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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
1981 IBM PC/XT
1984 IBM PC/AT
1985 IBM Model M
2014 Unicomp Ultra Classic