Old-School Keyboard Makes Comeback Of Sorts

Almost all keyboards made since the early 1990s are, frankly, no good. A tiny group of writers and hackers know better. They use vintage IBM keyboards. Ugly, built like tanks, and, most importantly, with a spring under each key, and which clicks when you press it.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

If you're like me, you probably spend hours typing on your keyboard - working, reading, googling. So, take note. NPR's Martin Kaste reports that a tiny company is making what some fans call the one true keyboard.

MARTIN KASTE: If you're 30-something and slightly geeky, this might be music to your ears.

(Soundbite of computer keyboard)

KASTE: That's the IBM model M, a tank of a keyboard whose distinctive racket once reverberated through the offices and computer labs of the land. This one belongs to Cheryl Lowry, a technical writer at Microsoft.

Ms. CHERYL LOWRY (Technical Writer, Microsoft): People tend to stop in the hall and look in and say, wow, that's an old school keyboard because it's fast and it's clattery, and people haven't heard that in 15 years.

KASTE: IBM stopped making these in the early 90s. Since then connoisseurs have come to the conclusion that the Model M was the best keyboard ever, certainly better than the mushy cheapness that standard issue today. The M was the last computer keyboard that still tried to feel like a typewriter. In this case the old IBM Selectric.

Ms. LOWRY: I think this is it. Model M is the end of the line. (Laughing)

KASTE: The end of the line? Not quite yet. They're still cranking out new Model Ms here in Lexington, Kentucky. Not at the former IBM plant, which once upon a time produced millions of keyboards a year. That kind of manufacturing is long gone to China. This operation is a little more modest.

Mr. NEIL MUYSKENS (Electrical Engineer, Unicomp): This building started as a furniture factory back in the 40s.

KASTE: Neil Muyskens is an electrical engineer who used to work at that IBM plant. He founded Unicomp in the mid 90s to try to keep making the Model M's using IBM's old moulds and tools. It really is the exact same keyboard, except for updated electronics and a USB plug. And most important, Muyskens still puts a spring under each key.

Mr. MUYSKENSIEGEL: We manually insert the magic if you will and that is a what we call pivot-plate assembly, the magic. Well, this is the buckling spring.

KASTE: The buckling spring. Most keyboards today use rubber domes, little mushy blisters under all the keys. They're quiet, cheap, and good enough, but there's not much for your finger to feel on its way down. But with buckling springs, the feel is everything.

Ms. BONNIE(ph) COLLINS (Employee, Unicomp): So you hear the the clicking in it?

KASTE: Yup.

Ms. COLLINS: That means it's good. If you don't hear it clicking then it's not really good.

KASTE: Got it. Bonnie Collins checks the new keyboards, making sure every key produces that distinctive metallic ping.

You don't like that one?

Ms. COLLINS: Uh uh.

KASTE: The N key is no good there, eh?

Ms. COLLINS: No, it's not picking on(ph), put the button back on. It's a lot better now. You got to click it in, and when you click down you hear it clicking?

KASTE: I do. When Collins is finished with the keyboards, it's time for the pneumatic fingers.

(Soundbite of rapid typing)

KASTE: That's the robotic super typist that rechecks the keys' response times to within a fraction of a second. This is what American computers used to be. Machines, and springs, and switches that had to be assembled just so and were built to last. That old school-industry is still alive in this converted furniture factory and it has the appreciation of certain aging nerds. But those guys just don't make Unicomp enough money. The trouble with Model M is they rarely break down, and Neil Muyskens says he's having a hard time getting the attention of potential new buyers.

Mr. MUYSKENS: The Office Depot of the world, or the Best Buys of the world, they won't stock our product because our product is $69 product.

KASTE: Price is everything in consumer electronics, and there's no Muyskens is ever going to undercut his Asian competitors.

