The familiar typewriter keyboard used around the world for more than a century may be replaced in the microelectronic age by a faster, simpler arrangement that lets many touch typists cruise at speeds of 100 words a minute or more.
Directory assistance operators across the country already are using the new system. State governments in Oregon and New Jersey have begun converting their typing operations, and federal agencies such as the Department of Agriculture are experimenting with the new keyboard. Many insurance firms and large manufacturers are boarding the bandwagon.
Efficiency experts have argued for decades that the standard keyboard, known as "QWERTY" after the first six letters of a top row, is slow and unproductive. Indeed, it was designed that way.
Christopher Latham Sholes, father of the typewriter, laid out the QWERTY keyboard in the 1870s. His first machines kept jamming when typists went too fast. To slow things down, he spread the most common letters -- e, t, o, a, n, i -- all over the board and ensured that frequent combinations (such as "ed") had to be struck by the same finger -- the slowest motion.
By the 1930s, typewriters mechanically were fast enough to keep up with most typists, but the purposely inefficient QWERTY held sway because nobody pushed hard for change; nobody, that is, except August Dvorak, a University of Washington psychologist who devoted his life to an anti-QWERTY crusade.
Dvorak, a pioneer of "ergonomics" -- the study of the interaction between man and machine -- designed a keyboard built for speed, putting all five vowels and the five most common consonants on the center, right under the fingers.
With the letters on Dvorak's home row -- AOEUIDHTNS -- the typist can produce about 3,000 common English words. The QWERTY keyboard's home row -- ASDFGHJKL -- makes fewer than 100 common words.
Dvorak's design also permits a much faster two-handed rhythm by splitting the strokes evenly between right and left. With QWERTY, the left hand does almost 60 percent of the typing; on Dvorak's keyboard each hand types 50 percent of the letters.
"When you see Dvorak typists, it looks like their hands aren't even moving," said Patricia Kaplus, a supervisor in an Oregon government office that has made the switch. "You don't have to jump from row to row, so it's faster and more accurate."
Dvorak set forth his new arrangement in his 1936 study, "Typewriting Behavior." He then set out to sell it to the world.
A U.S. Navy study found that the Dvorak board would increase typing speed by 25 percent or more, and the Navy ordered 2,000 Dvorak typewriters during World War II, when there was an acute shortage of typists. But the war ended before the system got going.
Consumer advocate Ralph Nader -- who has had a Dvorak typewriter for years but says he never found time to master it -- charges that the typing industry deliberately held back despite Dvorak's demonstrated superiority.
"The typewriter companies and the secretarial schools don't want an increase in productivity," Nader said. "They don't want an office to get the same work out of two typists that used to take three."
Donald Seaton, a Smith-Corona executive who does his typing on Dvorak, said his firm offered a Dvorak keyboard in its catalogue for years but phased out the model due to limited demand.
QWERTY is not quitting quietly. Industry officials estimate that there are 30 million standard QWERTY keyboards in use today, and about one-tenth as many with Dvorak capability. Most typing schools still concentrate on QWERTY, although office managers are starting to look for Dvorak-trained secretaries.
Prof. Dvorak died in 1975 -- just before the breakthrough that has made his keyboard accessible to every home and office.
The invention of electronic keyboards controlled by a programmed microchip has made it possible to switch from QWERTY to Dvorak and back with the touch of a key. "Ever since they put the chip into a keyboard, there's been a groundswell for the faster version ," said Virginia Russell, founder and head of the International Dvorak Federation in Brandon, Vt.
Many computer firms, including Apple, are building in Dvorak conversion capability as standard equipment on their keyboards today, and plenty of low-cost programs are available to reprogram keyboards on other computers.
For older keyboards that convert to DVORAK, a typist can buy stick-on letters to mark the key tops or new key tops to snap over the old ones. Keyboard makers such as Keytronics and Wico are producing boards that have both the QWERTY and Dvorak letter stamped on each key top -- often in contrasting colors.
Prof. Richard Land of the Harvard University Instructional Laboratories said an ordinary typist normally will go from about 40 to more than 60 words per minute after switching to Dvorak. "The real top-notch people, people who can do 80 or so with QWERTY, get up to 120 words per minute," he said.
For the tens of millions whose fingers are trained to QWERTY, Dvorak devotees say the conversion is not particularly difficult.
"We're getting people up to good speed in two or three weeks of training now," said Kaplus, the Oregon state official. "It's really not that hard once you convince yourself that you're going to get QWERTY out of your head."
Eventually, Russell said, Dvorak will prevail because it will become familiar to the thousands of typists banging out news stories at magazines and newspapers everywhere. They will spread the Dvorak gospel.
When that happens, some journalist somewhere can invoke the traditional reporter's symbol for the end of a story by noting that "It's -30- for QWERTY."