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My 8 Pound Keyboard & Me

That's Mah Babeh!

As I mentioned earlier, I've become ensnared in a shadowy underworld of keyboard enthusiasts in the last, oh, month or so. And here is where it has led me -- to a keyboard I remembered from my teenage years. What you see here is an IBM Model M keyboard. They are prized by collectors for their durability and their distinctive 'clicky' sounding keys. I'm a history buff, a computer geek and a writer -- and the Model M sits at the intersection of those interests.

Follow the jump for a guided tour of the rabbit hole.

First, a brief history of the Model M.

When computers first became household appliances they were bulky, slow and pathetically weak. I vividly recall my father purchasing a TRS-80 for $5,000. Naturally, I was not allowed to approach anything that valuable without supervision, but soon we were tapping away at the keyboard. I played Zork (a text-only adventure game) and made very simply programs run.

IBM was manufacturing computers at this time and their earliest keyboards were very sturdily built. Pre-dating even the Model M's were a species called the Model F's, but that's another story. The Model M's were mass produced starting at about 1985. IBM eventually handed off the production to a company called Lexmark.

As the term 'personal computer' entered the national consciousness, the computers got cheaper, more powerful and keyboard became, well, wimpier. The keyboards that are boxed with computers today register keypresses using a membrane system. The membrane is deformed by a keypress, and there you go. But before membrane switches, there was the mechanical switch.

The early Model M's used a mechanical switch technology referred to as a buckling spring -- so named because inside each key there is a physical spring that buckles when the key is pressed, which signals the circuitry beneath. This mechanism means the keys create a delightful clicking sound, and there's tactile feedback for each keypress. The keys spring back at your fingers, and if you love to write, you'll love the jolly machine gun clicking from a Model M.

The case of the Model M is also a lot more substantial than your modern keyboard. For one, Model M's feature a curved metal backplate to handle the pounding from the keypresses. The typical Model M weighs somewhere close to five pounds, compared to a membrane keyboard which is about 1.5 to 2 pounds perhaps. Even the keycaps are better -- each one can be removed and are fully swappable, allowing for whatever kind of key layout you prefer. (There's this layout called Dvorak, but it feels like the metric system, so I steer clear. I get fifteen hogsheads to the rod, thank you very much!)

The ultimate proof of the Model M's beautful, durable design is the fact that... well, they're still here! They're still working. People routinely dig them out of ancient piles of computers, dust them off, and they still work. If a zombie apocalypse breaks out, and you're at your computer -- smash the zombie with the Model M. It's got that kind of stopping power, trust me. If you lose a key, pop it right back in and get back to typing, the keyboard is that ridiculously awesome.

After I got my first Model M from here, I started using it at work and within a day decided I needed one at home. Now I needed to not only find another Model M, I needed to find a truly vintage one. Naturally I did my research, which led me to the wiki page for Model M's, which detailed the various subspecies of Model M, and geekhack.org - a forum site dedicated to input devices.

There are rare examples of Model M's that are industrial grey, black, some come with that weird red, textured mouse 'button' nestled between the keys, and some even had trackballs. A rare 'ergonomic' Model M with a split down the middle design sold on eBay for several thousand dollars. I won't go there. My second keyboard was purchased from eBay and that's my earliest Model M -- dating back to 1987.

I also discovered that there are lots of kinds of mechanical switches aside from buckling springs, many made by modern manufacturers. There's even a company that bought the patents for the original Model M design and still makes them. They're still clicky, and they still have buckling springs -- but some people claim that the manufacturing is a little bit 'lighter' (the zombie might survive that first strike) so I opted to find a true Model M.

At this point, you're probably ready to close the door on me, promising to take some literature, but believe me, these keyboard rock. I'm not the sort of person to be a hoarder, a collector of anything (aside from films, perhaps) but with the Model M you own an antique that works. I've driven classic steel-bodied automobiles, and when you drive one you feel like a badass, but the truth is that the engineering just isn't as good as modern cars. The steering can be lousy, the suspension horrible, and they require constant maintenance. Not so, the Model M. They're clearly superior to modern membrane switches, which only offer a better price point.

Ok, so now that I have two new Model M keyboards, I can relax, right?


In my next post I'll detail how (with some help from Geekhackers) I found an even bigger, even more awesome keyboard. Photos and instructions to follow.


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