Mr. MUYSKENS: We put two dollars worth of medical insurance in every keyboard we sell. Now, I can tell you, I mean I can buy a keyboards from the Far East vendors today for three bucks.

KASTE: So, like other American manufacturers, Unicomp has retreated to niche markets. It makes customized keyboards for banks, hospitals, even tire shops. But in the last few months those big customers have stopped buying.

Mr. MUYSKENS: It's bad. We sell into banks, we sell into large retail...

KASTE: Just the industries that are taking the biggest hit in this recession. Since the start of the year Muyskens has laid off a third of his workforce and things look grim. Still, he's got the pocket protector optimism of an old school IBMer. He says he wants to engineer his way out of this by selling more customized keyboards to individuals, say the gamers who want their flame thrower keys positioned just so. And Muyskens is even reconsidering some old designs for what he calls silent buckling springs...

(Soundbite of computer keyboard)

Though really it's hard to see the point of that, I mean, listen.

(Soundbite of computer keyboard)

KASTE: Isn't that what a keyboard is supposed to sound like? I'm Martin Kaste, NPR News.

SIEGEL: And you can peer inside those keyboards and learn what makes them click at npr.org.

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An Ode To Clicky Keys

A Model M Keyboard i i

An IBM Model M keyboard. mkoukoullis via Flickr Creative Commons hide caption

itoggle caption mkoukoullis via Flickr Creative Commons
A Model M Keyboard

An IBM Model M keyboard.

mkoukoullis via Flickr Creative Commons

More Keyboard Fun

Hear The Clicks

Bonnie Collins at the keyboard factory. i i

A worker at the keyboard factory inspects one before it is finished. Martin Kaste/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Martin Kaste/NPR
Bonnie Collins at the keyboard factory.

Bonnie Collins, a worker at the keyboard factory, inspects one before it is finished.

Martin Kaste/NPR

My All Things Considered story about the Model M keyboard is, of course, shot through with journalistic bias. I am unabashed in my preference for the metallic ring of an old keyboard's spring-loaded keys. I won't apologize for this partiality, but I will try to explain it.

Some old writer once said that in order to keep going, he needed to hear the scratch of the pen on the page (if someone out there remembers who this was, please remind me!). Obviously, this was succeeded by other noises: the zip of the platen, the thwock of the typebar, the electric jump of a Selectric "golf ball." Whatever the noise, it was a mechanical reality, perfectly synchronized with the moment a letter was committed to paper. Those noises were evidence of writing as a physical act.

With word processing, writing has become more tenuous. Infinitely variable and backspaceable.

This isn't necessarily good or bad, but it is different. Cheryl Lowry, the writer and Model M fan who opens my All Things Considered story, told me she writes differently when she switches to a manual typewriter. Her writing is more premeditated. She pauses to think before she commits words to paper.

(As an exercise in this kind of old-fashioned composition, Lowry occasionally practices what's come to be called "typecasting." She writes her blog entries on a manual typewriter, then scans in the image, typos and all.

The Model M is not a typewriter. But it may very well be the last computer keyboard designed to feel like one. Neil Muyskens, the fellow whose tiny Lexington company pckeyboard.com still makes the old-style keyboards, told me that when IBM set out to design the Model M in the 1980s, it was trying to emulate the feel of the Selectric (possibly the best electric typewriter ever made).

That's why the Model M has a spring under each key: When that spring buckles, it unambiguously communicates that fact to your fingertip. You feel the letter being made; there's no need to pound all the way to the bottom just to be sure. With the Model M, word processing retains an element of physical reality.

I am the first to acknowledge that this is all a matter of personal taste. People like what they like and get used to what they know. Plenty of wonderful writing comes thudding out of rubber-dome keyboards.

Still, it's funny to observe that the latest trend in digital devices is something called "haptics": battery-operated vibrations meant to make touch-screens click and respond under your fingertips.

But these are simulations! In a tiny factory in Lexington, Ky., somebody's still building the real thing. For now.

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