Hi-Tek and NMB
Hi-Tek Corporation was an early computer keyboard manufacturer, producting mechanical switch arrays and later complete keyboard units. In 1983, Hi-Tek was acquired by Minebea and became a subsidiary of NMB in the United States (the main NMB company in Japan having already changed its name to Minebea). Hi-Tek’s DIN-compliant Series 725 mechanical keyboards—introduced around the same time as the acquisition—remained in production by NMB until late 90s or so. Keyboard production at NMB continued until 2015; these later membrane keyboards may have related to earlier work by Hi-Tek, but there is no way to be sure; the manufacturer at the time was Minebea’s Shun Ding subsidiary.
Hi-Tek Corporation was founded by the late Donald “Don” M Hallerberg. The Hi-Tek Corp entry in Who’s Who in Electronics from 1981 gives the company’s founding date as 1967. Although there is no definitive company record available, this date of establishment would suggest that NMB Technologies (USA) Inc. (California company C0522946)—formed on the 6th of March 1967—is the organisation that was formerly known as Hi-Tek Corporation.
Hi-Tek’s original location, based on patents and an advertisement, was Santa Ana, California; they would later relocate to nearby Garden Grove. In the early 1970s they began keyswitch production. From conversations with his son D’Milo, it is understood that their patented switch system was originally built as a fixed-arrangement keypad for calculators, before being retooled as a flexible mould system. This change allowed for key stations to be formed into arrays of different arrangements, permitting full-size terminal keyboards to be built in bespoke layouts without compromising the advantages of a fixed array system. At present, no details are known to be available of how this mould system worked.
In 1982, in response to German standardisation, Don Hallerberg originated the design of a new, discrete switch that could be used in low-profile keyboards. The name of this keyboard series—Series 725—was derived from its height. Engineering work on the switch was undertaken by Robert Bessire, under whose name it was patented.
Little is known of Hi-Tek’s operations before they joined the keyboard industry. An advertisement for time delay relays appeared in Electronics magazine in 1967. US patent 3462101 “Parachute ripcord” was filed in March 1968 on behalf of inventor Francois X Chevrier. Don Hallerberg’s name is on US patent 3588423 “Sealed switch arrangement” filed in June 1969, for a means of sealing a microswitch.
Hi-Tek v. Stackpole
Stackpole Components copied Hi-Tek’s design of keyswitch, for which Hi-Tek filed suit against them. For reasons unknown, the case was dismissed. The Official Gazette of the United States Patent and Trademark Office: Patents, Volume 1020, Issues 1-2 notes simply the following:
3,751,618, Hi-Tek Corp., PUSH SWITCH WITH SPRING BIASED PLUNGER, filed Mar. 17, 1980, D.C. Del. (Wilmington), Doc. 80-126, Hi-Tek Corp. v. Stackpole Components Co. Stipulation and Order of Dismissal with prejudice filed Apr. 21, 1982.
There is evidence to suggest that Stackpole originally used the exact Hi-Tek contact design (one solid and one quadfurcated), before changing over to their own dual-bifurcated design. The relationship between such a redesign, and the legal proceedings, is not known.
In March or July of 1983 (MinebeaMitsumi gave both dates), likely to be shortly after Series 725 entered production, Hi-Tek was bought by the Japanese bearing manufacturer Minebea (now MinebeaMitsumi). Details are scarce: there is no mention of Hi-Tek on the NMB and Minebea websites, but MinebeaMitsumi provided the date upon enquiry, and D’Milo Hallerberg also gave 1983 as the year in which the acquisition occurred. Nippon Miniature Bearing (NMB) in Japan changed its name in October 1981 to Minebea, but the parent company of Hi-Tek was NMB, the American arm of the organisation. For a while, Hi-Tek appeared to remain a subsidiary of NMB in the United States, before being completely absorbed into NMB.
It seems that Hi-Tek were still manufacturing in the United States at the point of takeover; production was moved to Minebea’s Bang Pa-in factory in Thailand. A scene from the film Baraka depicts Series 725 keyboard assembly at the Bang Pa-in factory, specifically grey tactile and day-glow green space bar switches.
Hi-Tek Corporation eventually disappeared. According to correspondence with MinebeaMitsumi, “Hi-Tek merged with other group companies of electronics products sales in 1987 and renamed NMB Technologies Inc. (now NMB Technologies Corp.)” By comparison, their corporate history indicates that, in February 1988, “Sales subsidiary NMB Technologies, Inc., (the present NMB Technologies Corporation), is established in the United States to coordinate sales and marketing of Minebea's electronic devices.” The name “Hi-Tek Corporation” still appeared on PCB artwork and keyboard labels into 1989, but by 1990 it was gone.
Hi-Tek was developing membrane keyboards at the time of the takeover, knowing that membrane keyboards were the way of the future. However, possibly owing to the effects of the takeover, NMB did not introduce membrane keyboards until 1988.
At some point during the 1980s, NMB applied the trademark “Right Touch” to their entire keyboard line-up. Keyboard models were prefixed “RT” accordingly, which continued into the 2000s with OEM products such as the RT7D50 manufactured for Dell and the Logitech Cordless Keyboard produced for Logitech (NMB model RT7R04).
- “High Profile” switch arrays
- Dovetail Series switches, switch arrays and keyboards
- Series 725 switches and keyboards
- RT-101 series of mechanical and membrane keyboards
- Membrane desktop keyboards
- PCB rubber dome keyboards
- Notebook keyboards
A rare switch type appears in the Texas Instruments TravelMate LT286/12 keyboard, model WSR-540A3. These switches take the same keycaps as other membrane and rubber dome models, but the switch mechanism is unclear. Note that the plungers are cylindrical, and the keycaps are specially shaped to fit into a cylindrical shaft, even when all the other keyboard types use rectangular plungers. There is a suggestion that this switch type may be older than the standard rubber dome design, even though this particular example was made in 1989. The Vintage Laptop Museum in Russia has reported that the LT286/12 keyboard is a mechanical type with click feedback. There is no Hi-Tek, NMB or Minebea patent depicting anything that would fit this example.
Additional photos from a different keyboard appear to show the use of rubber domes. These additional photos do not depict the complete unit, or the complete PCB, and there is no description of how the switches sound or feel.
All material was scanned by Bitsavers unless otherwise noted.
- Time delay relays literature advertisement, Electronics, Vol. 40 No. 24, November 27 1967
- Hi-Tek Keyboards and Data Entry Products folder (1984), provided by Susan Kennedy (formerly of NMB) and scanned by Benjamin Rockwell
- NMB Right Touch keyboards advertisement, Electronic Engineers Master Catalog 1988-89 Volume B
- NMB Right Touch keyboards advertisement, Electronic Engineers Master Catalog 1989-90 Volume B
- Hi-Tek Corporation on Wikipedia