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Input Devices Hardware

The Evolution of the Computer Keyboard 201

Lucas123 writes "As anyone who's typed on a virtual keyboard — or yelled at a voice-control app like Siri — can attest, no current text input holds a candle to a traditional computer keyboard. From the reed switch keyboards of the early '70s to the buckling spring key mechanism that drove IBM's popular PC keyboards for years to ThinTouch technology that will have about half the travel of a MacBook Air's keys, the technology that drove data entry for decades isn't likely to go anywhere anytime soon. This article takes a look back on five decades of keyboard development and where it's likely to go in the future."
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The Evolution of the Computer Keyboard

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  • Down with QWERTY! (Score:3, Insightful)

    by mister_playboy ( 1474163 ) on Friday November 02, 2012 @01:03PM (#41854635)

    Free your hands from the illogical tyranny of Remington's terrible legacy!

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dvorak_Simplified_Keyboard [wikipedia.org]

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      Switched 11 years ago and haven't regretted it once.

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward
      I understand where QWERTY came from. So how can you call that a DVORAK keyboard? It looks like a "PYFG keyboard to me.
      • by zill ( 1690130 )
        It came from the keyboard designer's name: August Dvorak [wikipedia.org].

        It's really too bad that Qwerty is lot more catchier than Dvorak. Mr. Qwerty probably suffered a lot of bullying as a child but thanks to his catchy name his design won out in the end and thus his legacy will remain with us for millennia (until we get cybernetic man-machine interfaces).
  • To this day I still want a space cadet keyboard.. so hard to find, and so many meta keys.

  • by telchine ( 719345 ) on Friday November 02, 2012 @01:05PM (#41854667)

    ...eye prefer two ewes speech recognition in sted

  • No mention of any home computer keyboard. No mention of the PCjr and its infamous chicklet keyboard. No mention of the classic Apple Extended Keyboard. It's as if keyboard history went directly from the Model M to Dell Quietkeys with nothing in between.

    • by gman003 ( 1693318 ) on Friday November 02, 2012 @01:11PM (#41854765)

      It's ComputerWorld, did you really expect a *good* article?

    • But there have been no keyboards since the Model M.

      Typed with joy on my Model M keyboard.
    • Indeed. We need to also remember how bad [pcworld.com] things can be when you try to cut corners - Atari 400, Tandy CoCo, the original Commodore Pet, Timex / Sinclair.
      • by arth1 ( 260657 )

        The submitter of that article obviously had never tried an Oric 1 [old-computers.com] or Sharp MZ-80K [old-computers.com] keyboard.
        The Oric had really hard "line" keys.
        The Sharp had so sharp keys they would cut you.

    • by h4rr4r ( 612664 )

      How is the Model M not a home computer keyboard?

      They are still the best, since they don't die their period has not passed.

      This one I am typing on is likely older than many slashdot posters.

      • by Cinder6 ( 894572 )

        I had a Model M back in the day. It was nice, but it's gone. Right now I'm tying on a das Keyboard. I like it a lot, though I'll be honest--I type faster on Apple's laptop keyboards. Their short travel distance is more advantageous for me than a mechanical switch, it seems, even if the das is more satisfying to type on.

        • ..though I'll be honest--I type faster on Apple's laptop keyboards...

          Really? I have both a mech keyboard (same keyswitches as Das) and a macbook and I'm much faster on the mech keyboard. Travel length isn't that much if you are just hitting the keys until they register (i.e. click) rather than bottoming them out (which is kind of the point of a mechanical).

          • by Cinder6 ( 894572 )

            Yeah. I have a tendency to bottom-out when typing. It's a pretty dramatic difference--almost 25%.

    • No mention of the PCjr and its infamous chicklet keyboard

      ...and no mention of the poor bastards who had to 'type' on a Commodore PET keyboard:

      http://www.geekyard.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Commodore-PET-2001-1977-.jpg [geekyard.com]

    • Some of us are still stuck on a Model M.

      Connected via a DIN-9 to PS2 to USB series of adapters.... and I have 2 spares in my garage should my original ever die.

  • The weird split ergo keyboard that many folks either loved or hated comes to mind. I'm happy with my hybrid, a cheap Microsoft "comfort curve" that gives some of the alignment effect of the ergo-board without actually separating the keys.

    I also had a really nifty folding accordion keyboard for my Palm Pilot a decade ago. After folding, it was locked up tight in its permanent hard case, and it was safer than the actual Palm (and about the same size.)

    And now Microsoft's new integrated smart cover keyboa
    • by arth1 ( 260657 )

      I like one Microsoft keyboard - the one where the keypad can be moved from the right side to the left.
      That makes it possible to have the keyboard directly in front of you while still not stretching to reach the mouse.

