The IBM Model M & Mechanical Keyboards: A Love Story
By Dylan Herts ’13, Staff Writer
We spend a lot of time in front of our computers, and almost every second of that time we use a keyboard. The strange thing is that, for as much money as we spend on gigahertz and gigabytes, we spend little money and even less attention to our main input device. Most users use whichever plastic freebie keyboard came in the box with their desktop, and we predicate laptop choices on screen size and speed before we consider the quality of a machine’s QWERTY. Aftermarket keyboards cater to gamers, and they feature clusters of macro buttons and additional keys for all the different ways you could toss a grenade while still using the same cheap, mass-produced internal mechanisms. It didn’t used to be this way.

Before the advent of the inexpensive rubber-dome and scissor switches, new machines came paired with more expensive, more durable mechanical keyboards. Built to last dozens of years, mechanical keyboards used springs and metal frame actions that were loud, fast and comfortable. But as computers themselves declined in cost and more inexpensive methods of board manufacturing became feasible, International Business Machines (IBM) and other companies outsourced keyboard production and began shipping the plastic keyboards seen today.

Mechanical keyboards are still in use today, and available for purchase. Specialist companies offer new, high-end mechanical boards for upwards of $50. They offer models for gamers, typists, programmers and Mac users. Other companies, like Unicomp, have purchased the manufacturing rights to IBM’s former product line and sell them new in the same price range. Some of the old units, however, have stuck around and are prized possessions for any computer enthusiast. Foremost among these mechanical dinosaurs is the legendary IBM Model M No. 1391401.

In 1978, an inventor named Richard Hunter Harris was granted a patent for a mechanism he named “the Buckling Spring Torsional Snap Actuator,” which used a tough metal spring that buckled under the weight of a key press to recognize a key stroke. Seven years later, IBM began to ship the IBM Model M with its new computer sales all over the world. Manufacture of the Model M, in all its variants, continued at IBM until it was outsourced to a company called Lexmark and finally, in 1994, production ceased altogether. These days the only place to purchase one is on eBay for about $50 or, as I did, at a lower price from a fellow computer nerd.

My IBM Model M is a No. 1391401, at once the most common and the most coveted variant number. It’s a flat beige color with a layout identical to modern boards (absent a Windows key, since it didn’t exist back then), and weighs a hefty five pounds because of its solid steel internal back-plate. It uses an old PS/2 connection no longer found on laptop computers, and would require a specific USB adapter if I wanted to use it on anything other than a desktop. There’s a placard on the back displaying its variant number and its date of birth: Oct. 16, 1991. All in all, it’s a classic keyboard that has earned its legendary reputation.

Mechanical keyboards are loud, but they type like a dream. The Model M’s buckling springs are fast and resistant, and the keys spring back into place with a metallic click as soon as you’ve depressed them. I’m an average typist, and the keyboard still flies through words and sentences, clattering all the while. The result is an experience that, as one friend described it, “sounds like a hacker movie.” It’s fast, it’s fun, and you won’t believe the difference a mechanical keyboard makes until you’ve tried one.

That said, mechanical models are not the cheapest on the market. Vintage Model M’s start at $50 on eBay, and require a specialized USB to PS/2 adapter for your laptop, while a brand new Unicomp model (with USB compatibility) will run you a solid $80. There’s also a premium on Mac capability; mechanical keyboards with the Apple-specific Command/Option buttons, which aren’t entirely necessary, start at over $100. Quality keyboards will cost you, but keep in mind that this is a one-time purchase that should last a couple decades.

I tend to recommend products a lot, so I’ll leave it at this: the purchase of a mechanical keyboard has been the most significant upgrade to my computer. Throw out your plastic freebie board, and find a mechanical model used or new. Whether it’s a sleek, quiet Das Professional Silent or a celebrated IBM Model M, this is a component that will outlive several computers and be useful for years to come. That fact alone places mechanical keyboards, some of which are still in use 25 years later, in a class by themselves among computer hardware.

Issue 14, Submitted 2011-02-08 23:17:05