The first thing you notice about the IBM Model M keyboard, when you finally get your hands on it, is its size. After years of tapping chiclet keys and glass screens on two- and three-pound devices, hefting five pounds of plastic and metal (including a thick steel plate) is slightly intimidating. The second thing is the sound – the solid click that’s turned a standard-issue beige peripheral into one of the computer world’s most prized and useful antiques.
Next year, the Model M turns 30. But to many people, it’s still the only keyboard worth using. It was recently spotted on the desk of Minecraft creator Markus "Notch" Persson, attached to a gaming PC whose graphic cards alone cost thousands of dollars. "The Model M is basically the best keyboard ever made," he told PC Gamer. YouTube has dozens of Model M typing demos, unboxing videos, and sound comparisons between it and other mechanical keyboards. Since its introduction, the Model M has been the standard to meet for keyboard excellence.
"I enjoy using an iPad, it’s a wonderful device; the Kindle e-reader is a beautiful thing," says says Brandon Ermita, a Princeton University IT manager. "But I could never write a story, I could never write my dissertation, I could never produce work with a touchscreen." Ermita is devoted to keeping the Model M alive: he recovers them from supply depots and recycling centers, sells them through his site, ClickyKeyboards, and runs a veritable Model M private museum. He estimates he’s put between 4,000 and 5,000 of the keyboards under the fingertips of aficionados over the past decade.
Like many people, I have vague memories of using a Model M as a kid. Last month, though, I took a trip to suburban New Jersey to meet Ermita and rediscover the magic of one of the most beloved keyboards of all time.
The day I visited his spacious office, two dozen or so keyboards were ensconced in a rack like fine wines. Above them, a single black keyboard sat protected in a glass case — a prototype Model M that’s one of the oldest pieces in Ermita’s collection. A hamper held recent acquisitions that still needed to be taken apart and cleaned of Doritos, sewing needles, and other pieces of detritus from their former owners. Looking at a Model M for the first time in years, what was most remarkable about the keyboard was just how unremarkable it looks. The Model M might be a relic of the past, but its DNA remains in almost every keyboard we use today.
Keyboards from the '70s and '80s range from familiar to counterintuitive to utterly foreign
The QWERTY keyboard layout was designed for typewriters in the late 19th century and quickly became universal. But by the time IBM released its first PC in 1981, layout was no longer a simple matter of spaces and capital letters — users now needed special keys to communicate with word processors, terminals, and "microcomputers." In hindsight, keyboards from the '70s and '80s range from familiar to counterintuitive to utterly foreign: in the IBM PC’s original 83-key keyboard — known as the PC / XT — the all-important Shift and Return keys were undersized and pushed to the side, their labels replaced by enigmatic arrows. The entire thing looks like a mess of tiny buttons and inexplicable gaps. In August of 1984, IBM announced the far more palatable PC / AT keyboard. Compared to the previous model, "the AT keyboard is unassailable," said PC Magazine. The AT couldn’t pass for a present-day keyboard: the function keys are arranged in two rows on the far left instead of along the top, Escape is nestled in the numeric keypad, and Ctrl and Caps Lock have been switched. Even so, it’s cleaner and far more comprehensible than its predecessor to modern eyes.
But IBM wanted something more than merely acceptable. In the early ’80s the company had assembled a 10-person task force to build a better keyboard, informed by experts and users. The design for the previous iteration was done "quickly, expeditiously — not the product of a lot of focus group activity," says David Bradley, a member of the task force who also happens to be the creator of the now-universal Ctrl+Alt+Delete function. The new group brought in novice computer users to test a friendlier keyboard, making important controls bigger and duplicating commonly used keys like Ctrl and Alt so they could be reached by either hand. Many of the keys were detachable from their bases, letting users swap them around as needed. And the Model M was born.
Introduced in 1985 as part of the IBM 3161 terminal, the Model M was initially called the "IBM Enhanced Keyboard." A PC-compatible version appeared the following spring, and it officially became standard with the IBM Personal System / 2 in 1987. The very first Model M that Ermita can verify — a terminal version — was produced on June 10th, 1985. That’s an awfully specific date, and it’s available because every Model M keyboard comes with an ID and production date printed on its back — Ermita does steady business with 20-somethings looking for a keyboard made on their birthday. He also curates the Model M Archive Project, a set of dauntingly long spreadsheets that track keyboards that have passed through his business as well as ones submitted (with ID, production date, and plant number) by other users.
