Dvorak, August (1894-1975)

  • By Lane Morgan
  • Posted 3/19/2020
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20997

August Dvorak had a variety of accomplishments as an efficiency specialist in the Navy and as an education professor at the University of Washington. But the invention that bears his name, and that he hoped would bring both fame and fortune, never caught hold commercially. His Dvorak keyboard, designed to increase speed and reduce errors in typing through logical grouping of letters, still lags far behind the traditional QWERTY configuration.

A Seattle Career

Dvorak, originally from Glencoe, Minnesota, and a distant relative of composer Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904), was not new to frustration. As a young man he served in the U.S. Army Field Artillery as it invaded Mexico to find Pancho Villa in 1916. He was wounded and discharged, and Villa escaped. Dvorak then enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve, where he taught mathematics and navigation until the U.S. entered World War I. He was then transferred to the USS Callao, which had started the war as the German liner Sierra Cordoba and ended it as a U.S. ship bringing troops home from Europe.

After the war Dvorak moved to Seattle and married Hermione Dealey (1893-1991). They both became professors in the education department at the University of Washington. He finished his Ph.D. through the University of Minnesota in 1923 and their first daughter, Hermione E. Dvorak (Rice), was born in 1924. Two others followed -- Audrey in 1926 and Dealey Ann in 1931. The Dvoraks were among the founders, in 1930, of the University Nursery School, which their daughters attended.

A Problem of Mechanics

Dvorak was teaching a course in educational statistics at UW in 1925 when a typing teacher came to him with a puzzle. In a 1956 draft of a magazine piece, Murray Morgan (1916-2000), wrote that the teacher wanted to know "why her students kept fouling up words of four letters or less" (Morgan, 6). It turned out that the 13 most commonly misspelled words in typescripts were not long or oddly spelled, but rather short and simple: the, to, of, and, is, which, it, that, when, for, with, here, and be.

Dvorak didn't know how to type and never did learn, but he did know about "pattern of error" research. He had become friends with Frank B. Gilbreth Sr. (1868-1924) and his wife Lillian (1878-1972), who were pioneers of time-and-motion studies. (The couple somehow also found time to have 12 children, two of whom in 1948 wrote Cheaper by the Dozen, a best-selling book about the family that was twice made into a movie, in 1950 and again in 2003.)

Dvorak learned that the most common reasons for misspellings in handwriting are infrequency of use, difficulty of spelling, and lack of practice. None of those causes applied to the short, familiar words that were most often misspelled by typists. And since other common short words, including so and these, were seldom mistyped, the reason did not seem to be carelessness bred by over-familiarity. He concluded the errors were a problem of mechanics. "The standard keyboard, Dvorak decided, requires the fingers to execute an excessive amount of jumping back and forth from row to row. For instance br, ec, ce, rv, ny, my, um, un, mu, and nu are letters frequently found in combination. Yet on the standard keyboard each of the ten combinations is typed by a single finger, and each requires a jump from the third to the first row" (Morgan, 7). He came to call the standard QWERTY key arrangement a "primitive tortureboard" (Krystal, 17-18).

A Better Idea?

Dvorak thought that if he could invent a keyboard that simplified motions by grouping the most used letters and letter combinations where they are easier to reach, it would improve both accuracy and speed. The Carnegie Foundation gave him a grant to tinker with key combinations and run experiments on different configurations. The original QWERTY keyboard had not been designed to go faster than handwriting, about 15 words a minute. Rather, its advantages were supposed to be accuracy, legibility, and minimizing key jams. Dvorak said that for speed, "you can make a better one by drawing letters blindfold out of a hat" (Morgan, 6).

Working with his wife's brother, William Learned Dealey (1891-1986), a professor at North Texas State Teachers College who shared Dvorak's interest in invention, he reorganized the standard letter placement to create a board that put vowels together on one left-hand row and clustered common consonant combinations, such as cr, tr, and th, close to each other. They applied for a patent on May 21, 1932, and received it in 1936. The design they came up with puts most of the typist's work in the home row and reduces finger motions between rows. More than 3,000 common words are typed with just the home row, including the, which is the most-used word in English. On the QWERTY keyboard, by contrast, typing the requires one to switch rows, and hands, twice.

