Cherry’s MX series is one of very few keyboard switch lines to have remained in production for decades, having been in continual production since 1983. Little else is still around from that age; RAFI’s switches from the 1970s are notable example.
The history of Cherry MX is not clear. Although most companies were introducing new switches in the early 1980s to meet DIN compliance, Cherry already had an even lower-profile switch available (M8), and Hirose had a modified version (MJ) with a full 4 mm of travel. RAFI full-travel switches demonstrate that even alternate action in possible in a miniature keyswitch, although it seems doubtful that M8 has sufficient space for RAFI’s mechanism.
The defined characteristics of MX from its patent (filed in 1982) are tactile feedback, hysteresis, and double-pole operation. MJ is likely to be a tactile type (as Hirose M8 and MD are) and double-pole operation was scrapped in favour of an integrated LED (also offered by MJ). Hysteresis is the only feature unique to MX amongst Cherry’s mechanical switch range, and curiously this is rarely seen in old keyboards, which are chiefly found with MX Black or (after its introduction) MX Blue. Günter Murmann, one of the inventors named on the patent, and formerly the VP of Engineering in Germany, gave only DIN compliance as a factor in the design. The question of whether click feedback of any kind was intended in the original design remains unsettled.
It seems that MX was introduced over a year after the patent was filed. The following occurrences have been discovered to date (not counting more recent switch models):
|1982-08-06||Date of patent application by Cherry Mikroschalter for MX White||German patent 3229465|
|1982-11-05||Date of early (if not the original) MX part number schema (Nummern-System Tastenmodul) covering MX Black, Linear Grey, Lock, White and Click Grey (last revised 1983-09-07)||Cherry drawing TS 00006|
|1983-01-25||Date of single-unit 8 mm keycap drawing (last revised 1987-10-21)||Cherry drawing 1P■11-NNNG3|
|1983-07-12||Filing date of US patent for MX White by Cherry Electrical Products in the US||US patent 4467160|
|1983-10||Introduction of Cherry MX in Japan; according to the former Hirose Electric website, “Started sales of MX series, the Low Profile Key Switch.”||hirose-st.co.jp (Wayback Machine)|
|1983-11-07||Date that Cherry MX was introduced, according to a suspicious image from an unspecified brochure||Deskthority topic|
|1985-07-28||Handwritten date on a German datasheet listing MX Black, Linear Grey, White and Click Grey, but curiously not MX Lock||Cherry MX datasheet|
|1987-04-24||Application date for MX Clear patent from Cherry Mikroschalter||German patent 3713775|
|1988-03-31||Date of a revised MX part number schema which added MX Clear, Tactile Grey, Blue and Green (last revised 1988-08-10)||Cherry drawing TS 00006-2|
|2009||Hirose Cherry MX no longer advertised for sale||Correspondence with Hirose|
|2014||Hirose Cherry MX discontinued||Correspondence with Hirose|
Cherry had at least three separate production lines for MX. There is uncertainty about whether the first one was in Germany or Japan. What we do know, from Günter Murmann, is that the US production line for MX was opened following a highly successful introduction of MX. Some tooling was sent to the US factory, although the US design seemed to be a combination of both German and Japanese parts. The US-made types can be found in the rarely encountered KXN3 (enclosed) and BXN3 (unenclosed) lines of US-made MX keyboards, such as KXN3-8451.
The movable switch contacts take two shapes, termed “A” and “M” for convenience: see under contacts for details. German MX switches are “M” style. Hirose-made MX switches are “A” style, as are US-made MX switches.
German-made switches used gold-plated wire contacts. These are the same as contact style 4 from M8 and M9 switches. This was a cost reduction over the solid prisms used in older switches, and M8 and M9 were both updated to offer this contact type. MX later switched back to solid prisms; according to Cherry, this was in either 2006 or 2007, a point in time that seems somewhat unlikely, as that would make the “MX-M8 adapter” switches far more recent than expected. Hirose used their own trapezoidal solid prism design in their M8 and MX switches.
US-made switches have the “A”-style movable contacts associated with Japanese-made switches, combined with the gold-plated wire contacts of the German-made switches. The movable contact metal has a mottled appearance, suggesting some kind of heat treatment. American MX production would have ended a few years later when Cherry’s US manufacturing closed down in the late 80s.
Each factory had its own marking scheme. German-made MX switches were colour coded, hence the colloquial names of “MX Black”, “MX Blue” etc. Hirose used coloured plungers as with Germany, but their pigments were very diluted, and their colour scheme remains unknown. US practice is also not entirely clear, as so few examples are known. Originally, the US factory marked space bar switches with red paint, just as they did M5 switches, with seemingly all switches having black plungers (which may explain the all-black MX Lock type). However, an unidentified KB-5000 keyboard made in the US with American MX switches has been found with a grey space bar switch; sadly the manufacture date is not known. It may be that the US factory did adopt the German colour scheme at some point. The “linear clear” switches found by cherry-jade and sold on Taobao appear to be US-made too.
