The Origin of QWERTY

There are very few things that are surrounded with as much hearsay and rumor as the origins of the QWERTY layout of typewriters and keyboards. The reason behind the QWERTY layout isn’t as simple as ‘so the bars for each letter don’t collide with each other.’ That’s nonsense – it would make far more sense to improve the mechanism before changing the arrangement of the keyboard around.

That’s not the only fallacious argument for the creation of QWERTY. It’s also been called a marketing ploy; Stephen Jay Gould popularized the idea of the QWERTY keyboard being as it is so a salesman could peck out TYPE WRITER on the top row [1]. This also makes little sense. Why would the top row and not the home row be so privileged as to contain all the letters the make up the name of the machine. For that matter, wouldn’t a sales pitch be more impressive if TYPE WRITER were typed with one hand?

This doesn’t mean there’s not a method behind the madness of QWERTY – it’s just not as simple as jammed typewriter mechanisms or appeasing the wishes of salesmen in the 1870s. QWERTY didn’t come out of thin air, though, but folk tale history of this keyboard layout is sadly deficient.

Continue reading “The Origin of QWERTY”

Reviving The Best Keyboard Ever

For the last few decades, the computer keyboard has been seen as just another peripheral. There’s no need to buy a quality keyboard, conventional wisdom goes, because there’s no real difference between the fancy, ‘enthusiast’ keyboards and ubiquitous Dell keyboards that inhabit the IT closets of offices the world over.

Just like the mechanic who will only buy a specific brand of wrenches, the engineer who has a favorite pair of tweezers, or the amateur woodworker who uses a hand plane made 150 years ago, some people who use keyboards eight or twelve hours a day have realized the older tools of the trade are better. Old keyboards, or at least ones with mechanical switches, aren’t gummy, they’re precise, you don’t have to hammer on them to type, and they’re more ergonomic. They sound better. Even if it’s just a placebo effect, it doesn’t matter: there’s an effect.

This realization has led to the proliferation of high-end keyboards and keyboard aficionados hammering away on boards loaded up with Cherry MX, Alps, Gateron, Topre, and other purely ‘mechanical’ key switches. Today, there are more options available to typing enthusiasts than ever before, even though some holdouts are still pecking away at the keyboard that came with the same computer they bought in 1989.

The market is growing, popularity is up, and with that comes a herculean effort to revive what could be considered the greatest keyboard of all time. This is the revival of the IBM 4704 terminal keyboard. Originally sold to banks and other institutions, this 62-key IBM Model F keyboard is rare and coveted. Obtaining one today means finding one behind a shelf in an IT closet, or bidding $500 on an eBay auction and hoping for the best.

Now, this keyboard is coming back from the dead, and unlike the IBM Model M that has been manufactured continuously for 30 years, the 62-key IBM Model F ‘Kishsaver’ keyboard is being brought back to life by building new molds, designing new circuit boards, and remanufacturing everything IBM did in the late 1970s.
Continue reading “Reviving The Best Keyboard Ever”

Hack a PS/2 Keyboard Onto Your Pi Zero

Hacking for the Raspberry Pi Zero is a tricky proposition. Whatever you do, you’re working with a nominal five dollar board, so your hacks can’t be too highfalutin. For instance, a decent PS/2 to USB adapter will cost you as much as the Zero did, if not more. But if you just need to drive your Pi Zero from your old Model M (we hear you!) you’ve got to do it on the cheap.

So when prolific Pi hacker [mincepi] set out to build a PS/2 adapter, some corners were cut. PS/2 is a clocked data protocol, but the good news is that the clock doesn’t start and stop all the time as in I2C or SPI. This means that if you poll the data line at just the right frequency, at least in principle you’ll be able to ignore the clock.

ps2-schematic_border

So that’s what [mincepi] did. As you can see in the schematic and the banner image, there’s nothing to it. Two resistors provide the pullup voltage for the clock and data lines. And here’s a gem: a green LED with a drop voltage of about 2 V converts the 5 V data line down to something that the Pi Zero’s 3.3 V won’t get fried with. Cute, and very much in keeping with the spirit of the hack. You might be tempted to scrounge up a 3.3 V zener diode from somewhere just to be on the safe side, but remember, it’s a five dollar computer you’re protecting.

The last piece is a custom kernel module for the Pi that polls the PS/2 data line at just the right frequency. If you’re not a Linux person and “compiling a kernel module” sounds scary, [mincepi] has even put together a nice guide for the Raspbian distribution that he’s using. It should work with minor tweaks for any other distro.

We said [mincepi] is a prolific Pi hacker and here’s the proof: we’ve covered his quick-and-dirty VGA output hack and a scheme to get analog sound input into the Pi Zero just in the last couple of weeks. Hack on!

