Futaba 1st generation
“First generation” refers to all of Futaba’s medium-profile and low-profile switches from the 1970s and 1980s introduced before the MA types. This term is no longer accurate as older switch types are now known. “First generation” encompasses both the mechanical and reed types, which are externally very similar and around the same size. While these were originally marketed by Futaba, keyswitch production later moved to Sejin Electron.
Owing to very limited official data from Futaba and Sejin, there is no clear indication on either series naming or part numbering. The part number system may be additive, and it appears that “C” denotes the cruciform keycap mount. “A” indicates alternate action, and in some cases 7 seems to denote illuminated (MD and the later MA). Very few switch part numbers have been recovered.
ML-3, MD-4P, MR-6 and MD-4PA were advertised together in JEE (Journal of Electronic Engineering) in 1978, giving us the earliest confirmed date for each of these types. The advertisements appeared not to describe any type in more detail, noting only that “all switches have the same mounting dimensions and uniform external dimensions, which allows you to reduce cost by combining them.” This seems odd considering that ML-3 is believed to be lower in profile than the other types. This raises the possibility that the “M” in ML-3-CM means “miniature” and that ML-3 covered both sizes. A photograph was shown of each type, but the Google Books scans are in poor quality and of what little you are allowed to see, large parts do not appear.
Somewhere within 1981 (as Google Books does not allow access to the issue number) the following except was placed in JEE:
Futaba Corp. to Produce Keyboard Switches in the U.S.
Futaba Corp. has started the knock-down production of keyboard switches in the U.S. by renting a factory in California. The keyboard switches are assembled in this new factory using parts made in Japan by Futaba. The products are sold through Futaba’s sales agent in America, Futaba America.
Whether the switch components continued to be produced in Japan is not known, but this appears to confirm that Sejin was at least initially not producing them in Korea, at least not exclusively.
Based on a single page from an unknown catalogue, the prior understanding of the series has been proven incorrect. In part this was due to ePartsHub and ECPlaza publishing the wrong photograph for MR-6C. The subfamilies appear to be as follows:
|MR||Reed||Momentary||30 million||24 V DC, 5 mA||1 ms|
|MD||Sealed contact mechanical||Momentary||10 million||24 V DC, 1 mA||2 ms initial; 5 ms end of life|
|Alternate action||100 thousand||Unspecified|
|Unknown||Momentary illuminated||5 million||24 V DC, 1 mA||3 ms initial; 5 ms end of life|
|ML||Metal foil mechanical||Momentary||3 million||24 V DC, 1 mA||5 ms end of life|
MR series comprises reed switches; these were also sold as GRI KBR. They have a higher carrying current of 5 mA over the 1 mA of the mechanical types, and they have a lower bounce time of 1 ms as is typical of reed switches. US patent 4041427 filed in 1975 appears to cover these switches.
The only known part number is MR-6C-CM, a cruciform model sold as GRI KBR-01-01-B.
MD switches use a sealed contact assembly similar to that of Alps “switchplate” types. Datanetics licenced their elastic diaphragm technology to Futaba, and these switches may be based on DC-50. However, patent S50-150878A published in 1975 is more likely to be that type.
Patent JP S59-44725 A filed in 1982 depicts MD, which seems strangely late. A subset of this range was sold as GRI KBM, and KBM is documented back as far as 1977, albeit inaccurately, and there is no proof that the KBM of 1977 is the same as the KBM of the 1980s.
Standard momentary switches have a lifetime of 10 million and an intial bounce time of under 2 ms. The alternate action version (confusingly listed as “4PA” instead of “MD-4PA”) has a reduced lifetime of only 100 thousand cycles, which is quite normal for alternate action. However, the illuminated type (MD-7) has a lifetime of 5 million and an initial bounce time of 3 ms. This longer bounce time suggests that these have a different contact mechanism inside, calling into question whether all MD types really are sealed contact. The alternate action type has been proven to be sealed contact, from inspection of Televideo keyboards.
The momentary types come in a number of colour arrangements that seem to denote weight; this can be seen clearly in a Hazeltine keyboard. Confusingly only a single weight is documented for MD-4P, even though MD-4P appears to be the standard momentary non-illuminated subseries. MD-7 is the illuminated a sub-series, with both momentary and alternate action variants that each come in either incandescent lamp or LED form. This would mean that MD-7 alternate action is 5 million cycles versus 4PA alternate action at 100 thousand; it seems that not enough care was taken with the documentation.