The table below summarises the production lines:
|Factory||Movable contact||Crosspoint contacts|
|Cherry Electrical Products (US)||“A” style||Gold-plated wire|
|Cherry Mikroschalter (Germany)||“M” style||Gold-plated originally; now solid alloy prism|
|Hirose Cherry Precision (Japan)||“A” style||Hirose|
There is presently no evidence to suggest that Cherry made keyboard switches in the UK. Whether some of the rare types such as those with Alps mount came from Hirose or from another production line, remains unknown, as the origin of those types remains unconfirmed. Allegedly, Deskthority co-founder sixty observed one type in official Cherry packaging, but the photograph is since lost.
The idea that the return spring descends into the central post, as seen in Lethal Squirrel’s animations, is a myth. The return spring is exactly the same width as the central post; the post only provides additional movement capacity for the slider.
The following illustration uses dimensions taken from official Cherry drawings. The keystem height is given in the Cherry MX brochure (see Cherry catalogues). The keycap dimensions are taken from the Cherry MX developer page (Cherry previously supplied the official single-unit keycap drawing from 1983, but this new diagram on their website is clearer with regards the mount than the 1983 drawing). The stem dimensions are given in a drawing of the plunger posted within the Keychatter article Unpacking The Kailh Box Switch Debacle.
Now that the dimensions are known, it is possible to see that there is an 0.07 mm overlap on two of the four sides of the keystem where the keycap shaft is pushed outwards by the keystem. This is responsible for the grip. This is illustrated in the diagram below.
There are two designs of movable contact, which UncleFan termed “A” and “M” based on the overall shape:
“M” style is the standard movable contact shape, and is found in most if not all German-made MX switches.
It always seemed that the “A” design was the original design, replaced soon afterwards by the “M” design. However, all Hirose-made switches examined to date (including all photos so far showing the insides of Hirose MX Orange) seem to be “A” style, including the NOS MX1A-0NNN parts stocked by Yamaha in Germany.
“A” style is currently associated with Hirose and tentatively with Cherry US. It is possible that Cherry Germany originally used this style. This is the style copied by Yali/Aristotle with Taiwan white and black shaft, and is found in the Teton Cherry MX clone.
Neither style is a match for the original patent, which depicts a distinctly different shape of movable contact.
As noted earlier, the gold crosspoints differ in design depending on production line and age. The following diagram summarises the three types of contact crosspoints. The exact cross section of Hirose contacts varies from nearly trapezoidal to nearly semi-cylindrical, and possibly the movable contact prism is more trapezoid (they are not the same construction).
Cherry provided the following photos of MX wire and prism contacts in 2017 and 2016 respectively:
The images above are copyright cherrymx.de, used here with permission.
Cherry MX as patented was a non-illuminated design capable of double pole arrangement. The design that entered production changed to single-pole only, with a front-centre LED recess taking the place of the second pair of switch contacts. Two holes in the base of the switch accommodate the LED terminals. A second pair of holes in the bottom—placed either side of those for the LED—allowed the switch to contain a jumper (wire bridge) or a diode. Factory-fitted diodes, LEDs and jumpers were standard options. Only one of these options can be fitted to a single switch.
The shell came in two subtly different versions, depending on whether an LED was fitted in the factory. The MX1A-11GW page illustrates the differences between the two designs.
The rise in popularity of mechanical keyboards amongst gamers led to a need to support RGB LEDs, which have four terminals instead of two. Initially the clone market addressed this demand by retooling the shell to hold a larger LED, using all four holes at the front for the LED terminals. Cherry adopted a totally different approach, with a new shell that leaves space for an SMD LED. Above the LED is a lens formed as part of the transparent upper shell, which helps to spread the LED light out within the keycap to improve legend illumination.
As one of the very few long-standing, continuously-produced keyboard switch ranges in the world, there are many different models in the MX range, both catalogue and custom. All known MX types are SPST-NO. The options available within the series are as follows (although not all options are compatible):
- Alternate action (discontinued)
- Tactile feedback
- Click feedback
- Higher weighting for space bar
Support for any one of the following:
- LED (red, green or yellow)
- Reduced pretravel (for gamers)
- Transparent shell with lens for separate RGB LED (placed under the switch)
Additional customisations discovered include the following:
- Increased PCB-to-plate distance of 6 mm instead of 5 mm (“Cherry MX Olympia Linear Clear”), supplied to AEG Olympia for typewriters
- Alps slot keycap mount (unknown customer and usage)
- NMB-like keycap mount (mistermed “Cherry MX Alps Clear”), of unknown usage; this appears to be German-made
- Cherry MX on the Deskthority wiki for further notes