efficient given the current understanding of keyboard design”  These Economists assert they know how to analyze and solve a technical problem in ways that Engineers naively don’t enlist. They have their own “current understanding of keyboard design.” One does not solve or understand Engineering problems with mathematical analysis, statistics, and data available, but instead the economists assert that one should rely on history.  These economists, are essentially  Mormons Making Coffee when it comes to design. Their arguments against Dvorak are similar to those invoked by anti-metric people, only with a typewriter keyboard in place of the metric system.

Sven posited an interesting and simple way to compare QWERTY and Dvorak keyboards—in millimeters! The way this would work is for one to map the distance taken to type a given paragraph of copy. Each letter would be given a distance which corresponds to how far your finger needs to move to type that letter. If a letter is on a home row, then it takes zero millimeters. On my keyboard, the off-home-row keys require a distance of about 20 mm to type. The total round trip distance would be 40 mm. Considering the most commonly used vowel in the English language is e, the fact that one doesn’t need to move from the home row to type it on a Dvorak keyboard, and must move 40 mm on a QWERTY is an obvious fact which clearly separates the utility of each configuration. This would be a very interesting computer program to write, but I’m not planning on trying it anytime soon. What would the “typing length” of The Gettysburg Address be for QWERTY and Dvorak?–The US Constitution?—The lyrics from The Flintstones theme?. This is a simplified analysis that actually favors QWERTY because the extra difficulty of typing on the bottom and top rows would be ignored. The idea of computing “typing lengths” is not original with Sven, it was understood early on.  Jared Diamond states:

In a normal workday a good typist’s fingers cover up to 20 miles on a QWERTY keyboard, but only one mile on a Dvorak keyboard. Dvorak keyboard. QWERTY typists achieve barely half the speed of Dvorak typists, who hold most world records for typing speed. QWERTY typists make about twice the errors that Dvorak typists make. For a beginner to reach a speed of 40 words per minute, the person would need 56 hours of training on a QWERTY keyboard..  ..but only 18 hours on a Dvorak keyboard.

I would think that even the economists cited might be able to realize that running 1 mile is much less taxing than running 20 miles, or one is not equal to twenty. Apparently with enough selective history and pedantic prose these economists can convince some people that 1=20 and The Dvorak Simplified Keyboard  (DSK) is a fraud.

Of course there can be great utility for the US to remain almost exclusively QWERTY—for Sven. When I asked him about how Dvorak has worked for him he said “it’s great as an extra level of security at work. The few who have sat down to use my computer without telling me, end up confiding to me that there is something wrong with my computer. When I tell them it’s set for Dvorak, people avoid it.”

Over a human lifetime, the efficiency of the Dvorak keyboard would almost certainly decrease repetitive motion ailments, and for those with joint problems, young or old, it would decrease their discomfort and fatigue. As with the metric system, the choice to implement Dvorak should not be left to random events as some economists would assert. It should be adopted because it promotes the general welfare of the citizens of the US.

I believe we owe it to the next generation of public school students to provide them with the best education possible, beginning with the change to Dvorak for the teaching of typing, the metric system for measurement, A4 paper, International dating, and other international standards. The way a country shows it is great is demonstrated by what it does. Implementing these changes would demonstrate we strive to be the best, and not the most traditional, nation in the world.

Update 2012-12-31

Holden commented he has found a website which performs the distance computation  of Dvorak and QWERTY (and a couple of others) for a given text. The default output is in meters. The Dvorak distance of the Gettysburg Address is 20 meters, and the QWERTY is 38.1 meters. The distance is not quite double compared with Dvorak.

If you liked this essay and wish to support the work of The Metric Maven, please visit his Patreon Page and contribute. Also purchase his books about the metric system:

The first book is titled: Our Crumbling Invisible Infrastructure. It is a succinct set of essays  that explain why the absence of the metric system in the US is detrimental to our personal heath and our economy. These essays are separately available for free on my website,  but the book has them all in one place in print. The book may be purchased from Amazon here.

The second book is titled The Dimensions of the Cosmos. It takes the metric prefixes from yotta to Yocto and uses each metric prefix to describe a metric world. The book has a considerable number of color images to compliment the prose. It has been receiving good reviews. I think would be a great reference for US science teachers. It has a considerable number of scientific factoids and anecdotes that I believe would be of considerable educational use. It is available from Amazon here.

The third book is not of direct importance to metric education. It is called Death By A Thousand Cuts, A Secret History of the Metric System in The United States. This monograph explains how we have been unable to legally deal with weights and measures in the United States from George Washington, to our current day. This book is also available on Amazon here.