USB NeXT Keyboard

USB NeXT Keyboard

[Ladyada] and [pt] had an old keyboard from NeXT, but since it used a custom protocol it wasn’t usable with modern hardware. So they built a custom device to convert the NeXT protocol to USB.

The device uses a Arduino Micro to read data from the keyboard and communicate as a HID device over USB. It connects to the keyboard using the original mini-DIN connector, and is housed in the classic Altoids tin enclosure.

Since the protocol used by NeXT isn’t standard, they had to figure it out and write some code to interpret it. The keyboard communicates bidirectionally with the computer, so they needed to send the correct frames to key data back.

Fortunately, they hit on a Japanese keyboard enthusiast’s site, which had protocol specifications. They implemented this protocol on the Micro, and used the Keyboard library to create a HID device.

The final product is an adapter for NeXT to USB, which allows for the old keyboards to be used on any computer with USB. It’s a good way to bring back life to some otherwise unusable antique hardware.


  1. Wretch says:

    Well, that confirms it: I’m a moron. I had 2 of these keyboards and gave them away.

  2. Solenoid says:

    What’s a NeXT keyboard? Why would anybody go trough all this trouble for a keyboard?

    • They were the keyboards for the defunct NeXT Computer, which was a company Steve Jobs founded after he was ousted from Apple. I think the main reason for the hack is nostalgia value, and to teach people how to make HID keyboards on the Arduino Micro.

    • DanJ says:

      There is all the history about NeXT and its relation to Apple. Also Sir Tim Berners-Lee implemented the very first web server and web browser on a NeXT Cube. There were some very interesting technical aspects to the machine.

      The article implies the “feel” of the keyboard is desirable.

      IMHO, the real invention in this hack occurred by the Japanese person who reverse engineered the protocol and the author of the HID Library.

    • DD says:

      Because it is a lovely keyboard to use, because it is a challenge to be solved, because they can.
      Did you really want an answer or did you just want to be a dick?

    • Erich says:

      The ousted Steve Jobs founded NeXT which developed the Mach microkernel based NeXT OS on 68k, then subsequently ported it to x86 hardware.
      Apple, running into MacOS7 design limitations, looked at NeXT OS and BeOS (Be Inc. was started by Jean-Louis Gassée, another Apple alumnus) and chose NeXT along with Steve Jobs. Apple quickly distributed a copy of Rhapsody to developers as the replacement after MacOS 7/8/9, and was in fact x86 NeXT OS with a few changes that could be installed on an x86 PC (I still have the Rhapsody CD set). Soon after, Apple got Rhapsody running on PowerPC, which became OS X, which has now been ported back to x86 it seems. The NeXT cube is a living piece of history!!

  3. Jax Coldwolf says:

    A good hack, especially considering how odd the keyboard protocol on these things is. I became intimately familiar with it when I repaired a NeXT computer that wouldn’t work with any keyboards. if anyone’s interested.

    • henderson101 says:

      But was that a Next ADB or non-ADB keyboard?The ADB ones are Apple ADB compatible, so any Apple ADB device “should” work, as would an off the shelf ADB -> USB converter. The non-ADB ones are probably a whole different world of pain though.

    • pfh666 says:

      Is this an ADB or non ADB? The ADB ones were Apple ADB compatible. You can buy an ADB to USB adapter pretty cheaply now.

  4. Montaray Jack says:

    IIRC one of the NeXT black and gold manuals had details on the pinouts for the cableing and some other details of the protocols. The SysAdmin manual maybe.
    Of course, its been a while and I’ve slept since then, so I might be mistaken.

    There were a few other hacks back in the day of getting non-NeXT keyboards running on slabs, and NeXT keyboards running on PC’s through the PS2 connector, probably detailed on usenet archives.

    NeXTSTEP for Intel Processors was a little more skimpy on the documentation than what came with the slabs or cubes. If I find my old manuals in a box somewhere, I’ll post more info.

    • Montaray Jack says:

      One of the fun things I did once was hook up a old DECWriter LA36 to the serial port. I had intended to do anything as root on the Teletype to keep a record for the others at work. Plus I thought it would be cool and useful to pipe the console to the tty. We had several LA36’s sitting around wasting space. I never was able to get the termcap right for the LA36 and the text would gradually walk to the right. The same DECWriter worked just fine on our old DataGeneral, so something was flaky on the NeXT side of things.
      Nethack on a teletype is a huge waste of paper ;-)

    • Montaray Jack says:

      Nope. All I have left is the 3.1 Nextstep box and Simson Garfinkle’s programming book and a couple of old copys of NeXTWorld Including the one with this

      Mmmmm, burning magnesium.

  5. Avro says:

    This is a great keyboard. Nice compact layout, high quality Alps key switches, no Caps Lock key.

    The NeXT keyboard employed a couple of tricks to accommodate its compact layout that are worth considering if you plan to implementing something yourself.

    There is no Caps Lock key. Instead, Caps is enabled with the Command+Shift key combo, which turns on the green LEDs on either shift key.

    The Escape key is next to the “1” key, where the back-tick/tilde key would be. This would be a problem for Unix users, however, pressing the Shift+Escape produces a tilde character just as with a more traditional keyboard layout. It’s a nice touch for Unix users.

  6. DainBramage1991 says:

    This is a fine hack but…
    This seems like trying to repair a CFL light bulb just for the challenge: Interesting and possibly fun, but ultimately it’s much more efficient to just replace it with a new one for $3.

  7. Galane says:

    I bet this could be modified to make those Apple Cassie prototype keyboards work with a Mac or PC.

  8. CG says:

    Awesome. I might actually use that, though then I would need a reverse USB Keyboard to NeXT adapter so I could still use my NeXT machine. Also, something for the NeXT mouse would be good.

  9. Great.
    I have a question! who can i use that in my PC??

  10. JoejoedancersSister says:

    It’s ok to let old tech die.

  11. REVENGE says:

    Seems like a lot of Hackaday posters either don’t know of or don’t care about mechanical keyboards.

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