A Key to the Past: Tracing the Evolution of Computer Keyboards, fom Typewriters to Custom Builds

Ever glance down at your computer keyboard and ponder its origin? In our present digital age, the humble keyboard has become as commonplace as the air we breathe. While it’s a crucial part of our daily digital interaction, its design and evolution often go unnoticed. From mechanical levers to flat, touch-sensitive surfaces, the computer keyboard’s journey is an intriguing tale of technological innovation. Let’s dive into this narrative, examining landmark developments and the emergence of various keyboard technologies.

From Typewriters to QWERTY: Laying the Foundation

Before the advent of the digital age, typewriters held an esteemed position in homes and offices worldwide. These machines were the forerunners of the modern keyboard, setting the foundation for the design we still use today. The typewriter’s evolution dates back to 1714 when British inventor Henry Mill filed a patent for a machine that resembled what we now know as a typewriter.

Henry Mill’s Typewriter (Imae courtesy of https://type-writer.org/)

However, it was in 1868 when Christopher Latham Sholes, Carlos Glidden, and Samuel W. Soule presented the first commercially successful typewriter. One of the critical features Sholes’s Remington No. 1 was the introduction of the QWERTY keyboard layout. The seemingly random sequence of letters is, in fact, a design aimed at efficiency and reliability. This keyboard layout proved so effective that it has survived to this day, continuing to be the standard on modern keyboards.

The Remington No. 1 (Image courtesy of https://www.britannica.com/)

Enter the Era of Computers: IBM’s Mechanical Marvel

With the advent of computers, typewriters underwent a significant transformation to the keyboard that we all know and love today. The real revolution came in the 1980s with the introduction of the IBM Model M keyboard.

The IBM Model M (Image courtesy of https://en.wikipedia.org/)

The Model M is widely hailed as the pioneer of mechanical keyboards. Using a unique buckling spring technology and swappable keycaps, the IBM Model M was a mechanical keyboard, before mechanical keyboards were cool! With its distinctive ‘click-clack’ sound and tactile feedback, it provided a user experience that was satisfying and efficient.

IBM’s Buckling Spring Keyboard Switch (Image courtesy of https://en.wikipedia.org/)

The Model M keyboard brought forward several innovations like the inclusion of function keys, a number pad, and the now ubiquitous ESC key, all of which have become a standard on keyboards today. This mechanical marvel set the stage for many of the developments that would come later in the field of keyboard technology.

Economic Innovations of the 90s and 2000s

The computer explosion of the 1990s marked a new phase in the evolution of keyboards. As computers became household items, keyboards also needed to adapt to this mass adoption. The design and technology of keyboards underwent a significant shift during this period, heavily influenced by economic factors and the evolving needs of an increasingly digital user base.

Membrane keyboards emerged during this time as a cost-effective and practical solution. These keyboards replaced the traditional mechanical switches with pressure pads, offering a quieter typing experience that weighed less. This innovation met the rising demand for more portable, noise-free computing peripherals that fit the changing landscape of home and office computing.

Manufacturers quickly realized the advantages of membrane keyboards. They were far less expensive to produce compared to mechanical keyboards, enabling companies to reduce production costs while keeping up with increasing demand. However, this cost-efficiency came with a trade-off. The quality of keyboards deteriorated with the introduction of membrane technology. While they were cheaper and lighter, membrane keyboards lacked the durability and tactile feedback of their mechanical predecessors. Thus, while they met the immediate needs of a growing market, they were seen as a compromise between cost and quality.

Common Membrane Keyboard (Image courtesy of https://en.wikipedia.org/)

During the same period, dome-switch keyboards and scissor-switch keyboards also entered the scene. Dome-switch keyboards offered a middle ground between mechanical and membrane keyboards, featuring a rubber or silicone keypad under the keys for a slightly improved tactile response and enhanced longevity. Scissor-switch keyboards, on the other hand, gained popularity in laptops due to their slim design. These keyboards used a unique mechanism resembling a pair of scissors, ideal for devices demanding a compact form factor and were popular in laptops even til this day!

Revival of the Mechanical Marvel

The 21st century saw an unexpected revival of the mechanical keyboard. Users started rediscovering the charm of the tactile response and reliability that mechanical keyboards offer, reminiscent of the IBM Model M’s golden days. Cherry GmbH, a German computer peripheral-device maker, played a crucial role in this resurgence.

Cherry’s MX series of keyboard switches became popular for their durability and diverse tactile feedback options. These switches, named after their colors like Cherry MX Blue, Brown, and Red, offer a range of typing experiences.

Cherry MX Switch Types (Image courtesy of https://media.steelseriescdn.com/)

This variety allowed users to choose their keyboards based on personal preferences, paving the way for more personalized computing.

The gaming scene was the first to repopularise the adoption of Mechanical Keyboards, with brands such as Logitech, Corsair, Razer and Steel Series releasing a multitide of mechanical keyboards featuring Cherry MX or MX Style Switches.


A New Trend Emmerges

The late 2010’s saw a new trend emmerge, explosive rise in popularity of custom mechanical keyboards. The expiration of Cherry’s MX Switch Patent in 2014 gave rise to countless new and independent switch makers. This allowed the hobby to reach unprecedented popularity as botique and customisable options began to emerge.

This trend is driven not just by the desire for a personalized typing experience but also the appeal of the craftsmanship that goes into building a custom keyboard. Custom mechanical keyboards allow users to choose every component, from the keyboard casing and type of key switch to the keycaps’ design and material. The process of building a custom keyboard has become a cherished hobby for many, with online communities dedicated to sharing builds, designs, and advice.

Custom mechanical keyboard collection (Image courtesy of https://sea.ign.com/)

Mechanical keyboards, once seen as relics of the past, have been revived in an extraordinary way. They’ve become a perfect blend of nostalgia and modern personalization, catering to both functional requirements and the desire for self-expression. This remarkable trend isn’t just about reliving the past; it also represents the exciting possibilities that lie ahead in the realm of personal computing.

To Wrap Things Up

The computer keyboard’s journey, from the mechanical complexity of typewriters to the customizable elegance of modern mechanical keyboards, is a fascinating tale of technological evolution. As we look to the future, we can only wonder what new innovations await us in keyboard technology. Whether we see a continuation of the current trend towards customization, or a new wave of innovation driven by emerging technologies, one thing is clear: the humble keyboard, an essential tool in our digital lives, will continue to evolve and surprise us in ways we can only imagine.