PS/2 Keyboard for Raspberry Pi

A lot of people can bake a cake. Sort of. Most of us can bake a cake if we have a cake mix. Making a cake from scratch is a different proposition. Sure, you know it is possible, but in real life, most of us just get a box of cake mix. The Raspberry Pi isn’t a cake (or even a pie), but you could make the same observation about it. You know the Raspberry Pi is just an ARM computer, you could program it without running an available operating system, but realistically you won’t. This is what makes it fun to watch those that are taking on this challenge.

[Deater] is writing his own Pi operating system and he faced a daunting problem: keyboard input. Usually, you plug a USB keyboard into the Pi (or a hub connected to the Pi). But this only works because of the Linux USB stack and drivers exist. That’s a lot of code to get working just to get simple keyboard input working for testing and debugging. That’s why [Deater] created a PS/2 keyboard interface for the Pi.

Even if you aren’t writing your own OS, you might find it useful to use a PS/2 keyboard to free up a USB port, or maybe you want to connect that beautiful Model-M keyboard without a USB adapter. The PS/2 keyboard uses a relatively simple clock and data protocol that is well-understood. The only real issue is converting the 5V PS/2 signals to 3.3V for the Pi (and vice versa, of course).

Continue reading “PS/2 Keyboard for Raspberry Pi”

Touch Piano Hits All the Right Notes

We love a good musical build, and this one is no exception. For their ECE4760 final project, [Wendian Jiang], [Hanchen Jin], and [Lin Wang] of Cornell built the nicest-looking touch piano we’ve seen in a while. It has five 4051 multiplexers that take input from 37 capacitive touch keys fashioned from aluminium foil and copper tape. Thanks to good debounce code, the sounds are clean even though the keyboard is capable of four-note polyphony.

A PIC32 and a Charge Time Measurement Unit (CTMU) module generate a small, steady current that charges up the keys. The PIC scans the pins continuously waiting for touch input. When human capacitance is detected, the value is compared with the base capacitance using the ADC and the sound is generated with the Karplus-Strong algorithm.

The group’s original plans for the project included a TFT screen to show the notes on a staff as they are played. While that would have been awesome, there was just too much going on already to be able to accurately capture the notes as well as their duration. Check it out after the break.

Continue reading “Touch Piano Hits All the Right Notes”

NFC Tags Add Old-School Functionality to New Phone

Back in the day, we had smartphones with physical buttons. Not just power, volume, and maybe another button on the front. Whole, slide-out QWERTY keyboards right on the underside of the phone. It was a lawless wasteland, but for those who yearn for the wild-west days of the late 2000s, [Liviu] has recreated the shortcut buttons that used to exist on the tops of these keyboards for modern-day smartphones.

There were lots of phones that had shortcut keys on their keyboards, but [Liviu] enjoyed using the ones that allowed him to switch between applications (or “apps” as the kids are saying these days) such as the calendar, the browser, or the mail client. To recreate this, he went with a few NFC tags. These devices are easily programmed via a number of apps from your app store of choice, and can be placed essentially anywhere. In order to make them visible to the phone at any time, though, he placed the tags inside a clear plastic case for his phone and can now use them anytime.

If you’ve never used or programmed an NFC tag, this would be a great project to get yourself acquainted with how they operate. Plus, you could easily upgrade this project to allow the tags to do any number of other things. You can take projects like this as far as you want.

Continue reading “NFC Tags Add Old-School Functionality to New Phone”

A Better, Open Hardware Keyboard

A keyboard is the most important tool in the modern desk jockey’s arsenal but, despite this fact, millions of people suffer the $10 membrane keyboards that shipped with the computer they got a decade ago. It’s a terrible way to live your life, but for those of us who are enlightened, there’s another way: mechanical keyboards. [Mário] over at the Bit Bang Theory just built his own mechanical keyboard with his own homebrew firmware and a few interesting features that aren’t found in other open hardware keyboard projects.

The ‘from scratch’ aspect of this build is somewhat of a misnomer; the key switches used in this build were taken from a Monterey K108, and the key caps were taken from a keyboard with a Portuguese layout. Once the switches were in place and soldered up, it was time for the electronics.

While most homebrew keyboards these days use a Teensy 2 thanks to some amazing firmware and development tools that have grown up around this device, there’s not a Teensy to be found inside this keyboard. The keyboard controller is built around a PIC18F4550 and uses the USB available on the chip. Naturally, there are more than a few WS2812b RGB LEDs around the edge of the keyboard that “breathe”, run a KITT-style LED chaser, or simply display a single chosen color.

There are a few neat features in this keyboard controller that aren’t readily available with other open source keyboard firmwares. There’s a keylogger, macro recorder, and a toggle macro that will activate or deactivate a (secret) internal 8GB USB storage key. Settings are saved in the internal EEPROM.

It’s a great looking build, and something we don’t see enough of around here. In any event, it’s just one step further towards eliminating the menace of cheap keyboards, and something we hope to see more of soon.