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A public conversation about our worlds.

  • Monday: Morgan J. Locke
  • Tuesday: Madeleine E. Robins
  • Wednesday: Maureen F. McHugh
  • Thursday: Bradley Denton
  • Friday: Steven Gould
  • Saturday: Caroline Spector
  • Sunday: Rory Harper

Brain Activity



A Keyboard For Writers

October 4th, 2009 by Rory Harper

Kb41

We all know that writing can be painful. The intense frustration when an idea that was pure genius in our heads translates to vapid merde when we try to put it into words on the screen. The struggle to impose form and structure on a plotline that insists on fracturing into a thousand shards, all of them purest zirconium. The realization that you abruptly suck at this endeavor that is central to your self-regard, that you’ve lost it forever, that all your friends will now know what a dismal fraud you are.

I can’t help you with that part. Cocaine, alcohol, and perverse sex are the prescribed remedies.

However, there is some hope for the physical pains that you’re experiencing. If you write much, your hands hurt fairly constantly now, don’t they? Probably your forearms, too, and your shoulders ache.

Let’s trip back to the halcyon days of yestertyping, when only women were taught how to use a keyboard. Real computers cost five to ten thousand dollars. A mouse was a rodent that you carried around in your shirt pocket, because you were weird.

There was no GUI. There was only one screen color on a black background. There was the command line, and you wrote your novels in WordStar, which was the coolest program on the planet.

Back then, the keyboards were not made for a dollar a day by starving Filipino orphans. They were often designed by obsessive engineers who realized that keyboards were the contact point between their expensive wares and the person who bought them, so they damn well better be good.

Then came Windows (and the Macintosh, but we don’t talk about Macs in polite society).

The paradigm shifted tectonically. Now most people click away their lives rather than typing everything. And computers cost a tenth of what they once did, so keyboards are thrown into the bundle like Happy Meal toys.

And they’re awful. They hurt you badly in the long run if you type a lot.

I’d like to introduce you to the IBM Model M keyboard. If you’re a writer, it’s your new best friend.

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800px-ModelM

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Modern keyboards are made of light plastic and have cheap membrane switches.Two electrical contacts are pressed together when you hit a key. That’s it, that’s all. They have absolutely no tactile feel, so that you don’t really know when you’ve successfully entered a character, until it shows up on the monitor. So you hit hard, every time. The sounds they make are also very loosely related to the process. They have absolutely no ‘touch’.

The Model M has a much more expensive and precise mechanical buckling spring keyswitch. It is tactile and loudly clicky and utterly consistent. You both feel and hear exactly when you’ve typed a character, and when you’ve properly released the key. Fewer missed strokes and fewer inadvertent strokes. The keyboard weighs nearly 5 pounds, so it doesn’t slide around under you, and contains a heavy curved steel plate that makes it absolutely rigid; no bouncing like with cheap plastic boards. They’re virtually indestructible — boards that were made 20 years ago still work as well as the day they came out of the box. You can brain a zombie with one and go right back to typing a minute later with no worries.

As a matter of fact, I’m typing this post on a Model M manufactured on October 26, 1989.

If you’re nothing but a web-surfing sheep, this is all irrelevant to you. If you type a lot, these differences mean the world. If you’ve never used anything but a membrane keyboard you may not believe me about how significant the difference is — it’s like trying to tell somebody about Lamborghinis when all they’ve ever known is their Subaru.

When you switch to a Model M, your subconscious will be reprogrammed. Instead of hitting the keys as hard as possible, you’ll find yourself typing much more delicately, much more accurately, and, usually, noticeably faster.

You’ll hurt less because you’ll be applying less force and doing so more precisely. You will no longer bottom out the keystroke. Less repetitive stress injury, less impact injury.

I own five Model M’s. I find it difficult to type on membrane keyboards now, though my job demands it. It’s like typing into mud.When I get back to my own work machine, which I’ve fitted with a Model M, it’s like dancing.

IBM made many thousands of these boards, for more than a decade. They can be had via Ebay or various vendors for around $50 including shipping. There are a few subtypes with different part numbers. The 1391401 is considered to be the purest version, though even I have some difficulty feeling a difference between it and the other Model M’s.

