Business Columns & Blogs

Want your keyboard to ‘thock’? This entrepreneur puts an old sound into new keyboards.

The new Model F keyboards, such as this Ultra Compact Case F77, work with today’s PCs.
The new Model F keyboards, such as this Ultra Compact Case F77, work with today’s PCs. Courtesy of New Model F Keyboards

Did you know that typewriters are coming back? But only as objects of nostalgia, which unsettles me. I love typewriters and wrote thousands of pages on them back in the day. But the typewriter revival involves using the machines as collectibles, not working instruments. And typewriters are made to be used.

One of my fondest memories as a compulsively word-oriented kid was an early 20th century Smith Corona machine that had been passed along to me. It was beautifully machined and had an extraordinary “throw” – the amount of travel the key would make before the letter reached the page. Best of all was that satisfying sound of a typewriter in action. CLICK!

Typewriters go back a long way. The Remington arms company began producing machines with QWERTY keyboards in the 1870s, and Mark Twain famously used a Sholes and Glidden machine that was manufactured by Remington, one of several in his possession. I love technologies that link with the past, and so I have to ask, is there a bridge between the working typewriters of yesterday and the keyboards we all use on our computers today?

The answer is yes, and it comes in the form of IBM’s famous Model F keyboard, which was manufactured from 1981 to 1994, and is in no ways to be confused with the plastic follow-on known as the Model M. Like a good typewriter, the Model F was heavy (10 pounds!), solidly made and used a key technology called “buckling spring” that produced a highly distinctive “thock” as the internal paddle encountered the metal plate within the keyboard.

Talk about a link with the past – the IBM Model F had a sound that some enthusiasts remember so fondly that they are trying to reproduce it. Today’s keyboards are mushy in comparison, engineered to squish rather than pop as a nod to the theory that a good office is a quiet office, and a sea of desks with IBM Model F’s was not exactly a quiet room.

But a man named Joe Strandberg does not care for quiet. Like all of us who yearn for the satisfying authority of the great Model F, he’d like to have it back but knows that you can’t just go out and find one in a thrift shop. These keyboards had firmware that doesn’t adapt to modern features like keyboard programmability. So he decided to make a new Model F.

Strandberg has already spent on the order of $100,000 while working with a Chinese factory to reproduce the hardware, at the same time making use of an open-source, reverse-engineered firmware solution that can update the internals to today’s PCs. He’s going to sell these online (www.modelfkeyboards.com) for $300, but figure on something more like $400+ once you’ve added in customization options. The original Model F sold for $600 new when it appeared (bear in mind that was in 1980s dollars).

Why would anybody go to the trouble to revive an old keyboard? We might ask any of the 500 customers who have responded with pre-orders. I can see where they’re coming from.

After all, the keyboard is how we interface with the computer, and these days, unlike even the heyday of typewriters, we use keyboards on various devices almost as a way of life. I’m obsessive enough to have sought out old Northgate keyboards (I’m using one now) in the absence of a Model F. Close but no cigar, as they say.

I sympathize with those who prefer the quieter environment of the all but clickless membrane keyboards so widely available today. But I’ve typed on Model F’s in the past and recall the sense of working with superb design that reminded me of my ancient Smith Corona.

No nostalgia here, I’m talking about working equipment that seems to be making a small comeback. If Strandberg succeeds, he may awaken PC manufacturers to upgrade their offerings. Surely there’s a way to reproduce the sheer authority of the Model F experience, the sense of technology at the top of its game, even in keyboards that make less clatter. And for those of us who actually like the sound, who knows how far this trend might spread?

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at pag1877@gmail.com

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