KBK (“keyboard knowledge”) represents the results of my ongoing research into the history of computer keyboards. As extensive as it is, it will never be exhaustive, and readers will always be directed towards other sources of information as necessary. For a number of years, I posted my findings to the Deskthority wiki, and KBK is a continuation of that work. As such, KBK represents only what I have discovered since then (with the help of many others), and I will not be migrating content from the Deskthority wiki to KBK (although I do re-use some of my photographs, all of which are in the public domain).
As nice as it would be to claim that I wrote the book on the subject, this site is not a book either. There is still too much knowledge presently lost and unavailable (even with present-day product lines), and too much knowledge being rewritten as more accurate information comes to light, to commit any of this material to print (physically or electronically). One day, we will finally know enough to make that possible, but not today.
All images posted within these pages (with the exception of the reference photos, brand logos and the rogues gallery, or where otherwise noted) are my own work and are released into the public domain.
Part number schema format
Part number schemas are presented in the following format:
- Constant text (e.g. series name) is shown in bold in the schema, and in quotation marks within the definitions
- Placeholder items (variable text) are shown in italics in the schema
- Optional items are surrounded by parentheses (“brackets”)
Note that this differs from the format introduced to the Deskthority wiki.
Computer keyboards turned out to be an unexpectedly fascinating subject. While most modern desktop and notebook keyboards are all fairly similar, this was not always the case. The growing computer industry spawned a great number of computer keyboard manufacturers around the globe, each with their own unique take on keyboard design and construction. There was not the consensus on keyboard operation that we have now (rubber dome over three-layer membrane); on the contrary, there was a huge range of switch types, that detected keystrokes using everything from light and current to electromagnetism. Unusually for an industry, the best products were introduced in the early years, in particular Micro Switch’s SW Series Hall effect keyboards; the decades that followed demonstrated mostly cost reduction at the expense of operator satisfaction.
I was just as ignorant as the next person about keyboards for many years. Just as with everyone else, keyboards were simply a tool to which you paid little attention, except where longevity was poor or some arrogant manufacturer saw fit to rearrange all the keys again. Neither the sound nor the feel seemed remarkable in any way. However, as time passed, I started feeling—correctly, but for entirely the wrong reasons—that keyboard quality was diminishing. Since most of my computers were second-hand and fairly old, I was not comparing new keyboards of different designs, and neither was I comparing keyboards in strictly ascending year of design or manufacture. Nonetheless, keyboard production had been cheapened decade on decade.
The turning point for me was a conversation that I had with Jennifer Elaan one evening in late 2009 where the subject of keyboards came up, and how bad they had become. She mentioned buckling spring to me. I enquired about this, and she explained that these were the keyboards that click when you press a key (or words to that effect). I remarked that I had such a keyboard, and proceeded to retrieve an old AT protocol keyboard that I had saved from a since-discarded Tulip AT Compact II computer. I had retained the keyboard as it was so much fun to type on: the keys were extremely smooth to press, offered sharp tactile feedback, and produced a gloriously loud and reverberant click sound when you typed. Not realising that the only practical difference between AT and PS/2 keyboards is the plug used, I had set it aside years before as it did not connect to my then-current PC.
On inspection it turned out not to be buckling spring. Under each key was some kind of pushbutton switch with a rectangular blue plunger. Investigation revealed these to be “blue Alps” (Alps SKCMAG), which despite the age of the keyboard—old and yellowed and having sat in a damp room for years—appeared to still be as good as new.
In December 2009 I joined the geekhack computer keyboard enthusiasts forum. It is no longer clear what the circumstances were, as it seems that some posts were lost. Coincidentally, however, I arrived on the scene just as the Keyboard Company here in the UK were preparing to start selling the first European Filco Majestouch keyboards, produced to order on their behalf by Diatec of Japan, just as EliteKeyboards in the US had previously had Diatec manufacture Majestouch keyboards for the US market. This fortuituous coincidence gave me an opportunity to replace my unsatisfactory keyboards at home and at work with something (in theory at least) much more comfortable and reliable than what I was accustomed to. These keyboards came into stock the next month, and the Cherry MX Blue Majestouch that came from that first batch of keyboards in January 2010 remains my keyboard at home ever since. I would not describe either as truly satisfactory, and perhaps that is why my curiosity was only heightened instead of assuaged.
