It’s Never Too Late To Upgrade Your ZX81 Keyboard

Sir Clive Sinclair’s ZX81 was a phenomenal sales success as one of the cheapest machines available in the early 1980s, but even its most fervent admirers will admit that it suffered heavily from the Sinclair economy drive. In particular that membrane keyboard was notorious for its lack of feedback, and a popular upgrade back in the day was a replacement keyboard. Now we can bring you what might be the ultimate in ZX replacement keyboards, in the form of [Brian Swetland]’s mechanical ZX81 keyboard.

The familiar 40-key layout is all there, using Cherry MX key switches and a beautiful set of custom-printed keycaps. There’s little more to a ZX keyboard than the matrix wiring, and in this case it’s all incorporated on a PCB. None of these techniques were readily available to individuals back in the ’80s, so a large piece of perfboard, key switches from an old terminal keyboard, and Letraset would have had to suffice.

We have to admit liking this project a lot, in fact we’re even tempted by a set of these keycaps for a regular keyboard just for old time’s sake. If you’re interested in the ZX81 then take a look at how we used one to help us through the pandemic.

16 thoughts on “It’s Never Too Late To Upgrade Your ZX81 Keyboard

  1. I well remember the horrible membrane keyboard of the ZX80. But when it came out, it was about the only game in town for student hobbyists even though $75 was a month’s rent. Now we pay that much to upgrade the keyboard.

      1. On more usual keyboards the offset between rows 1 & Q and rows A & Z is ½ the horizontal spacing, But the offset between rows Q & A is ¼. This is a hangover from mechanical typewriters so that the four rows are spaced evenly (0, ¼, ½, ¾, 1) so the actuating bars and levers are so spaced. Actually, in row order from the top: 0, ½, ¾, 1¼ which gives the same interleaving).

  2. I acquired a ZX81 with a Dk’Tronics mechanical keyboard, it also fitted a 16k RAM pack inside (minus the case, i.e. just the PCB and chips screwed down to a few posts with a ribbon cable.

    This is very reminiscent of that keyboard! Love it!

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