      The whole WASD for games was done because of this design flaw with the numeric pad on the right. If it had been on the left, we surely would have used 8456 instead.

      I believe there are more gamers and mouse users than those unable to operate a keypad with their left hand, so I think it's time f

    • by Nexzus ( 673421 )
      You can pry my Microsoft Natural 4K Keyboard from my cold dead, non-carpal hands. I've dragged my current one through 3 jobs now, and I have a spare BNIB.
  • by ciscoguy01 ( 635963 ) on Friday November 02, 2012 @01:19PM (#41854865)
    As I sit here typing this on a circa 1984 IBM Model M Clicky Keyboard!
    The finest keyboard ever made.
    I have had this one for >10 years.
    None of the keyboard markings have worn off. Heh. Yes, you can still find them around.
    • They are still made (Score:5, Informative)

      by sirwired ( 27582 ) on Friday November 02, 2012 @01:29PM (#41854973)

      A company called Unicomp still makes the Model M. They purchased the original tooling from IBM/Lexmark and make the keyboards in Lexington, Kentucky.

    • I miss my old clicky keyboard. I have been meaning to pick up a modified USB model, but have not gotten around to it. PS2 to USB adapters don't work that well at boot time. We still use them for some of our lab equipment. I agree they are the best keyboards ever made.
      • The website is currently down due to Sandy, but go buy the one on this page [clickykeyboards.com] and use it with your M. I no longer have an M - it died due to coffee spill - but that adapter worked perfectly. I keep it around just in case I ever pass by another M and can't resist myself.
    • by Jawnn ( 445279 )

      None of the keyboard markings have worn off. Heh. Yes, you can still find them around.

      You're welcome. :) I used to work in an injection molding facility that made key tops, the a's, b's, 1's, 2's, space bars and whatnot. Back in the day, this was a two-part process, the guts of the key (the part that attached to the underlying switch as well as the character itself) were molded in one "shot", then the key itself was molded around that, in a contrasting color, of course. Since the characters were molded into the key, there was nothing to "wear off". The keyboard I'm using at the moment appear

      • by Cinder6 ( 894572 )

        Cool info. My das Keyboard has "laser-etched" keycaps, and I've always wondered how long that will last. I would have bought the blank version, but other people in the family would have freaked out at that. If only they weren't so expensive, I would buy another.

      • And there are still new keyboards that use them.

        Check out geekhack.org for all things keyboard.

      • You probably made the ones for the IBM typewriters, I remember, "Double shot molded".
        You see, our forefathers knew what was necessary, they made things to last.
        Now, you buy a keyboard and in 6 months the home row keys are worn off.
        30 or 40 years ago you'd buy a washer, dryer or refrigerator and in 25 years it was still working.
        Now, you're lucky if it lasts 5 years. They know it too, they have MBAs at the factory working on cheapening the parts to make them fail, so you will buy another.
  • by PolygamousRanchKid ( 1290638 ) on Friday November 02, 2012 @01:19PM (#41854867)

    I still have fond memories of this here gadget: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teletype_Model_33 [wikipedia.org]

    It made a hell of a racket, but the keyboard had this light, crisp touch . . .

    And hell, it gave you a hard copy history of what you had done, and paper tape, on the side. Good for making confetti for High School Pep Rallies.

    • Oh no. I sat in front of them for hours. But then the college got some of those newfangled "glass TTYs", yay!

  • by scorp1us ( 235526 ) on Friday November 02, 2012 @01:25PM (#41854929) Journal

    The biggest reason I have not returned to the iPhone is the lack of a swipe style keyboard. After adapting to it, I refuse to go back to pecking words out with my thumbs, so no iPhones until I can get swype. It has several advantages:
    - Word entry without looking
    - one-handed text entry (single thumb swipes out a word in the same time two could tap it, while being held in the same hand.)

    Swype's implementation isn't flawless though. They haven't figured out it is about word shape. The biggest problem is the limited character set. On a phone in landscape, or anything bigger than a phone you should have a keyboard on one side and an alternate (numberic pad) on the other. Since we don't need to hit specific keys anymore, we can reduce the overall area dedicated to displaying the keyboard and just show one for reference (aiming) and determine the word by the shape traced out. Have a button for enlarging it for the odd word that isn't in the dictionary and you're done.

    Once swype (or any other keyboard (swift key?) realizes that, we'll have the best touch keyboard we can have without a fill-size button board.

    • Totally agree. Typing with one thumb at a speed close to two-hand typing is brilliant. However, they really need to figure out a way to add some kind of gesture to prevent the really common misreads - out/put/pot/pit, if/it/of, so forth - the "bounce from letter to letter to specify" feature doesn't work that well. At least we no longer get "Errol" when trying to type "will" or "well".

