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February 11, 2011

The Dvorak Keyboard

Filed under: Main — admin @ 12:01 am

My last two blog posts have been about computer keyboards, and their typewriter ancestors. A question came up about the Dvorak keyboard. So this blog post I (finally) end my Keyboard tirades with a discussion of that keyboard.

Fig 1. The Dvorak Keyboard Layout.

In Fig. 1. you see the Dvorak keyboard layout. It was created as a typist’s keyboard, not based on mechanical limitations. The home row contains the most common keys you use when typing. The result of using this layout is that you can type very fast because you don’t really move your fingers that much.

I only tried the Dvorak keyboard in passing.

On the Mac (a long, long time ago), there was a desk accessory you could get that would switch the Mac’s keyboard layout to Dvorak. I suppose you’d have to cut and paste tiny key caps while you were learning, or to get key combinations like ⌘-S or ⌘-Q.

My PC friends told me about various Dvorak keyboard emulators. I never tried them. I did, however, create a DVORAK.BAT batch file.

The DVORAK.BAT batch file took advantage of the ANSI.SYS console driver to re-assign keys on the keyboard so that the Dvorak layout would replace the standard QWERTY layout.

ANSI.SYS was one of the most common device drivers used in DOS. It was part of the CONFIG.SYS file and lots of people left it in there, even when they never used ANSI.

Most commonly, ANSI.SYS was used to spice up your DOS prompt, adding color or other text effects. It could also be used in batch files to create menus or animations.

Beyond the screen, ANSI.SYS let you remap characters on the keyboard. The format was:

←[old;newp

The ← was the Escape character. old was the ASCII code for a key on the keyboard. new was the character, or string of text, to be produced when you pressed the old key.

You could use that ANSI command to map any single key to produce another character or even a string of text. In fact, producing an entire string of text by pressing a single key was a great trick — but it was also the source of malware known as an ANSI Bomb.

The ANSI Bomb worked by sending the ANSI keyboard code to remap a key on the keyboard to instead produce text. The text might run a program, run DOS commands, or even lock up the computer. Because most people didn’t know about ANSI, the malware was often successful.

ANSI Bombs weren’t that popular because lots of people stopped using ANSI.SYS. PC memory was tight and by eliminating ANSI.SYS you saved a whopping 4K of RAM.

Also, ANSI Bombs never got popular because ANSI controls the keyboard only when you use DOS itself or when you run a DOS utility that uses only DOS I/O. Because of that limitation on ANSI, the dvorak.bat program only changes the keyboard to a Dvorak layout when you’re in DOS. The program is useless for anything else.

Still, it was a fun thing to play with.

You can view the dvorak.bat file by clicking this link. I make no promises for whether it still works or not. (The Escape codes are in there, but they don’t show up on the screen.) The file has been hopping around from computer to computer and I’ve not run it in years. In fact, the date on the file is from the 1980s. Good luck!

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