Keyboards from Typewriters: the 1988 IBM Model M
Well, I must confess I have been very excited to talk about this one. I am somewhat a fan of typing, if you haven't been able to tell from all the typewriters I work with. But this article marks the first I've been actually able to use a typing apparatus for a blog! I am of course referring to the 1988 IBM Model M keyboard, made only a couple short years after my IBM Correcting Selectric II.
This particular version of the Model M is perhaps the most popular, as it was the second iteration that shipped with the IBM Personal System 2, abbreviated the PS/2, the very same computer that gave birth to the standardized PS/2 mouse and keyboard cable. In that regard, it was to my dismay that I found out the connector type was discontinued sometime post 2013. The switch type itself, the "Catastrophically Buckling Compression Column Switch and Actuator (according to the patent) didn't originate on the Model M, but rather on Model F that sold along with the IBM 5150. Yep, THE 5150, the first IBM personal computer, third in line of the 5100 series of terminal portable computers. The 5150 was the first Windows powered IBM with third party components released in 1981. It outsold every competitor on the market from Atari, Hitachi, and Commodore, to the Apple II. The Apple II being the only real competitor. It was so popular they had a new order every minute.
By the mid 80s, the IBM 5150 was the dominating force in the world of personal computing, which in itself is a story for another time. The Buckling spring keyboard quickly became a favorite among typists for its smooth and responsive feel, but the layout left something to be desired. In 1984, Apple grew tired of IBM's monopoly on the computing world, and launched an ad campaign to topple them. Thus, the Macintosh was born. IBM continued in the now lucrative personal computing market, and released the IBM M keyboard after much research with focus groups and design teams. The resulting keyboard was a monumental moment in typing history. It was arguably one of the most important innovations since the invention of QWERTY by Sholes in the 1860s. This 103 key layout became the gold standard for computer interfaces until the present day. It had a short run with one of their off model computers, but gained rapid popularity on the Personal System 2, competing with the Commodore 64 and the Macintosh for the personal computing crown. Though the memory of the PS2 is overshadowed by the 5150, and the entirety of IBM computers by Apple (who became the very thing they swore to destroy), the legendary IBM Model M lived on. And for good reason too. Later on, the M was sold to Lexmark which produced it with varying modifications, and finally to Unicomp, who makes it to this day with the same tooling IBM used. Neither of those keyboards seem to carry the same merit or even the same feel as the original. Besides, I'm a sucker for the legends.
Despite the sad death of the PS2 connector, there are a handful of cheap USB active converters which take the output and convert it readily to USB. That brings the IBM right up into the modern world, but similar to typewriters, the question gets asked: why, 32 years after the creation of this board, is it still used today? The answer is simple: it's simply the best.
One of the greatest things I loved about typewriters was the tactile feel of writing on them. One of the greatest things I hated about typing on computers was the soul sucking flat lame boring interface. The IBM is one of the most brilliantly tactile and satisfying computer keyboards I have ever used. Even eclipsing my love for the IBM Correcting Selectric II. It is loud, that's for sure, so it has no plus over the noise portion, but as a vintage keyboard it holds up incredibly well. My first run with the machine got me to a peak typing speed of 150 words per minute with no lag, and no hesitation. As far as the claims of two key rollover? BS. It can register an average of four keys at a time, and peak at six. Keyboard shortcuts work great. For anything other then typing, it might have some setbacks. For competitive gaming. the slight rebound time before you can strike a second key might be detrimental. I played a couple rounds of Fortnite, the most graphically intense game I had downloaded, and the keyboard performed like a dream. Every key is right where I expect it to be, which is fantastic given the compressed size formats of newer keyboards.
Not enough can be said about how wonderful it feels to type on, or how fantastic it sounds. The PVC construction is very robust, and doesn't yellow with age. The only real fault is the plastic rivets that hold the membranes together can wear down over time. Suffice to say, mine are holding up just fine, seeing as I am writing this blog article with it right now. When I first got it off of ebay (for the ripe price of 175$), it arrived in a destroyed box. Which is nothing one wants to see. I was even further dismayed to see it pretty beaten up, and soaking wet. Thankfully, after some light cleaning and a lot of compressed air, it seems to be working without issue.
At the end of the day, I'm a tactile person. I need to feel like I'm doing something. I'll never understand why there is such a drive for things that are so virtual, and so out of touch. That's not how I can live my life. Yeah, the model M is clunky and old, but so are all those old typewriters I have. There is a merit in that which conveys the feel of productivity. The Model M does that for me, and that is why it is the greatest keyboard I have ever used.
Speed Typing: https://youtu.be/cf6JHp_qyoI
"Gaming" (I'm not that good): https://youtu.be/wJiV9cJNlkA