Emulated, replicated, and tweaked for 30 years, IBM's Model M is the forefather of modern keyboard design.
The first thing you notice about the IBM Model M keyboard, when you finally get your hands on it, is its size. After years of tapping chiclet keys and glass screens on two- and three-pound devices, hefting five pounds of plastic and metal (including a thick steel plate) is slightly intimidating. The second thing is the sound – the solid click that’s turned a standard-issue beige peripheral into one of the computer world’s most prized and useful antiques.
Next year, the Model M turns 30. But to many people, it’s still the only keyboard worth using. It was recently spotted on the desk of Minecraft creator Markus "Notch" Persson, attached to a gaming PC whose graphic cards alone cost thousands of dollars. "The Model M is basically the best keyboard ever made," he told PC Gamer. YouTube has dozens of Model M typing demos, unboxing videos, and sound comparisons between it and other mechanical keyboards. Since its introduction, the Model M has been the standard to meet for keyboard excellence.
"I enjoy using an iPad, it’s a wonderful device; the Kindle e-reader is a beautiful thing," says says Brandon Ermita, a Princeton University IT manager. "But I could never write a story, I could never write my dissertation, I could never produce work with a touchscreen." Ermita is devoted to keeping the Model M alive: he recovers them from supply depots and recycling centers, sells them through his site, ClickyKeyboards, and runs a veritable Model M private museum. He estimates he’s put between 4,000 and 5,000 of the keyboards under the fingertips of aficionados over the past decade.
Like many people, I have vague memories of using a Model M as a kid. Last month, though, I took a trip to suburban New Jersey to meet Ermita and rediscover the magic of one of the most beloved keyboards of all time.
The day I visited his spacious office, two dozen or so keyboards were ensconced in a rack like fine wines. Above them, a single black keyboard sat protected in a glass case — a prototype Model M that’s one of the oldest pieces in Ermita’s collection. A hamper held recent acquisitions that still needed to be taken apart and cleaned of Doritos, sewing needles, and other pieces of detritus from their former owners. Looking at a Model M for the first time in years, what was most remarkable about the keyboard was just howunremarkable it looks. The Model M might be a relic of the past, but its DNA remains in almost every keyboard we use today.
Keyboards from the '70s and '80s range from