For the next few years, I maintained a mild level of interest in keyboards, gradually collecting both old keyboards as well as new models, including a Unicomp Spacesaver and a Matias Tactile Pro. In August 2011 I joined Deskthority to express interest in a European group buy for the KBC Poker keyboard, abandoning the idea when it turned out that they were unwilling to produce an ISO layout version. (A few years later I would instead acquire a Poker II in UK layout, which has remained my work keyboard ever since.)
Within the keyboard community the level of knowledge remained fairly low, with numerous misconceptions. In particular, “Alps” switches were divided up into “Complicated Alps” (also called “Alps CM”), “Simplified Alps Type I” (also called “Fukka”), “Simplified Alps Type II” (also called “XM”), “Simplified Alps Type III” and “Simplified Alps Type IV”. After learning the conventional wisdom of the community, I proceeded to pass on this knowledge to others for a while, until it became clear that there was no documented basis for any of it. Why would “Simplified Alps Type II” be “XM” and “Simplified Alps Type IV” not be “XM”, if they looked identical externally? Why would types II to IV be “Simplified Alps” if Alps did not even make them? Who or what was “XM” anyway? Perhaps the greatest appeal of keyboards as a subject was the growing backlog of unresolved mysteries, within a community that seemed to have largely given up attempting to tackle them. This was a subject perfectly suited to my attention to detail and desire to find answers to questions.
Edgar Matias from Matias Corporation cleared away some of the confusion with “XM” by explaining that it refers to Xiang Min. From this, I suggested that Types II and IV were both manufactured by Xiang Min. After expressing such thoughts at Deskthority, 002 located a page detailing far more Alps clone types than we previously knew about, and thus began the process of unravelling the truth, which still remains uncompleted. (It turned out that Xiang Min had nothing to do with either Type II or Type IV; this was a matter of confusion between two separate Taiwanese brands.)
In the meantime, I had reached a point where I felt ready to start contributing to a wiki. Geekhack and Deskthority had a wiki each, and as I was first and foremost a Geekhack member, I began contributing to the Geekhack wiki. Their wiki was moderated, and all my edits were held for moderation. Before any of them could ever see the light of day (which I am not sure would have ever happened), the entire of Geekhack was obliterated by hackers, and while the forum was later reinstated, the wiki never was.
Thus, I switched over to the Deskthority wiki instead, beginning my work there in September 2012, which was followed by over a year of intense research and documentation. As time passed, I left a number of manufacturers and keyboard types for others to take care of. This included all the electromagnetic sensing types, and the brands Topre, Cherry, IBM and Micro Switch amongst others. Cherry, Topre and IBM seemed at the time to be sufficiently well covered by other enthusiasts, while Micro Switch were big on Hall effect, which I would not come to understand until Chyros explained it in a video.
Topre, I am still leaving to 002. IBM, I am leaving to the various IBM enthusiasts, although community documentation efforts remain lacklustre. Micro Switch and Cherry, on the other hand, I revisited and made huge progress with understanding. Even though I never really understood electronics (and my schoolboy soldering was terrible) I have also dug into the electronics side of the subject, finally shedding light on all manner of technical aspects of keyboard implementation that I wilfully overlooked in years past.
With seemingly a neverending supply of newly-discovered switches, keyboards and manufacturers, there is always a long way to go, but the amount of progress achieved year on year is so much greater than anyone would have believed possible. The progress is a clear demonstration that, so long as you make an effort to investigate and enquire, compile and study, this subject is far from intractible. Many of the brands and product lines documented here were not even known back in 2012, such as the level of knowledge grown in only a few years.
This is not the only answer to the question. Keyboards are a method of interacting with computers, and human–computer interaction in its various forms has interested me for over two decades. Aspects of this subject range from the basic hardware (keyboards, pointing devices and displays) through to the presentation and operation of communication with the computer, in particular graphical user interfaces. Younger folk who missed out on the heterogeneous world of the 1980s and 1990s have been deprived of experiencing the fascinating variety of user interface concepts that lost out to the still poorly-designed graphical systems of today.
Screens are fairly easy to address: you want plenty of workspace (which widescreen tries to fight off), good colour rendition (something laptops will never achieve until OLED wins out), good viewing angle, and as much fine detail as possible. Keyboards on the other hand are a much more personal matter, but there are still some basic notions to address: good long-term reliability, comfortable operation, and above all the pure satisfaction of pounding away paragraph after paragraph! Of course it is never simple, and this site does not set out to address this or offer advice on what anyone in particular should be using. Instead, this site is simply the result of an ongoing approach to recover all the lost knowledge of sixty years or more of industry history, and to answer as many questions as possible about how keyboards work and why, who built them, and the vast array of products brought to market over so many decades.