I know that I may sound a little hyperbolic about this board. But — If you’re a professional writer, or someone who still does lots of keyboarding, this piece of gear can change you life. You’ll hurt less and you’ll enjoy the act of typing more.

Physically, that is. The mental and emotional anguish will still remain.

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Incidentally, the image at the top of my post takes you to the SteamPunk Workshop, where a Model M has been modded to become a functioning work of art. I badly want one of these.

For more detailed info and sales of cleaned-up, guaranteed Model M’s, go to Clicky Keyboards. Especially check out their entertaning FAQs.

The current patent-holder and manufacturer of Model M clones and other buckling-spring boards is Unicomp.The Customizer 101 is their Model M clone. Their line is supposed to be good, and here is where you can get a board with a USB connection, rather than the PS/2 that the originals all have. Also, this is where to get a cool black one, as all of the originals are in beige.

There’s an active forum for people who are even more obsessed about clicky and tactile keyboards at GeekHack. There are many other variations on this technology, including boards with Alps and Cherry keyswitches in several flavors. If you’re not as highly evolved as me, you may actually prefer boards with those different touches. Truthfully, I own an old NorthGate OmniKey Ultra, which has Alps switches. Its touch is divine, though lighter than the Model M.

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Posted in Daily Life, Health and Safety, Rory, Technology | 17 Comments »

17 Responses

  1. Ken Houghton Says:

    That Model M looks as if it’s the old IBM keyboard from the mid-1980s.

    Dragon Naturally Speaking (or Via Voice). Unless you type faster than you talk but slower than you think.

  2. Rory Harper Says:

    Hey, Ken — You’re exactly right. These are the keyboards that IBM shipped in the tens of thousands with their PC-AT’s and related gear. Back when men were men and mice were for wimps.

    I do type about 70 wpm when I’ve got enough caffeine in me, and Dragon couldn’t match that the last time I tried it. Also, I never could make voice recognition work with the constant back-and-forth revision I do as I’m excreting a paragraph. I think I’m just not linear (or organized) enough…

  3. Madeleine Robins Says:

    My much-reviled Mac keyboard makes noise with each keystroke, and has a nice firm touch to it. Granted, it’s on an older iBook–the keyboard that came with the Spouse’s Bigass Desktop Mac annoys me. Which is why I love my old iBook, and am not in a hurry to destroy it.

    If we’re talking old tech–I sometimes miss the satisfying THUNK of the IBM Selectric ball plunking a character down on the page. Not enough to go get an old Selectric, but…that was formative to my typing skills.

  4. Rory Harper Says:

    From what I’ve read, some of the older Macs also had great tactile boards.

    …Not that I’ll ever know personally, of course…

    On the Selectric, here you are bringing up an old love affair of mine. Ahhhh, Selectric, I miss you so…Back in the day, those things were magical to type on. I remember when they were the height of advanced office technology. If I remember correctly, they cost more than a fairly hot computer costs these days.

  5. nancileigh Says:

    I remember the old Selectrics – and how I loved it when they had a correction ribbon! I had to take a typing test where they allowed you to correct – 79 wpm with no (visible) mistakes. I think I’m faster now with way more practice.

    However, my co-workers can tell when I’m being particularly vehement in an email – by the sound of my keyboard clicking away.

  6. Steven Gould Says:

    I am told, by someone who has fired one, that the thomson submachine gun has the sort of well engineered feel of a IMB Selectric as you type and hit the return.

  7. Raven Daegmorgan Says:

    Forget the keyboard…where can I get the cocaine?

    Seriously, though, I did own one of those for years. Model from the early 90′s with the big ol’ PS/2 input–but it was missing keys and spiders had taken up residence in it, so I put it out of its long-suffering misery last year.

    And you aren’t kidding about being able to brain zombies with it. Or anything else, really. In the post-apocalyptic future, wandering mercenaries will be armed with shotguns and the Model M.

  8. Walter Jon Williams Says:

    Funny coincidence. I just put a paean to the IBM Model M in my new novel.