"I have the uneasy feeling IBM is telling me, ‘You’d better learn to love it, because this is the keyboard of the future,’" wrote a PC Magazine reviewer
Ermita’s collection includes many specialized, industry-specific keyboards, like one with baked-in labels for travel-agent booking, or a small model with the keys grouped into thirds, possibly for cashiers. "When computers were introduced, they were introduced as business machines," says Neil Muyskens, a former IBM manager. Vintage keyboards still bear stickers with commands for specific programs, and reviewers judged keyboards partly on how well they worked with software like WordStar and Lotus 1-2-3.
One reviewer was frustrated by the once again reshuffled keyboard layout that the Model M presented, but had a nagging suspicion that this design would stick. "I have the uneasy feeling IBM is telling me, ‘You’d better learn to love it, because this is the keyboard of the future,’" wrote a PC Magazine reviewer, in what would prove to be one of computing’s bigger understatements.
IBM Model M
Unicomp Ultra Classic
That layout of the Model M has been around so long that today it’s simply taken for granted. But the keyboard’s descendents have jettisoned one of the Model M’s most iconic features — "buckling springs," a key system introduced in the PC / XT. Unlike mechanical switches that are depressed straight down like plungers, the Model M has springs under each key that contract, snap flat, or "buckle," and then spring back into place when released. They demand attention in a way that the soft, silent rubber domes in most modern keyboards don’t. This isn’t always a good thing; Model M owners sometimes ruefully post stories of spouses and coworkers who can’t stand the incessant chatter. But fans say the springs’ resistance and their audible "click" make it clear when a keypress is registered, reducing errors. Maybe more importantly, typing on the Model M is a special, tangible experience. Much like on a typewriter, the sharp click gives every letter a physical presence.
Soon after its emergence, Model M clones flooded the market. For its part, IBM gave new versions of the keyboard only the barest of redesigns. As a result, nostalgia for the Model M spans generations. "People contact me often via email, thanking me for reminding them of when they were a 20-something engineering student back in the 1980s," says Ermita. Younger buyers recall rearranging a classmate’s keyboard as a middle-school prank — "I’ve heard that story a few times."
In 1990, IBM spun off its US typewriter, keyboard, and printer business into a new company called Lexmark. Six years later, Lexmark dropped its keyboard division during what Muyskens calls an industry-wide shift towards cheaper products. IBM continued to commission products from a factory in Scotland and, briefly, a company called Maxi-Switch, but the last IBM Model M — as far as we know — rolled off the production line in 1999.
You can still buy an official Model M for about $80, but it won’t wear the IBM badge. After Lexmark left the business, Muyskens and other former employees began slowly purchasing the keyboard’s intellectual property rights and manufacturing equipment, working under the name Unicomp. "We’ve had to change the electronics," Muyskens says. "The clamshell cover material was changed back in ’99. But pretty much everything else has remained the same."
For some, that’s not authentic enough. "We get asked all the time — can we sell [someone] an IBM logo-ed product? And the answer is no, IBM owns the logo," says Muyskens. He says IBM still orders some keyboards for existing commercial customers, but if you want the old-school logo, you’ll have to turn to eBay or people like Ermita. For others, the inherent superiority and versatility of the Model M trumps nostalgic notions of authenticity: some users are adapting them to work wirelessly with Bluetooth. One Reddit user posted a custom modification with backlit keys that evoke the over-the-top designs of Razer or Alienware. But with a limited supply, all Model M fans are typing on borrowed time.
"This is like oil. One day oil will run out. It’ll be a big crash," says Ermita. For now, though, that crash seems far away. The oldest Model Ms have already lasted 30 years, and Ermita hopes they’ll make it for another 10 or 20 — long enough for at least one more generation to use a piece of computing history.
The Model M is an artifact from a time when high-end computing was still the province of industry, not pleasure. The computer that standardized it, the PS / 2, sold for a minimum of $2,295 (or nearly $5,000 today) and was far less powerful and versatile than any modern smartphone. In the decades since, computers have become exponentially more capable, and drastically cheaper. But in that shift, manufacturers have abandoned the concept of durability and longevity: in an environment where countless third-party companies are ready to sell customers specialty mice and keyboards at bargain basement prices, it’s hard to justify investing more than the bare minimum.
That disposability has made us keenly aware of what we’ve lost, and inspired a passion for hardware that can, well, take a licking and keep on clicking. As one Reddit user recently commented, "Those bastards are the ORIGINAL gaming keyboards. No matter how much you abuse it, you’ll die before it does."