Years of Promotion

Dvorak began teaching the system in the early 1930s, and his early students became teachers themselves in Puget Sound-area classrooms. Typing competitions were popular at the time, and between 1933 and 1941 converts to the Dvorak keyboard set 26 international records.

When the U.S. went to war in 1941, Dvorak reentered the navy and made training aids, including movies. He put his public keyboard promotions aside, though he used navy channels to encourage the military to switch to his system. Then, while at Dan Neck, Virginia, in 1942, he watched sailors firing and reloading 20-mm weapons. As with the QWERTY keyboard, he was sure there was a better way. He later told Murray Morgan that his suggested changes reduced the guns' reloading time from more than seven seconds to less than two, and the Navy promptly adopted them. Not so with the keyboard.

In 1944 the navy did take 14 clerks off their regular keyboards and retrained them on Dvorak's for two weeks, two hours a day. According to Dvorak, their speed improved, their errors fell, and the navy estimated that the costs of their training were recouped within 10 days by greater efficiency. "We thought it was a pretty good rig and had definite advantages," William McDermott, a former section chief in the Bureau of Federal Supply, told The Washington Post ("New Keyboard 'Liked' ..."). McDermott's recollection was that the navy decided the improvement in speed and accuracy was real, but that it wasn't worth the time, stress, and expense of changing out keyboards and retraining QWERTY typists, especially the skilled ones.

Dvorak recalled that the navy considered buying 2,000 of his machines and distributing them among elite typists, who would make up the difference in production while new people were trained. Then, he said, the plan was suddenly dropped. "The report of the experiment was classified as Confidential, so no one could get at it, and the whole thing was hushed up" (Morgan, 14).

A Government Test

Dvorak returned to UW after the war. Typing competitions were no longer the public draw they had been, but he continued to lobby for his invention. When the patent ran out in 1953, he was able to get a six-year extension provided by legislation aimed at veterans. With or without the patent, he had already offered his invention to the government for free. Eventually, with support from Dvorak-keyboard enthusiast Washington Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson (1912-1983), he persuaded the government's General Services Administration (GSA) to organize a four-month test run of his system in early 1955: "Two dozen carefully selected typists -- ranging in skill from girls who can barely poke out thirty words a minute to those who can make an upright sound like a submachine gun -- are racing against time and each other in an experiment scheduled to end in April" (Morgan, 3).

Reactions to the plan varied widely. "Mildred Deen, a secretary in the office of Sen. Lynden Johnson (D-Tex.), thinks it's a fine idea," reported The Washington Post. Another government secretary complained in the same article that "the business of having all the vowels where they are handy" should have happened when typewriters were invented or not at all ("Keyboards Are So Easy ...")

Newspaper reporters, who tended to rely on two-finger, hunt-and-peck typing and were not likely to be offered paid retraining, generally hated the idea. Their reporting on the Dvorak system was often less than objective. The Chicago Daily Tribune complained that "if someone took away our familiar keyboards we would be technologically unemployed, with nothing between us and starvation except service as radio commentators" ("Speeding up the Typewriter").

The New York Herald Tribune opined, "Doubtless the new keyboard would be an improvement. Square eggs would be an improvement, too, but the world somehow continues to adjust itself to the egg-shaped kind. Much the same, one suspects, will be the case with typewriter keyboards" ("The Changeless Typewriter ..."). The editorialist suggested Dvorak spend his time listening to the New World Symphony instead. At least one well-known journalist did become a convert, however -- Col. Robert S. Allen (1900-1981), who had lost his right arm in World War II, used a Dvorak left-hand keyboard when he returned to newspaper work.


