Bringing An IBM Model F Into 2020

We know that the Hackaday family includes many enthusiasts for quality keyboards, and thus mention of the fabled ‘boards of yore such as the IBM Model F is sure to set a few pulses racing. Few of us are as lucky as [Brennon], who received the familial IBM PC-XT complete with its sought-after keyboard.

This Model F has a manufacture date in March 1983, and as a testament to its sturdy design was still in one piece with working electronics. It was however in an extremely grimy condition that necessitated a teardown and deep clean. Thus we are lucky enough to get a peek inside, and see just how much heavy engineering went into the construction of an IBM keyboard before the days of the feather-light membrane devices that so many of us use today. There follows a tale of deep cleaning, with a Dremel and brush, and then a liberal application of Goo Gone. The keycaps had a long bath in soapy water to remove the grime, and we’re advised to more thoroughly dry them should we ever try this as some remaining water deep inside them caused corrosion on some of the springs.

The PC-XT interface is now so ancient as to have very little readily available in the way of adapters, so at first a PS/2 adapter was used along with a USB to PS/2 converter. Finally though a dedicated PC-XT to USB converter was procured, allowing easy typing on a modern computer.

This isn’t our first look at the Model F, but if you can’t afford a mechanical keyboard don’t worry. Simply download a piece of software that emulates the sound of one.

41 thoughts on “Bringing An IBM Model F Into 2020

      1. God must be some kind of joker because the control key is labeled “Caps Lock” on all my computers.

        Thank goodness for modern times when all of the major operating systems have an easy software switch for the control key. Who Really Cares what the label on the key says?

    1. I never could stand those extra keys wedged in with left shift and return. I touch-type, and that’s just too far of a reach. I also don’t like F-keys left of ESC when I’m playing video games (makes it hard to blindly slap the ESC key), but that’s a more modern dislike. I was a big fan of Jerry Pournelle’s opinion that most keyboards suck. And I am quite happy that the standard US keyboard layout ended up the way it did. I’ll take the Model M over this. (and I’ve got a few of them in the attic too)

    2. That was my first thought – the return key is smaller than the keypad + key!

      Which indicates the priorities of the designers – accountants. Except that keypad zero isn’t aligned great, but maybe accountants like that.

      No cursors either. Still, looks chunky and usable as a weapon, which is the primary use case of an old keyboard. I always liked function keys to the left as well – the 186/286 based RM Nimbuses at school around 1990 had this layout.

    1. Part of the reason was for the lock status LEDs. The XT interface only lets the keyboard yell keypresses at the computer, and the computer can’t talk back. So when people wanted to have some indication as to whether caps lock was on, keyboard manufacturers started adding LEDs that toggled every time the key was pressed. But since the computer was the final arbiter of whether a letter is capital or not, sometimes the LED could be out of phase. The AT interface fixed this by allowing two-way communication so the LEDs are controlled by the OS rather than the keyboard firmware.

    2. The AT actually used the keyboard controller to switch the 286 back from 286 to 8086 mode (there was no way do do that by software, dumb Intel mistake), hence the need to be able to talk to the keyboard from the CPU.

        1. I learned to type on a manual typewriter. (A while ago.) But I can type FASTER on a keyboard with a lighter touch, and while we’re at the wish list a shorter key travel as well. I could use one of those IBM keyboards, I just prefer not to; I can’t get my best typing results with them and the noise would drive me and the people around me crazy.

          On the noise issue… some people’s dream is being able to talk to their computers, and I suppose with work at home it wouldn’t be all bad. But the cacaphony of an office full of people talking to their computers is the stuff of nightmares for me.

    1. Pff, maybe for a noob. The model M is a cheap cost down of the model F, replacing the capacitive switches with nasty membranes. The model F has a better weighting, and a crisper less mushy feel. The 122-key layout is close enough to a modern layout for most people, and the kishsaver layout is highly sought over by those with a penchant for compacted layouts.

      1. Erm, no. The Model M is a buckling spring mechanical board, not a membrane keyboard. There are arguments over whether it was better or worse than the capacative switches in the F, but from memory (I used both when they were still current) then I prefered the M.

        1. The Model M is a membrane keyboard, actuated via buckling springs. I have both the 122 key and a model M on this desk and have to say the M’s are good, really nice to use but on the whole I do actually prefer the 122 – (though it gets less use being soo big I frequently have to take it off the desk to make space to do anything else.)

          And I can agree with Shirley Marquez above that silent and tactile is nice to have. But being a cheapskate I’ll keep using the model M’s till they finally break irreparably as the cost of testing all the keyswitch options then building a custom keyboard for it seems very steep when the IBM boards are so nice (I keep promising myself oneday I’ll order a bunch to try.. but that’s heaps of money that can’t go on other fun projects)..

      1. They’re *almost* the real deal. I have both (3 IBM’s and 2 Unicomp’s), and the IBM keyboards sound different than the Unicomp keyboards. Otherwise,yes, side by side in a blind test with ear plugs on I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

      2. I just bought one. The case could be better, but the typing feel is awesome. It replaced a Hyper-X ‘mechanical’ keyboard that the MFGer bricked with a firmware update. To the poster saying, we have lots of mechanical keyboards these days, maybe, but not many that don’t require firmware to function. My unicomp just works. No lag.

        1. The Unicomp also has firmware. The original Model M design used an 8051 microcontroller; they’re probably still using an 8051-compatible now, but a more modern one with a USB interface. What it doesn’t have is user-upgradeable firmware. It also doesn’t have a proprietary driver; the USB versions are standard HIDs, and the versions with legacy connectors work directly with computers that have the matching ports.

      1. Hmm why did you tell me that – now I’ll have to get a 122 (or two) in black to suit the rest of my desk cluttering… (Hopefully I’ll have forgotten by the time I can afford to drop that much on a keyboard with a flight case of ye ol’ model M’s and a 122 (almost all of them older than I am…) I really don’t need a new one… But Black!)

    1. I wouldn’t mind a model 35 myself. Each keypress felt like firing a .22

      I have a vintage clone of a model F. For some reason I got rid of my original but kept one from a clone that’s a pretty fair copy. It works with a modern PC by way of a PS2 converter plugged into a USB converter, but I seldom use it because it’s too big for my desk.

  1. Interesting how the wide keys (like shift) have a raised, standard sized, center section. A slight positional error in targeting the key, will still produce the desired result, while you’re informed of the targeting error via the haptic feedback loop.

  2. The days are long past when I could type over a hundred words per minute on an IBM Selectric keyboard, but every time I get on my old model F my typing improves tremendously.

    There are some acceptable clones of the model F and M out there. I had a list, but the only name that comes to mind is Cherry. They cost in the two-hundred-dollar range, but it would be worth it to me. They make them with modern USB connections, and some of them have greatly expanded key layouts.

    And to heck with the noise. I like the noise. And once, on a Windows XT, I wrote a small program that translated each keystroke into a Morse code signal. That used to annoy my coworkers and the boss finally made me take it home and turn off the program.

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