The Obsessive Pleasures of Mechanical-Keyboard Tinkerers

For months, Luke Bassett had been searching for a particular hard-to-find item, whose market value he estimated at a thousand dollars. He found a collector who was willing to sell him two, for a total of six hundred and fifty. That was a bargain, but there was a catch. Payment had to be made by bank transfer, and the seller wouldn’t ship. Bassett was living in Connecticut and studying computer engineering; the seller was in Ukraine. This was more than a year before the Russian invasion, but there were still logistical challenges. Luckily, Bassett had a wealthy friend, in Barcelona, whose sister-in-law knew someone in Kharkiv. The sister-in-law’s friend made the pickup, then sent the package to Spain on the wealthy friend’s private jet.

What Bassett bought were two sets of computer keycaps: the squarish buttons you press when you type, maybe half a pound of plastic altogether. I was looking at one of the sets, which he had installed on an OTD 360 Corsa, a keyboard that was produced in limited numbers in South Korea in 2013. “The keycaps were made back in the nineties by a German company called Cherry,” he said. On the face of each letter key was a Roman character, in black, and a Cyrillic character, in red. On eBay, for twenty or thirty dollars, you can buy a keycap set that (to me) looks the same, but to Bassett there’s no comparison. “These were made for a Russian company, and only a few sets still exist,” he said. The keyboard was unusual, too. “It’s one of a hundred made by one of the most influential designers in the world. The color of the case is called hyper gray, and what’s unique about it is that each one is a slightly different shade. The designer was trying to reproduce the gray of an earlier keyboard of his, but he never did get it right.” Bassett acquired the keyboard in a trade. Next to it, on a table, was another scarce model, a Kira 80, whose Escape key Bassett had replaced with a keycap from a series called Mummy II, made by a keyboard artisan known as PunksDead. “That keycap is rare,” he said. “Right after I got it, a guy offered me three grand for it. And I was, like, ‘Hmmm, tempting—but no.’ ”

I met Bassett in June, at the headquarters of Mode Designs, a small computer-keyboard company in Somerville, Massachusetts. The occasion was an afternoon meetup organized by the New England Keyboard Group. There were a hundred or so enthusiasts in attendance, virtually all of them young men. Several were identified on their nametags by their Discord or Reddit handles, or by their usernames on the online keyboard forums Deskthority and Geekhack. The ones I spoke with generally referred to what they do as “the hobby”—as in, “He was out of the hobby for a while, but a few months ago he came back.” Some of the keyboards on display were commercial models from as long ago as the nineteen-eighties, but most were recent creations, which their owners had built themselves, using components they’d bought from specialized manufacturers.

The hobby satisfies some of the same impulses as collecting and customizing cars, or maybe brewing small-batch craft beers, or gardening. On a table on the far side of the room, I tried three keyboards that belonged to Arty Ivanenko, a twenty-one-year-old pharmacy technician. He told me later that he had left a dozen other keyboards at home, including a vintage model, a Northgate OmniKey, which he likes so much that he seldom risks using it. Like many people in the hobby, Ivanenko traces his participation to the beginning of the pandemic. “I was looking for something to do anyway, and keyboards quickly became a pretty large part of my life,” he said. “Coming to meetups has helped me figure out where I want to go with my collection, and how I want to expand. It’s just a great community to be a part of. There’s no negativity. Everyone’s, like, ‘Wow, that’s really cool’—even if it’s not their thing.”

I share Ivanenko’s fascination with keyboards, but my obsession predates the pandemic by half a century. I learned to touch-type in sixth grade, during a mandatory six-week mini-course. This was 1966, well before personal computers, so it was notable that an all-boys elementary school even offered typing, much less required it. We learned on enormous Olympia manuals. (They had no characters printed on the keys, so we did exercises while staring at a keyboard diagram hanging on the front wall.) Once a week, our teacher gave us a speed test, and I got pretty good pretty fast. Typing is rhythmic, complicated, and soothing, and, when I’m doing it well, my conscious brain doesn’t seem to be involved. It’s as close as I’ll ever come to playing a musical instrument—a nontrivial attraction. My love of typing probably contributed to my decision to become a writer.

My father was happy when I learned, because he believed that typing had survival value. He had enlisted in the Army four days before his eighteenth birthday, in 1943, and was trained as a replacement combat engineer, whose duties included placing explosives and detecting and detonating land mines. He landed in Liverpool on D Day and on Omaha Beach six weeks later. At some point, an officer asked whether anyone in the company knew how to type. My father was the only one who did—his mother, a former secretary, had taught him—and from that moment until the end of the war he was never in harm’s way. He was eventually assigned to the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Versailles, Reims, and Frankfurt. Eisenhower’s Scottish terrier, Telek, got to know him well enough to stop barking at him.

