Through at least seven computers, from DOS, OS/2, and Windows 3.1 to Vista x64, while mice have had their little balls clog and got replaced with ones with LEDs and cameras, I’ve used the same keyboard — an IBM 1391401 manufactured on December 12, 1990. That ‘board, and many variants that group together under the name of Model M keyboards, use a technology called “buckling spring” to give a distinctive feel. As you depress the key the force required gets greater until, at a point near but not at the bottom, you hear a fairly loud click and feel the resistance lessen. You don’t have to push the key all the way to the bottom of its travel to know that you’ve typed a letter. It’s addictive; regular keyboards feel mushy to me.
In the era when a personal computer was a PDP-8, the gold standard for typewriter keyboard feel was the IBM Selectric. IBM made the Selectric in Lexington, Kentucky. When it came time to pick a keyboard for the IBM PC, Don Estridge and his Boca Raton team reached out to the folks in Lexington, who provided a keyboard with a feel that was similar to the Selectric typewriter, but with slightly longer key travel and a louder click. People all over the world got used to the feel of a really good keyboard. Soon the PC clones came, and they pretty much universally cheaped out on the keyboards. No matter; you could still buy just the keyboard from IBM and use it on your clone.
IBM tried some fancy footwork in the late eighties to try and get the clones off their back. It didn’t work, but everyone did pick up the PS/2 keyboard connector, which replaced the clunky five-pin DIN and persists until this day on high-end PCs and workstations, although it’s getting pushed aside by USB. The keyboards themselves mostly moved on to quieter, less-expensive technology.
I’ve been having highly-intermittent keyboard problems for the last year or so. Every few weeks, my keyboard stopped working. No response to key presses at all. A reboot always fixed it. When something occurs rarely and seemingly randomly, it’s an invitation for misdiagnosis or magical thinking. Not being big on actual magic, I blamed the closest thing to magic in the computer world: the operating system.
A few days ago, the keyboard, or the software, or whatever, did its thing again. I had some work I needed to do that could be accomplished with a mouse, so I kept on using the computer. After I while, I forgot the keyboard was wonky, and fired up Word. I was into the second paragraph before it occurred to me that it was supposed to take a reboot to fix it.
The next morning the keyboard failed, resurrected itself, and failed again, all without a reboot. I began to think that I had a hardware problem that was slowly getting worse. On one level, that made me feel good: there was a good chance I could fix the flakiness, instead of living with it. On another level, it was terrible: the now-suspect keyboard was my favorite.
I set my old keyboard aside and went downstairs to rummage through my storeroom. I returned dusty, but proudly bearing a Lexmark 1428401, a keyboard with similar technology and feel, but missing the numeric keypad (I think it came with a separate one, but I’ve lost it over the years). IBM sold the keyboard business to Lexmark when it spun off the company in 1991. Lexmark continued to manufacture keyboard for five or six years. The one I swapped in was manufactured in 1995.
I have a functioning, good-feeling keyboard, but I’m not happy. The layout is different enough that it will take me a while to get used to it, and I miss the numeric keypad. At least I haven’t had any problems. It’s too early to call it fixed, but we’ll see.
I did some research on what you can buy now. Refurbished and unused IBM and Lexmark keyboards are thin on the ground, but available. Lexmark sold the keyboard business to Unicom in the late 1990s, and Unicom still makes keyboards with the same technology. I ordered an unused old one and a modern one using the same technology; it’s even got a USB connector. I sure don’t want to go cold turkey on my clicky keyboard.