The Queen of the Click: A Tale of the Most Outstanding Keyboard in History

    For 30 years she has been imitated, copied, modified - we are talking about IBM Model M, the progenitor of the design of a modern keyboard.

    Keyboard IBM Model M

    The first thing that catches your eye when the IBM Model M keyboard falls into your hands is its size. After many years of clicking on the small buttons and glass screens of half-kilogram devices, it’s a little unusual to hold about 2.5 kg of plastic and metal (including a thick steel plate). The second is the sound: a loud click that has turned a standard beige peripheral device into one of the most valuable and useful antiquities of the computer world.

    Next year, Model M will turn 30 years old. But many still value it above all others. Recently, she was spotted on the desk of Minecraft creator Marcus Notch Persson - she was connected to a gaming PC, one video card of which probably costs more than a thousand dollars. “Model M is essentially the best keyboard of all time,” he said in an interview . On YouTube, there are dozens of demos on the set on Model M, a video with the process of unpacking and comparing its sound with the sound of other mechanical keyboards. Since its inception, the Model M has been the model for the perfect keyboard.

    “I like the iPad, it's a wonderful device; “The Kindle reader is a wonderful thing,” says Brandon Hermita, Princeton’s IT manager, “But I would never write an article, a dissertation, or any other work using the touch screen.” Hermita devotes a lot of time to extending Model M life: he picks them up from warehouses and recycling points, sells them on his ClickyKeyboards website and runs the Model M private museum. According to his estimates, over the past ten years he managed to hand over fans of this keyboard from 4000 to 5000 copies.

    Keyboard IBM Model M

    Like many others, we still have vague memories of Model M’s childhood, and yet last month we went to a New Jersey suburb to meet Hermite and rediscover the magic of one of the most popular keyboards of all time.

    On the day of our visit to his spacious office, about two dozen keyboards neatly lay on the shelf, like expensive wines. Above them, in a protective glass case, a black keyboard lay separately - the prototype Model M, one of the oldest items in the Hermite collection. In a large basket were recent acquisitions that still needed to be sorted out and cleaned of chips, sewing needles and other garbage left over from previous owners. Seeing Model M for the first time in many years, the most remarkable moment for us was its unremarkable appearance. Model M may be a relic of the past, but its DNA can be found in almost any modern keyboard.

    The keyboards of the 70s and 80s were very different: from well-known to paradoxical and completely unnatural.

    The QWERTY keyboard layout was invented at the end of the 19th century for typists and quickly became a generally accepted standard. But by the time the first IBM computer was released in 1981, the layout no longer included just keys for typing uppercase letters and spaces — modern users were already confronted with text editors, terminals, and “microcalculators”. Looking back, you understand that the keyboards of the 1970s and 1980s were very different: from well-known to paradoxical and completely unnatural. So, in the original 83-key keyboard for the IBM PC, known as PC / XT, the most important Shift and Return keys were small, shifted somewhere to the side, and they were also indicated by mysterious arrows. In general, she gave the impression of some chaotic set of miniature keys and strange gaps between them.

    IBM PC / XT

    In August 1984, IBM announced the release of a much more attractive PC / AT keyboard. Compared to the previous model, “the PC / AT keyboard is a huge leap forward,” PC Magazine said. AT is not like a modern keyboard: the function keys in it are located in two rows on the left instead of the usual one row at the top, Escape hid in it among the auxiliary numeric keypad, and Ctrl and Caps Lock are swapped. But even in this form, it is much more understandable to the modern user than the previous one.

    IBM PC / AT

    But IBM wanted to create more than just an acceptable option. In the early 1980s, the company assembled a task force of 10 people and tasked it with creating a better keyboard based on recommendations from experts and users. The design of the previous version was made “quickly, efficiently - it cannot be said that it was the result of serious teamwork,” says David Bradley, a member of that task force, whose merit, among other things, is to create the generally accepted function Ctrl + Alt + Delete The new group invited novice computer users to test a more comfortable keyboard, in which important keys were made larger, and frequently used ones such as Ctrl and Alt were installed in two places so that they could be easily reached with any hand. Many keys, if desired, could be removed and rearranged to another place. So Model M. was born

    In 1985, Model M was introduced as part of the IBM 3161 terminal and was called the IBM Enhanced Keyboard. A PC-compatible version came out next spring, and in 1987 it became the official standard for IBM Personal System / 2. The earliest Model M, according to Hermite, is a version for the terminal, made June 10, 1985.

    Ibm model m

    It is possible to determine the date so accurately due to the fact that on the back of each Model M keyboard there is a unique identification number and date of manufacture - Hermite constantly receives orders from those over 20 to search for a keyboard made on their birthday. He also maintains the Model M Archive Project, an archive of huge spreadsheets that store information about all the keyboards that passed through his company, as well as those information (identification number, manufacturing date and serial number) that other users provided.