The first commercially practical typewriter was co-invented by a Wisconsin newspaper publisher who had recently served in the state senate. It was sold, beginning in 1874, by E. Remington & Sons, which also made sewing machines, bicycles, steam-powered canal barges, and, of course, guns. The standard QWERTY keyboard layout originated with that machine. There are lots of theories about where the layout came from—including the fact that a salesman could type the word “typewriter” using only keys on the top row—but no one really knows. One peculiarity of QWERTY is that for people writing in English, the arrangement of the keys is lopsided: of the fifty letters in what the Times says are the ten best starting words in Wordle, for example, forty-one are typed with the left hand. Shouldn’t a language’s most commonly used letters be spread around more, or typed with the right hand? The best known alternative layout, called Dvorak, is named for one of its co-inventors (a college professor and typing instructor, not the composer). It was introduced in 1936 and is often said to be both easier on a typist’s fingers and faster, although if it were clearly superior you’d expect Dvorak typists to win all the speed competitions. They don’t.

Mark Twain was one of Remington’s earliest customers, and either “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” or “Life on the Mississippi” was probably the first American book submitted to a publisher as a typescript. (An assistant did the typing.) Twain’s machine, like most early typewriters, printed only capital letters, and its key bars struck the paper from underneath, so that he and his typist couldn’t check what they’d written until they’d typed several lines. Twain soon came to hate almost everything about it—“I don’t want people to know I own this curiosity-breeding little joker”—and he gave it to William Dean Howells. (“He took it home to Boston, and my morals began to improve, but his have never recovered,” Twain wrote in his autobiography, which he dictated to a typist.) The technology evolved steadily, and typewriters came to transform writing of all kinds. My father’s father was born on a farm in northern Missouri in 1883, and got a job at the Kansas City Life Insurance Company in 1904. He was hired mainly for his penmanship: he filled in blanks in printed policy documents and wrote letters to agents and policyholders. My grandmother, who was seven years younger, went to work as a secretary at the same company a few years later. By the time she was hired, typists had begun to make much of her future husband’s job obsolete.

Unlike Mark Twain, I’ve loved every typewriter I’ve used regularly, beginning with my mother’s big gray Royal, the brand also favored by Ernest Hemingway and Ian Fleming. My mother’s was a Quiet Deluxe from the late nineteen-forties. Like many other typewriters of that era, it had no key for the numeral one—you used a lowercase “L” instead—and to make an exclamation point you typed a period, then backspaced and typed a single quotation mark on top of it. My parents bought me an Olympia portable when I was in high school, and I bought myself a Brother electric portable the summer after my freshman year in college. I earned beer money typing papers for other students, and by the time I graduated I’d had three typing-related vacation jobs: junior staffer at a grain-industry trade magazine, fill-in assistant at a book publisher in New York, and typesetter for a car-racing newsletter called Speed Times. (On my first day at Speed Times, the owner yelled at me for correcting “tempacher,” in an article he’d written, to “temperature.” After that, I left his spelling alone.) In all three jobs, I got to use I.B.M. Selectric typewriters—the clerical equivalent, at the time, of playing Steinway grands.

The Selectric, which was introduced in 1961, was one of the most remarkable office machines ever made. It printed characters not with a fanlike array of slender metal hammers, as did a conventional typewriter, but with a single spherical element, slightly smaller than a golf ball, which improbably bounced across the page while the roller remained stationary. The element’s tilt and rotation were governed by a staggeringly complex assembly of cables, pulleys, cams, bails, levers, latches, whiffletrees, and other mechanical linkages. Elements were available in dozens of fonts, and were interchangeable. When I was a senior, I was hired to write the text for an illustrated book, and on the day I got paid I bought a used first-generation Selectric, for seven hundred dollars, at a typewriter shop up the street from my dorm. I typed long letters to everyone I could think of and helped my girlfriend (now my wife) type her thesis, using an Anglo-Saxon element she’d borrowed from the English department. Typing anything on my Selectric felt more fulfilling than attending classes. Thomas Ran—a research associate at Utrecht University, in the Netherlands, and a computer-keyboard expert, whose handle in various online forums is Chyrosran22—calls the Selectric “keyboard Genesis.”

In 1982, my wife and I paid five thousand dollars for one of the first I.B.M. PCs. By modern standards, it was primitive in the extreme—sixty-four kilobytes of unexpandable RAM, two three-hundred-and-twenty-kilobyte floppy-disk drives, buggy software, a twelve-inch text-only monochrome monitor with a markedly convex screen—except for the keyboard, which many people in the hobby view as the greatest of all time. That keyboard, called the Model F, was the product of a multi-year effort at I.B.M., whose keyboard-development department was run by Lou Sedaris (the father of David and Amy). The department’s goal was to replicate the experience of typing on a Selectric.

Recently, I spoke with Dick Harris, a retired mechanical engineer, who went to work for Sedaris in 1965, immediately after graduating from North Carolina State. “Whoever developed the Selectric really understood the fundamental requirements of a keyboard,” he told me. One of those requirements, he said, was “a definite, recognizable trigger point,” which activated before the key had been pressed all the way down. Harris and his colleagues shipped prototypes to an I.B.M. research facility in California, where hired typists tested them for flaws such as susceptibility to “fat-finger syndrome.” (This is the technical term for vulnerability to wrong-key presses.) It was Harris who thought of what turned out to be the breakthrough innovation: the buckling-spring capacitive key switch. Inside each was a tall metal spring. Pressing the key caused the spring to shorten, then buckle, and when it buckled it made a satisfying click and a metallic twang. “I felt such a surge of excitement when I thought of it that I stayed up till 1 A.M. writing the patent disclosure,” he told me.

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