The government decided against the switch to a Dvorak keyboard, saying that the improvements were smaller and the retraining times greater than had been claimed. Some cried foul. Columnist and Dvorak proponent Randy Cassingham (b. 1959) called the conclusions "shockingly biased" (Cassingham), and noted that the raw data they were ostensibly based on had been destroyed. Dvorak himself suspected he was the victim of pressure by typewriter manufacturers, because his more efficient system would mean that fewer machines were needed. Consumer advocate and sometime presidential candidate Ralph Nader (b. 1934) agreed, saying that "the typewriter companies and the secretarial schools don't want an increase in productivity. They don't want an office to get the same work out of two typists that used to take three" ("It May Be Taps ...").

Turning from one source of frustration to another, Dvorak and a friend decided to try writing a novel. He wrote to Murray Morgan in 1956, asking for a referral to his literary agent. The work remained unpublished. His book, Typewriting Behavior: Psychology Applied to Teaching and Learning Typewriting, co-written with his brother-in-law William Dealey and UW graduates Nellie Merrick and Gertrude Ford, was his only publication, other than some academic papers and business-journal articles.

Studies continued sporadically after the GSA determination, most of them showing modest efficiency improvements over the QWERTY keyboard. Highly skilled typists tended to be the hardest to retrain, an outcome Dvorak had anticipated. He said that his system was never intended for people who were already fast and accurate.

Dvorak died in Seattle in 1975, a disappointed man. He shows up on a variety of quotation websites as complaining: "I'm tired of trying to do something worthwhile for the human race, they simply don't want to change!" ("August Dvorak Quote").

Still Making Converts

In 1985 a private secretary from Salem, Oregon, made the Guinness Book of World Records on a Dvorak keyboard. Barbara Blackburn (d. 2008) had failed her high school typing class on a QWERTY keyboard, but thrived with the Dvorak model. She clocked 170 words per minute for the Guinness record keepers and managed a sustained speed of 150 words per minute for more than 50 minutes.

Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (b. 1950) was a Dvorak enthusiast and hired Blackburn to make a television commercial for the Apple IIc. The Dvorak keyboard configuration has been an option available on Apple computers ever since.


The Guiness Book of World Records, 23rd U.S. edition (New York: Sterling Publishing Co., 1985); "Barbara Blackburn, The World's Fastest Typist," rcranger website accessed September 16, 2019 (http://rcranger.mysite.syr.edu/dvorak/); "Apple IIc -- Barbara Blackburn" (video, 1984), YouTube website accessed March 3, 2020 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Va_H56UCyqg); Murray Morgan, "Dr. Dvorak's Better Mousetrap" (1956),  unpublished manuscript in possession of Lane Morgan, Bellingham, Washington; S. L. Fishbein, "New Keyboard 'Liked' in Early Tests," The Washington Post, November 27, 1955, p. B7; Harmon W. Nichols, "Keyboards Are So Easy on the Vowels," Ibid., November, 27, 1955, p. B7; R. Reid, "It May Be Taps for the QWERTY Keyboard," Ibid., March 9, 1985, The Washington Post website accessed March 3, 2020 (www.washingtonpost.com); "The Changeless Typewriter Keyboard," New York Herald Tribune, November 23, 1955; "Speeding up the Typewriter," Chicago Daily Tribune, Nov. 24, 1955, p. 20; "U.S. Balks at Teaching Old Typists New Keys," The New York Times, July 2, 1956, p. 23; Randy Cassingham, "The Dvorak Keyboard -- A Primer," Dvorak Keyboard website accessed 1 March 2020 (https://www.dvorak-keyboard.com/); August Dvorak, "There Is a Better Typewriter Keyboard," National Business Education Quarterly, December 1943, 51-58, 66; Bill Hammack, "Why the Dvorak Keyboard Didn't Take Over the World," Stories of Technological Failure website accessed February 14, 2020 (http://www.engineerguy.com/failure/dvorak.htm); "Notes," Brown Alumni Monthly, July 1930, Vol. 31, No. 2, p. 52; Arthur Krystal, The Half-Life of an American Essayist (Boston: David R. Godine, 2007), pp. 17-18; "August Dvorak Quote," LibQuotes website accessed March 3, 2020 (https://libquotes.com/august-dvorak/quote/lbl9b4j); August Dvorak letter to Murray Morgan, January 24, 1956, in possession of Lane Morgan, Bellingham, Washington.

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