- MD4P-R: blade mount, as shown in a small excerpt of a Futaba datasheet or catalogue entry within an Eagle Electric advertisement; the part number seems to be 91K-450026
- MD-4P-CS: cruciform mount, white/black/orange, momentary; this was sold as GRI KBM-01-01-B
- MD-4P-CSN: listed unillustrated on a surplus site as “9100-00001-001 KEY SWITCH FUTABA PN MD-4P-CSN” but unsurprisingly there is no stock
The Eagle Electric advertisement notes that “C stem” means “Cross Stem”. No indication is given whether the blade stem is denoted by the “R” (making the cruciform equivalent MD4P-C) or whether the blade stem is denoted by the absence of the “R” (making the cruciform type MD4P-CR).
The illuminated models have a smaller plunger that is offset to make space for the LED, as can be seen in a Unitron keyboard. In this instance, it’s not stated whether this switch is alternate action or momentary, but all-black colouration typically indicates alternate action with Futaba MD.
ML switches use fragile metal foil contacts with wiping action. These types cannot be disassembled safely: the movable contact is pressed into the shell and blocks the plunger from coming out, and it tends to tear if you attempt to remove it. Normally, one of the screw-in terminals functions as the stationary contact, against which the foil movable contact is pressed, but rare examples exist with dual foil contacts. The shells of smaller types are also prone to snapping on disassembly too, which compounds the misery considering that they are not particularly reliable.
ML switches are available in standard size with the full 3.1 mm travel, as well as reduced size with 2.5 mm of travel. The 3.1 mm version is the type found in later Acorn Atom keyboards and most BBC Microcomputer keyboards. The 2.5 mm version is more widely known, from Acorn, Atari and Memotech computers in particular.
- ML-3-CM: 2.5 mm travel, cruciform mount, white/black/black, momentary (model number per the Memotech MTX 512 technical manual)
- ML88-CM: 2.5 mm travel, cruciform mount; sold by GRI as GRI KBM-LP
While MD illuminated is known, it would appear that the lower-profile ML switches did not offer an illuminated version. GRI 8000 series keyboards, in particular model 8095-12321-5200 and the Xcel Up/Doc keyboard, demonstrate KBM-LP switches with the corners cut off to make room for an LED, something that should not be necessary if an illuminated option existed. (There remains the possibility of an illuminated type with an LED in a position that did not suit GRI, such as front or centre.)
Although these are also sealed contact, the term “sealed” in this instance indicates that the base of the switch is sealed in place, and it appears that the switch cannot be opened non-destructively. These switches are four-terminal; the additional two terminals are from an internal jumper that doubles as extra securing points to hold the switch. A step in the shell allows them to be held down by a metal plate in the same manner as covered Cherry M8 switches, even though the switches cannot be snapped into the plate. No part numbers are known for these, and they are fairly uncommon; examples include:
- Rockwell AIM-65, of which many use a Futaba-made keyboard (the branding on the keyboard PC can be seen on an eBay listing, and unlike the TI-99/4A keyboards, only the Futaba logo appears, instead of both Futaba and Sejin logos together) (Additional photos of the AIM-65 keyboard)
- Executive Peripheral Systems KB-A3 (this page has disassembly photos of the switches)
Internally they are almost the same as MD types, including the two-part plunger with a minuscule elastic band around the connecting peg. The jumper has a slot through the centre to fit over the spring nub. Considering that the series names seem to indicate the contact mechanism, these may also be MD types. The base is very thick, and secured so tightly that it will snap before it will come out. The following photo is of a standard switch from an AIM-65 keyboard; part of the base has been sliced away in order to get enough leverage to force out the base. As noted, the base snapped when trying to prise it out of the switch. The orientation of the base in the photograph is 90° out.
The ivory/ivory/cream type above is fairly heavy, possibly 85 cN actuation, and is distinctly heavier than MD-4PCS, SMK J-M0404 standard and Alps SKCC cream and green. The ivory/ivory/orange type found under space bar is heavier still.
Illuminated alternate action switches exist in this series too. As with MD, the plunger is offset to make room for the additional parts.