    I have such a vague feeling that IBM is telling me: “You should love it because it is the keyboard of the future,” writes PC Magazine reviewer.

    Hermite's collection includes many specific, narrow-profile keyboards, for example, keys with names designed to place an order at a travel agency, or a small model in which the keys are grouped in three together - possibly for cashiers. “When computers first entered the market, they were positioned as business devices,” said Neil Muskens, a former IBM manager. Stickers with commands for specific programs are still preserved on older keyboards, and browsers rated the keyboards in part based on how well they work with programs such as WordStar and Lotus 1-2-3.

    One observer was disappointed that Model M once again changed the layout of the keys, but at the same time, the feeling that this design will remain for a long time did not leave. I have such a vague feeling that IBM tells me: “You should love it because it is the keyboard of the future,” wrote a PC Magazine reviewer, and, as further development of computer technology showed, it was, to put it mildly, more than a true foreboding .

    That Model M layout hasn't changed for so long that today it’s just taken for granted. But in the descendants of that keyboard one of the most legendary Model M “chips” was left behind: keys with a bending spring - a mechanism that appeared in PC / XT. Unlike mechanical switches, which are depressed vertically, like a piston, in Model M, under each key, there was a spring, which compressed, flattened or bent, and then, when the key was released, bounced back. Unlike the soft, quiet rubber caps used in most modern keyboards, they attracted attention. And this is not always good: Model M owners occasionally publish stories in which they complain that their spouses or work colleagues cannot stand a continuous knock. But connoisseurs say that the resistance of the springs and their loud “clicks” help to understand whether the key has been pressed to the end, which, in turn, reduces the number of errors. And, perhaps more importantly, typing on Model M is something special, tangible. In many ways, like a typewriter, a distinct click allows you to physically feel each letter.

    Soon after the appearance of Model M, many of its counterparts appeared on the market. For its part, IBM introduced only symbolic changes to the design of its new keyboard models. As a result, nostalgia for Model M is passed down from generation to generation. “People often contact me by e-mail, thank me for reminding them of the times when they were young students of technical specialties in the 1980s,” says Hermita. Younger customers recall how they joked at classmates at school by rearranging their keyboard keys. ”

    In 1990, IBM transformed its US line of typewriters, keyboards and printers into a new company called Lexmark. Six years later, Lexmark refused to manufacture keyboards - this happened during what Muskens calls the industry’s general transition to cheaper products. IBM continued to order them at a factory in Scotland and for some time at a company called Maxi-Switch, but as far as we know, the latest IBM Model M rolled off the assembly line in 1999.

    With such a limited offer, Model M fans will soon lose the ability to type on their favorite keyboard.

    For about $ 80, the official version of Model M can be bought now, but it will not have the IBM brand. After Lexmark retired, Muskens, along with other former employees under the guise of Unicomp, began to gradually acquire patents and equipment for the production of this keyboard. “We had to change the electronics,” says Muskens, “The material for the hinged shelf was changed back in 1999. But almost everything else remained unchanged.”

    Unicomp Ultra Classic

    For some, this is still not enough. “We are constantly asked if we could sell the product with the IBM logo? We answer no, the logo is owned by IBM, ”says Muskens. He says that IBM still orders a small number of keyboards for its existing commercial customers, but if you need an old logo, you will have to go to eBay or to people like Hermita. For others, Model M’s inherent superior qualities and variety are more important than nostalgic concepts of authenticity: some users remake them into wireless Bluetooth devices. One Reddit user posted the original modificationbacklit keys reminiscent of the stunning design of Razer or Alienware. But with such a limited offer, Model M fans will soon lose the ability to type on their favorite keyboard.


    “It can be compared to oil. Once the oil reserves are depleted. And that will be a disaster, ”says Hermita. But now it seems that this is still very far away. The oldest Model Ms have already served 30 years, and Hermita hopes they will last another 10 or 20 years - enough for at least one more generation to take advantage of this piece of computer history.

    Model M is an artifact of those times when the latest computing systems were developed mainly for industrial use, and not for entertainment. The PS / 2 computer for which it was developed cost at least $ 2295 (by today's standards it is about $ 5000), and its power and functionality was much inferior to any modern smartphone. After decades, the power of computers has grown exponentially, and their prices have drastically decreased. But at the same time, manufacturers abandoned the concept of longevity and a long service life: in a situation where many third-party companies are ready to sell the latest mice and keyboards at almost cost, it is difficult to convince manufacturers to invest in excess of the minimum necessary.

    And this quick change of old technologies with new ones gave us the opportunity to fully experience what we have lost, and also aroused a passion for equipment, which can both cause admiration and knock without interruption. As stated in a recent comment on Reddit, “These nonsense are REAL gaming keyboards. How would you mock her, she will still outlive you. ”

    UPD: Translation of the article from

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