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.
The Rise Of Mechanical Keyboards
The first computer keyboards, found in the Commodore 64, the original Macintosh, and the first PCs were not the keyboards you would find being used today. These keyboards used mechanical switches with moving parts, a satisfying clack but were exceptionally expensive. There was also little standardization; the DEC VT100 terminal used complicated leaf spring switches made by Hi-Tek, the original Macintosh, Commodore Amiga, and Atari 800 used coiled spring switches from Mitsumi. IBM, though their typewriter division, manufactured their own key switches from the 1970s onward, beginning with a conversion of the Selectric typewriter for computer use to beam spring key switches in the 1970s to buckling spring switches in the 1980s.
Where the rest of the computer industry would slowly move away from mechanical key switches towards membrane or ‘rubber dome’ switches, IBM was surprisingly steadfast. The IBM Model F, the first keyboard to use buckling springs, would appear on the market with the System/23 in August of 1981, a month before the release of the original IBM PC. The IBM Model M keyboard would replace the Model F in 1985, but the basic mechanism remained the same: a spring would press a rocker in the base of the key, and the sufficient force was applied, the spring would ‘buckle’, pushing the rocker down onto a capacitive contacts or a membrane switch.
The usual mechanical key switch mechanisms found in high-end keyboards today – based on the Cherry MX and ALPS switches – do double duty as leaf springs and electrical contacts. The buckling spring mechanism is baroque in its complexity, relying on a spring and paddle to register a keypress. This complexity is assuredly not the result of building a keyboard down to a price point, and gives the buckling spring keyboards a satisfying tactile feel that only gets better after a few decades of use.
IBM sold the unit responsible for manufacturing the Model M to Lexmark in 1991, and in 1996, the employees at this plant purchased the rights and injection molds to create Unicomp. Yes, you can still buy a Model M keyboard made in Lexington, Kentucky for about the same price as what IBM was selling these keyboards for back in 1986. These are Model M keyboards, though, and the tooling and technology required to produce the arguably superior Model F keyboard disappeared off the face of the planet sometime in the 1980s.
IBM’s Model F keyboards look odd to the modern eye. Most keyboards from the 1970s and 1980s do as well. This was a time when keyboard layouts were in flux. Even the most common elements of the computer keyboard were constantly changing in this era. The ‘inverted T’ layout of the arrow keys was first popularized by the DEC LK201 keyboard from 1982, most commonly found in conjunction with the VT-220 terminal. Numpads were fairly common, but the keys underneath the left hand pinky – Control, Alt, Caps Lock, and Tab – wouldn’t be standardized until the mid 1980s. Even the Windows key, or whatever the key between the left Control and Alt keys is called, wouldn’t appear until 1994 with the Microsoft Natural Keyboard.
Although keyboard layout designs would standardise around the ANSI or ISO specifications sometime in the late 80s, there were still enthusiasts looking for compact and minimalist keyboards. Numpads weren’t necessary for these people, and everything was more efficient. The Control key was where the Caps Lock key was, as god intended. The Happy Hacking Keyboard, a tiny 60-key keyboard designed for *nix operating systems, became a status symbol. The age of keyboard enthusiasts had arrived.
Sometime around 2012, on a few of the Internet’s largest mechanical keyboard communities, news of a strange IBM keyboard made the rounds. It was small, with just 62 keys, made out of metal, and used the buckling spring key switches of the Model F. It was the IBM 4704, Part Number 6019284. This keyboard was re-discovered by a forum member named Kishy. Since IBM was wont to put a ‘space saver’ label on their smaller keyboards, the portmanteau ‘Kishsaver’ stuck.
The Kishsaver was a true Model F, made of metal, and could serve as an impromptu melee weapon in the event of a zombie apocalypse. It had the IBM aura about it, and it was rare. This wasn’t a keyboard that anyone buying a home computer would have had – this was a keyboard hooked up to terminals and connected to the main office’s mainframe. This was a keyboard that also had a relatively modern layout, and played to the minimalist proclivities of the mechanical keyboard enthusiast. Needless to say, demand outstripped supply, and today a Kishsaver will cost you about $500, if you can find it.
