Vintage Laptop Keyboard Types Again Through USB

Have you ever had a laptop you just wish you didn’t have to retire when its specification becomes to aged for your needs? Wouldn’t it be great if you could upgrade it and keep using the physical hardware!

[Alpinedelta] has a vintage Toshiba T1000 laptop, roughly a PC-XT clone from the late 1980s. Its 80C88 processor, CGA display, and 512k of memory make it a museum-piece, but he has plans to modernise it using a LattePanda Intel Atom based single board computer.

To make that happen, he has to ensure all the Toshiba’s peripherals will talk to a modern host. Unfortunately back in the 1980s many PC clones were clones in a rather loose sense, and especially so in the laptop arena. Thus there are no handy standard PC interfaces and since USB was several years away at the time, nothing the LattePanda can talk to directly. His solution for the keyboard is to wire its matrix directly to a Teensy microcontroller that then provides a USB interface, and he’s put up a useful step-by-step Instructables guide.

There is no standard for a laptop keyboard matrix, so the first and most tedious task is to unpick its layout.This he did by identifying each trace and assigning a different rainbow colour to it, before noting down which keys appeared on it and collating the results in a spreadsheet. The different colours of wire could then be assigned to the colours of a piece of rainbow ribbon cable, and wired in sequence to the Teensy’s I/O pins. There then follows a step in the software in which he assigns the pin mappings to the lines in his spreadsheet, then the sketch can be compiled and uploaded to the Teensy. Result: a vintage keyboard now talking USB.

Using a Teensy to present a USB keyboard to the world is a well-worn path, we’ve seen it with both newer keyboards and other relics like this one from a DEC VT100.

Thanks [Brent] for the tip.

24 thoughts on “Vintage Laptop Keyboard Types Again Through USB

    1. See, I misread this comment as “Fitting a pi into a 3.5″ floppy DISC” and now I’m seriously considering some kind of pogo pin setup or an edge connector such that I could desolder the connectors and somehow cram a Pi Zero into a floppy disc.

      Maybe a Zip Disc would be more lenient.

      I hate how many project ideas this site gives me.

      1. Yeah, you’re not the only one who thought a computer in a fake disc would be amusing after reading that post. Unless you want to make something you can actually fit in a disc drive and see if it can transfer the contents of a multi-gigabyte flash chip through the drive head, making it a little thicker to fit USB connectors on it doesn’t seem all that cheaty to me.

        1. Oh lord, this is the best idea ever. If nothing else, just to play Game Boy games on the Game Gear to make Sega spin in their grave. Combine it with the LCD upgrade, and you’d actually have a pretty nice system overall.

  1. I have a Tandy 1000HX. There are so many SBCs that would easily fit into its odd little expansion bay which is just a hair too small in one dimension for a Nano ITX board.

    I’ve thought of putting something small yet powerful in the bay and coming up with a way to switch the original keyboard between it and the Tandy. Shouldn’t be too difficult on the adapting part since the keyboard connects to the Tandy’s mainboard with a ribbon cable. Not one of those flimsy thin ones, a wire one, possibly heavier gauge than an old floppy drive cable.

      1. Linux is really handy like that. Decades since anyone’s actually used a serial terminal, good while since consumers last saw a serial port. But the abstraction remains! And there’s probably more hacks relying on it than actual serial terminals ever did.

    1. I grew up with one of those! Sometimes I think about getting another for old times sake. Then I think about all the clutter I already have and all the cool things I could be doing in that space with more up to date hardware if I ever manage to clean out said clutter…

  2. I’m reaching critical mass on my bluetooth camera shutter to keyboard project, it’s got to the point where I’m obviously not going to be able to vacuum up any more info off the web and have to figuratively start banging lumps of plutonium together to see what happens.

    1. Yeah but if it gets some actual love, being used regularly, then the little computer will be so happy! Loved by it’s master!

      I dunno the exact details of the Toshiba, I remember it was one of the first laptops, and super-popular at the time. But the screen might be a 320×200 CGA job, which limits it’s use a lot. I suppose text-mode only won’t be too bad for Linux terminal use, but you’d have a job getting X doing anything useful.

  3. Depending on the Type of Teensy (2.0 vs. 3.x) this keyboard controller has far more processing power than the original CPU :-)
    But more than the keyboard I see the issue of the display. Most Laptop screens do not have a standard interface. If somebody really wants to work on a CGA display today.

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