When Typing Was Noisy, Computers Were People, and Digits Were Fingers

Now that I’m working at home, and at my computer all day, I’m trying to create a good ergonomic desk setup for myself (especially with my ongoing back problems). If you spend your time day in and day out working with the same set of tools, you need them to be quality tools. So I started today by shopping online for a good keyboard, and ended up taking a journey through history and language. But first, the keyboard…

An old Royal portable typewriter

An old Royal portable typewriter


A keyboard with fancy lights or extra multimedia keys holds no attraction for me. The currently popular flat, laptop style keyboards drive me crazy, as there’s hardly any tactile feedback. By learning to type as a child on my mother’s 1960s Royal portable typewriter, it’s been imprinted in some primal corner of my brain that the sensation of a nice mechanical whack when hitting (not tapping) the keys is really satisfying. Before the mouse became a common computer input device, computers were expensive, and people were used to the feel of typewriters. A keyboard that was popular then, and apparently still has a small but devoted following today, was the IBM Model M:

[Back then] the keyboard was the only day-to-day input device for almost all computers, and most users were tapping away at the things a great deal. Keyboards mattered. People cared. There were actually advertisements in computer magazines in which manufacturers bragged about how kick-ass their keyboards were.

The boasts were justified. There have been various technologies dreamt up over the years for keyboards, all trying to make the ‘board feel nice to use, last well, and not cost a million dollars. The “buckling spring” keyswitches in this IBM ‘board and some other old-style units are widely acknowledged to be the best ever developed in every regard, except cost.

They’ve got not-too-light but not-too-heavy key weighting, they’ve got the kind of positive click that I imagine you’d feel on the firing button for the Death Star’s primary armament, and their demonstrated service life, despite extraordinary abuse, is preposterously long. Essentially, if you don’t take to one of these things with a hammer, it’ll probably outlast you, even if you spend all day, every day, typing.

…The attractiveness of Real Keyboards faded with the arrival of mouse-based user interfaces. Suddenly all of that basic housekeeping typing became unnecessary. Programmers and data enterers and writers still typed like crazy, but everyone else could point and click their way through many tasks.

And when you don’t need to use the keyboard all day, you don’t really care how good the ‘board is, as long as it doesn’t stop working. Big heavy indestructible keyboards like the [Model M] became an unsupportable expense for the average personal computer, and they died out…

In addition to all that, apparently the Model M also makes you a better typist:

With the Model M, I type faster than on other keyboards – much faster. My personal best on a laptop was 50 words per minute on my old 12″ PowerBook. I’ve hit about the same speed on my various ThinkPads, MacBooks, and Toshibas, but the 12″ PowerBook was, in my opinion, the fastest laptop keyboard.

I just took a typing test using my old Model M and hit 64 words per minute – and I had fewer typos in the process. There’s just something right about the design; I really can’t describe it other than saying that my finger always presses hard enough and never too hard on a Model M – are two of the many reasons for typos on lesser keyboards.

Of course you still have to hit the right key, but even that seems easier on this most magical of keyboards. The new one I just bought cost almost $70 for something made well over a decade ago, and I consider it a bargain.

…while noisy and intrusive to your neighbors, there’s one very good reason why the buckling spring keyboard remained in production for so many years and why it’s something of a specialty item today. Those switches are very expensive compared to the cheap rubber domes in use today, and it’s those switches that give this keyboard its legendary feel (and make it too expensive for this age of made-in-China mass-production).

After reading all that I was hooked, and I ordered one. Unicomp now has the rights to the Model M and they still make them (but they’ve renamed it the “Customizer”).

A World War II recruiting poster for women stenographers

A World War II recruiting poster for women stenographers


My keyboard quest got me thinking about that old Royal typewriter, so I did a quick Google image search and found a picture that looks just like it. I also came across a World War II poster for recruiting women to be stenographers. But that’s not all they did – many women worked as “computers” and after the war some went on to become the world’s first programmers:

Before the invention of electronic computers, “computer” was a job description, not a machine. Both men and women were employed as computers, but women were more prominent in the field. This was a matter of practicality more than equality. Women were hired because there was a large pool of women with training in mathematics, but they could be hired for much less money than men with comparable training. Despite this bias, some women overcame their inferior status and contributed to the invention of the first electronic computers.

In 1942, just after the United States entered World War II, hundreds of women were employed around the country as computers. Their job consisted of using mechanical desk calculators to solve long lists of equations. The results of these calculations were compiled into tables and published for use on the battlefields by gunnery officers. The tables allowed soldiers in the field to aim artillery or other weapons, taking into account variable conditions such as temperature and air density. Today, such calculations are done instantly in the battlefield with microcomputers.

…When the ENIAC was nearing completion, six women were chosen from among the human computers to be trained as programmers. …[They] devised the very first computer program, which was demonstrated when the ENIAC was unveiled in early 1946.

Before World War II, the term “computer” also referred to mechanical calculating devices (the Greek Antikythera mechanism, from about 150BC, being the earliest known example). ENIAC, unveiled soon after the end of World War II, was one of the first electronic, digital computers. As such computers came to replace all their human and mechanical counterparts, the descriptor “digital” was eventually dropped.

“Digital” is a word that has evolved into something almost antithetical to its origin. Digits originally referred only to fingers and toes. People use their hands to create and manipulate physical objects – to do things manually. Digits came to be synonymous with numbers, since you can count them with your digits. And computers are digital because they are essentially glorified calculators, and we rely on computers to do things for us automatically.

Sitting between the manual world and automated world, between the analog and the digital, is the keyboard. I’m looking forward to the arrival of my Model M, and feeling something akin to the satisfying whack of an old Royal typewriter as I type my programs – putting in the manual labor that ultimately lies behind all automation.

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