  9. Rory Harper Says:

    Good comments, guys. I will definitely take at least one Model M with me when I head for the rendezvous during the next zombie infestation, for the close-in work that regrettably becomes necessary on occasion.

    I’m sure we’ll be able to find some machine guns with which to do comparison tests regarding feel and efficacy at annihilation.

    Walter Jon– You should probably put that part about the Model M on the back-cover blurb. You’ll likely get a half a million sales alone from the geeks like me who’ll be unable to resist the need to read more about our beloved boards.

    Uh… You can send me the draft of that section now, if you really want to, old and dear friend that you are. Right?

  10. Forrest Says:

    “From what I’ve read, some of the older Macs also had great tactile boards.”

    I’ve got 4 1/2 Model M’s, but the Apple Extended II was a terrific bit of kit. It didn’t have click, but boy-howdy did it have thunk.

    “…Not that I’ll ever know personally, of course…”

    Though you could, with an ADB-PS/2 or ADB-USB adapter.

  11. Gordan Taylor Says:

    I am a fan of the model M too. All the other keyboards I’ve tried seem inferior. Typing on a model M right now. Glad to know others out there appreciate good workmanship.

  12. Laer Carroll Says:

    I’m also obsessive about keyboards, like the rest of you. And about ten years ago I got to indulge my obsession while working at Boeing. My group did ergonomic studies for all Boeing. That included stuff like pilot seats, C-17 engine repair bays, spacesuit Mark 2 redesign – and keyboards for engineering workstation.

    End result, we recommended adopting Logitech keyboards. They addressed all the issues you did.

    And this instant I’m typing on one. Not only does it feel good, but the wireless connection (better than any other vendors’) means I can use it anywhere in the room, including my couch. (My computer is connected via HDMI cable to my flat-screen wall-mounted TV.)

  13. Rory Harper Says:

    Glad that you have the best obsession, like me. So — which keyboard, exactly, are you talking about?

    I’ve bought some Logitechs for people at work, and they’re decent, but — I’m pretty sure that nothing will pry my Model M away from me.

    I do have a collection of about a dozen different boards; always willing to try something new.

  14. zeigerpuppy Says:

    Great post, you inspired me to go hunting in my shed for…. a 1984 model M!

  15. Rory Harper Says:

    Yay for you, ziegerpuppy! They really are bestest keyboards of all!

    I now have about seven or eight of them. Just because I can…

    In case you didn’t know — If yours has gotten dirty, you can pretty much safely take them apart, pop off the keycaps, and give them a thorough cleaning in warm soapy water — except for the central board with the electronics, of course — and they come out looking literally as if they’re fresh from the box.

    Here’s a pretty good vid on the subject: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ly4khUtrCjw

    I hope you’re enjoying yours!

  16. How To Clean A Laptop Keyboard Says:

    I Love Your Site. Nearly every post makes me lol, reflect, and learn something.

  17. Burmashave Says:

    Ohmigosh! Rory, your site is the find of the season and possibly makes the Internet worthwhile.

    I bounced here from google because I needed the “model number” of my model M IBM keyboard for a review of a Lenovo numeric keypad — only to discover that not only does someone share the love of the model M, but also that person is the writer of _Buddy_Holly_Is_Alive_and_Well_on_Ganymeade_. Plus, it is now a movie soon to be released. I see very few movies in the theater, but count me in for opening day. Congratulations.

    I am currently using a 1984 Model M. I have 4 just in case the Mayans were off on the date of the Apocalypse. I pop the keys off every few years to clean them with soapy water and a toothbrush. It’s a fun ritual, especially the Husker Du game like puzzle of putting them back on the keyboard.

    The true reason why I have more than one Model M’s is that the keyboards will never wear out; however, since I’ve been using one in the late 1980′s, I did actually have a cable fail, and after much research, I discovered that the cable, which is of course detachable, is unique to the Model M.

    The reason why I have 4 is because last year I scored 2 that had been put out to the curb. Prior to last year, I had not stopped for anything I’d seen left out for the garbage collector. I’ve not done it since either.

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