      If they could license the prediction code from Swiftkey, the combination would be almost unbeatable.
      • That's why you enable the suggestion bar. 9/10 times it'll be on there, if not, at least one my phone, I can slide it to the right for more choices.

    • I had swype for a year on my evo but either I never got accustomed to it or the software never picked up how I write or I do some weird kind of word shape thing because it would give me - at best - 50% error rates for each word.

  • by sirwired ( 27582 ) on Friday November 02, 2012 @01:25PM (#41854933)

    The true evolution of the computer keyboard stopped with the mighty, never-equaled, IBM Model M. Every "innovation" since then has been a poor compromise in comparison.

    • by mcgrew ( 92797 ) *

      I disagree. My old Model M had a short, coiled cord. My Logitech keyboard has no cord. I'd say that's quite an improvement, especially since I use the TV for a monitor and sit across the room from the computer.

      • Ya know, the Model M keyboard cords came any way you wanted them.
        I have some with short cords like you describe, and I have some with cords 10' long. They made whatever you needed. It's not a replacement for a wireless keyboard, but they do serve different purposes.
        You want clicky, definite keypresses and you don't mind the sound, or you want to be able to sit back on the couch.
      • Have you ever heard of an extension cord? And it was only necessary if you couldn't procure a straight-through cord to attach to the models with detachable cords (which was most of them.)

        And, of course, you can get a brand-new Model M today with USB if you like.

    • by ciscoguy01 ( 635963 ) on Friday November 02, 2012 @02:49PM (#41856299)
      What's interesting about that is IBM made nearly all the typewriters, and they made those keycaps to last because that was the right thing to do.
      They didn't do it because of competition- they had almost none. They owned 90% of the market.
      They didn't do it because anyone demanded it.
      They did it because it was the product they wanted to make. Designed to last, to perform better than the market even demanded.
      Contrast that to how things are designed and made today.
      Cheaper, obsolescent, designed to fail sooner rather than later. To make you buy a new one. It's sad really.
      • by tlhIngan ( 30335 )

        What's interesting about that is IBM made nearly all the typewriters, and they made those keycaps to last because that was the right thing to do.
        They didn't do it because of competition- they had almost none. They owned 90% of the market.
        They didn't do it because anyone demanded it.
        They did it because it was the product they wanted to make. Designed to last, to perform better than the market even demanded.
        Contrast that to how things are designed and made today.
        Cheaper, obsolescent, designed to fail

    • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 ) *

      Laptops would still be classed as "luggable" if they had Model M style keyboards. I used to love mechanical clickyness as well, but then I discovered Thinkpad keyboards.

      These days a few manufacturers do good ones, including Microsoft's desktop range. I developed arthritis in my hands so perhaps I'm not a typical case, but they really are very comfortable to type on and nice and quiet for use in a shared space.

      • IMO, they were the best laptop keyboards around - unfortunately, someone thought that "chiclet keyboards with flat tops are kewl!" and now all of the recent laptops I've seen for sale have keyboards that SUCK. Don't even get me started on the incredible disappearing TrackPoint.

        The flat keytop nonsense has spread to desktop keyboards as well. HELLO?! Does anyone actually TEST these things to see if they're actually useful for typing?

  • where you can simply think what you want to "type" and the computer does it.

    Heck, at least it'd spell the end of RSI. Some keyboard designs are better than others in this regard, but none actually prevent it entirely

    • You really really don't want that. I mean, can you think of how many lawsuits might result from ... Hey, look, that blond chick has really hot legs ... interjected thoughts ... I really need to go take a leak right now ... that happen in normal human thought patterns.

      • You really really don't want that.

        Yes you do. Primitive brain-to-computer interfaces have already been built and they do NOT have the problem you predict. We can train our brains to control which thoughts get translated into keystrokes just like anyone without Tourette syndrome can control which thoughts get translated into speech.

        Direct brain-to-computer interfaces will probably be common in less than a decade.

    • by zill ( 1690130 )
      Advantage: Porn pop-up click-through rate increased by 800%

      Disadvantage: Porn pop-up click-through rate increased by 800%
  • only thing that will completely replace the keyboard and make it obsolete is direct brain-wave scanning.

  • by mark_reh ( 2015546 ) on Friday November 02, 2012 @01:32PM (#41855025) Journal

    I can enter text in Swype faster with one thumb than I can type (of course, I never learned to type and have to look at the keys while I peck away with 3 or four fingers).

  • by mc6809e ( 214243 ) on Friday November 02, 2012 @01:34PM (#41855045)

    Having the CTRL on the bottom row is next to useless. And how many people use the capslocks key?