Remanufacturing The Kishsaver
Find any piece of popular, discontinued tech, and you’ll find a replica and reproduction. In the computer world, it’s easy to find a reproduction of the Apple I. This observation extends to classic cars, motorcycles, and even hand tools. It was almost inevitable a classic IBM keyboard would eventually be cloned and remanufactured, all it took was someone to pool their resources, find the people who could do the work, and start a business. All it would take is someone with a little bit of experience.
This person happened to be [Ellipse] on the Geekhack and Deskthority keyboard forums. He’s handled group buys for forum members for open source keyboard controllers that convert the ancient electronics inside IBM keyboards into something that speaks USB. These keyboard controllers were designed by [xwhatsit] as open source alternatives to old electronics boards, but as with so many electronics projects, a lot of people don’t want to deal with Mouser or Digikey orders, and they can’t handle a soldering iron anyway.
With a little bit of manufacturing under his belt, [Ellipse] turned to the Model F Kishsaver. He’s disassembled, repaired, cleaned, and restored a lot of these keyboards over the years, and after carefully measuring his collection of 77- and 122-key Model Fs, he had the data to start talking to manufacturers.
Like any manufacturing project these days, [Ellipse] turned to China. Of course the original molds and dies for the Kishsaver don’t exist anymore, but a lot of the legwork has already been done. The keyboard controller board was already taken care of thanks to [xwhatsit]’s modernization. The Model F keyboard is built around a huge PCB, and with a few Kishsavers floating around, reverse engineering this PCB proved relatively easy.
The problem, as with so many projects, is the mechanical design. Molds needed to be made, the right type of plastic for the conductive ‘flippers’ of the buckling spring mechanism needed to be sourced, parts were cast, and dies were formed. New metal cases for the Kishsaver were created and powder coated. If you have an old Kishsaver, every new part is a drop in replacement for the old. Even the styrofoam packaging is a replica; [Ellipse] took measurements of the original IBM packaging materials and replicated with new molds.
The remanufacturing of the IBM Model F 62-key keyboard is among the top achievements among vintage computer enthusiasts. The only comparable project would be an Apple 1 replica built up from parts with late 1975 date codes. It’s an exceptional achievement for the mechanical keyboard community, made even more impressive by the fact that no keyboard manufacturer has taken up Model F manufacturing.
These efforts have culminated in a group buy on the Internet’s major keyboard forums, and an online shop that will sell the 62-key and 77-key Model F for $325 to $376, depending on options. Both the powder coated eggshell and the somewhat anachronistic industrial gray cases are available, with key caps sourced from Unicomp, the current manufacturers of the Model M.
Still, booting up an entire manufacturing line through what is effectively the trust of a community isn’t easy. [Ellipse] says he would like to do die-cast aluminum enclosures, instead of the machined aluminum cases he has now. Die casting would greatly reduce the manufacturing costs, the relatively inexpensive machining of each individual enclosure for the one-time but high cost of producing a steel mold. Still, individually machined enclosures allow for some experimentation, such as the ‘ultra compact’ case design that capitalizes on the modern, smaller controller board and appeals to modern design sensibilities.
For all the hullabaloo about hardware entrepreneurs, the maker movement, crowdfunding, rapid prototyping, and Chinese manufacturing, there aren’t many real success stories. Sure, there are hardware startups coasting on Y Combinator funding, but when it comes to actually producing something people want, there really aren’t many companies out there. For someone who is just an enthusiast, someone who isn’t a programmer, engineer, or product designer to pull a team together to remanufacture the best that came out of IBM in the 1970s is remarkable. It’s a testament to what a community can do, and what a single, dedicated person can achieve.
Title image source: murium on Deskthority