keyboards - mudsock

Here's a small part of the upstairs keyboard collection. Front and center is the pride of the bunch, an original IBM Model M from 1986 that's now too valuable to use.

It’s while you’re in the middle of writing something, really on a roll, that the keyboard gives out.

The thing could breathe its last while you’re doing random YouTube viewing to occupy spare time, but no, it never is. Maybe it wants to be mourned, and if a stream of incredulous profanity constitutes mourning, then mourned it is.

Which is to say that this week’s exciting episode comes to you through an IBM Model M keyboard, manufactured in the USA on Feb. 19, 1993. I know these details because they’re immortalized on the laminated sticker embedded in the back.

To a writer, a keyboard is a very personal thing with which he has an intimate relationship. It is the extension of his fingers, the device that turns deliberate motions into words.

There’s probably philosophy on this, a whole body of work in which some person or group of persons did studies of other persons or groups thereof, and, using their fingers and their keyboards, produced way too many words that in the end say what the paragraph above said in two sentences.

I’m a collector of keyboards. Carefully squirreled away upstairs I have three or four original IBM Model Ms, the standard for high-quality personal computer keyboards ever since they were made available with the original IBM PC in 1984. I have two of the Model M variant I’m using now, a compact design that lacks the number pad on the right – I don’t do a lot of spreadsheet work, so having calculator keys is less important to me than having extra space on the keyboard shelf.

I also have a couple of Model Ms made later, by the Unicom company in Lexington, Kentucky, which also repairs original Model Ms that have gotten damaged.

It is said, and I’ve heard it myself from IBM people who were there at the time, that the Model M was designed to emulate the feel and to some extent the sound of the IBM Selectric typewriter, which was the writer’s keyboard of choice in the years before we had computers. I have a half dozen of those squirreled away upstairs, too, against the possibly of some turn of events that makes them essential. You never know.

Selectrics came to be personal, too, in that there was some variation in the way their keys felt, so your typewriter came to be yours alone. A colleague, Adam Nagourney (later chief political correspondent for The New York Times), advertised his ability to touch type by rearranging the caps on all the keys of his Selectric. It was effective in keeping others possessing fewer skills from using his desk when he was away.

Over the years I’ve been fickle, not to say promiscuous, from time to time, trying out this or that non-Model M keyboard. Usually, the usurping keyboard remained plugged in for a day or less before being taken upstairs. The exceptions have been few and memorable.

In the 1980s there was a computer company, Northgate, that made perfectly good computers and great keyboards. Not a lot of people bought Northgate computers, but everyone in the know bought their keyboards, called OmniKey. When the company went out of business everyone who didn’t already have them snatched up and treasured the keyboards. I have a couple, one of which I used for years until the space bar decided to double-space all the time. I had it repaired, but by then was hooked again on the Model M.

The small Model M I’m using to write this is a joy in many ways, but for most of the last decade I’ve used something else.

I had decided that the Model M was too quiet. While the Selectric keyboard had a certain feel, within a range, what truly made it delightful was the satisfying thwack of the “element” (the golfball-sized thing that hit the ribbon, putting letters on the paper) when the keys were pressed. It was almost as good as, and far more consistent in sound than, a manual typewriter. It used to be that newspaper offices sounded like sustained small-arms skirmishes, which made for a spirited work atmosphere. The Model M wasn’t doing it for me anymore. I needed something more lively.

So I got a Cooler Master Storm Quickfire Rapid keyboard with Cherry Blue switches. I liked it enough that I got a spare. This was one loud keyboard! The key press required little effort, less than that of the Model M, but the noise it made was capital. I was instantly infatuated.

But it didn’t last. Not the infatuation, the keyboard. One night, while I was in the middle of writing something important (see the rule about keyboard failures above), it died stone dead.

Upstairs it went, and downstairs came its duplicate, the spare I’d gotten. It kept me happy until late last week when, in the middle of a column (that I’ll finish and you’ll see one of these days; I haven’t the heart for it at the moment) its “n” key misbehaved. Specifically, it filled the screen with the letter “n.” The only way to make it stop was to unplug it; plugging it back in rebooted the computer, after which the “n” key didn’t work at all. This kind of thing hinders the writer’s concentration and limits his choices, when he cannot use words with the letter “n” in them.

So the spare now went upstairs and down came this reliable Model M, originally marketed as the “Space Saving” keyboard.

Saturday morning, I disassembled the original Cooler Master Storm Quickfire Rapid keyboard with Cherry Blue switches, the one that had died entirely. (Oddly, it’s easier to fix a completely dead keyboard, usually, than it is to repair one with a single bad key.) If you’ve ever taken apart a used computer keyboard you could be forgiven for thinking the device’s main purpose is to collect hairs, crumbs, dust, drops of coffee, and dried globs of God-knows-what.

After a thorough cleaning and reseating of the connectors, I plugged it in to a spare computer and it worked perfectly.

Alas, it is a bittersweet development. As I said, a writer and his keyboard share an intimate relationship. And the Cooler Master Storm Quickfire Rapid keyboard with Cherry Blue switches has cheated on me once. How can I trust it ever again?

The Model M ain’t flashy and loud, and it has plain old buckling spring switches, but it is reliable and I will never doubt its fidelity. And in a lot of ways it was my first love.

Editor's note: Dennis E. Powell’s column appears every Thursday in The Athens NEWS. You can reach him at dep@drippingwithirony.com.

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