    Putting CTRL back to where it was would make keyboard shortcuts easier to use.

    • by h4rr4r ( 612664 )

      You can make that change yourself. I do on every computer I use. I map CAPS-Lock to crtl and crtl to capslock on linux on OSX I use caps-lock for crtl and crtl for command. I also use a Model M that weighs more than my Air.

    • Some Matias keyboards place Ctrl on the home row where Caps Lock usually is, and the Caps & Num Locks down between the right Alt & Ctrl. There are also utilities available to remap Caps Lock to Ctrl, but I’m not sure they work on all keyboards I’m thinking of the old ones where Caps Lock is an actual mechanical toggle that remains semi-depressed when activated, like on a typewriter. Haven’t seen that feature in quite a while, come to think of it.

  • by Animats ( 122034 ) on Friday November 02, 2012 @01:39PM (#41855105) Homepage

    It's a useful article on keyboard mechanisms, and it's a good discussion of the tradeoffs between thin keyboards and ergonomics. The history is weak.

    There's no mention of key rollover, or "can you push a key before releasing the previous key"? Modern keyboards report a key down and key up event for each key, so rollover can be unlimited. Early keyboards struggled with this. The Selectric, and Teletype machines, were mechanically interlocked against multiple key-presses. Some early keyboards wouldn't handle two keys down at the same time at all.

    The feedback issue was a big one. Some keyboards clicked, some had a "clicker" inside to create the illusion that they clicked, and some beeped, an annoyance which has returned with some touch screens.

    It's amusing that iPad-like devices have reverted to a 3-row keyboard with multiple shifts. That's where Teletype machines were a century ago. The keyboard layout of an iPad [daringfireball.net] is very similar to that of a 1930s Teletype. [wikimedia.org]

    • by Misagon ( 1135 )

      No, you are wrong about rollover. Practically only the best mechanical gaming keyboards these days have unlimited rollover, because of there being a diode for each switch in the matrix.

      Most inexpensive keyboards have instead a matrix that is optimized so that keys that are commonly used together don't block each other ..
      There are still combinations of keys that do.
      Modern cheap gaming keyboards these days have matrices that are optimized so that the keys in and around the WASD cluster can be used together.


  • by xanthos ( 73578 ) <xanthos@toERDOSke.com minus math_god> on Friday November 02, 2012 @01:42PM (#41855141)

    When ever a keyboard article come along you get a bunch of old farts pining away about their venerable old Model M keyboards.

    I know. I am an old fart and I have one. I love it but unfortunately it ruined me. I am totally unable to use a laptop keyboard.

    They all suck. suck suck suck. The keys are in the wrong place, they don't feel right, and I keep hitting the effing touchpad with my thumbs and suddenly I am typing a porn url in the browser bar.

    Now get off my lawn!

    • by h4rr4r ( 612664 )

      I agree, the keyboard I am typing on is likely older than some of the posters in this thread.

      Model M or nothing!

    • When ever a keyboard article come along you get a bunch of old farts pining away about their venerable old Model M keyboards.

      Laptop keyboards today remind me of the old IBM 029 Card Punch http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keypunch#IBM_029_Card_Punch [wikipedia.org] . That keyboard had a very short action that just didn't feel right to me. Although, I have been able to adapt to laptop keyboards. My ThinkPad W520 is ok.

      Now get off my lawn!

      You young pre-punch-card-kids and your lawns . . .

  • stop already (Score:4, Interesting)

    by wbr1 ( 2538558 ) on Friday November 02, 2012 @02:09PM (#41855591)
    Enough of the QWERTY Dvorak partisan bickering! We can all use a twiddler: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chorded_keyboard [wikipedia.org]
  • The two best keyboards i've had. I've put my M into storage because the LIK gives me just as much feedback minus the noise, and isn't some membrane abomination -- it's a scissors action. Key dip is halfway between an M and a laptop keyboard. The feedback is amazing. No ambiguity at all -- you either hit it, or you didn't.

    That it's sleek and backlit and looks like it belongs in this century are bonus points. I don't think, however, that it'll live nearly as long in daily use as a model M, however, my LI

  • Eat you heart out -- I'm the 'friend' in this story, owner of this
    magnificent Memorex Telex 122 keyboard:
    http://loosen.home.xs4all.nl/memorex_telex/index.html [xs4all.nl]

    All this here typed on a Sun Type 5 keyboard (attached to a Linux
    box) for which I made the interface myself. Latter keyboard has
    keybeep (5kHz for 2ms with each keystroke), Yea!

  • Is my old Apple IIGS keyboard. I still have the original one I got in third grade, it still works great with the USB ADB connector widget I bought years ago, and it's loud as hell.

    What a fine piece of technology.

An elephant is a mouse with an operating system.