I know it is an input device, and not a work of art. Or is it? Meet a Mechanical Keyboard with Cherry Blue switches.
It’s not even here yet. I’ve reached a point where buying most anything does not thrill me. While buying tools or art supplies, books and food does at least engage me, it has been quite a long time since that Christmas morning feeling waiting for a package. And it has occurred to me, while intentionally teasing the private amusement to increasing levels, that there is a parallel that can be used to explore enduring questions about the provenance of art. This black beauty is a keyhole through which we can peer at the reasons why art can be argued to be so much more than product, and why a full understanding of it requires both attuned senses and the acquirement of complimentary knowledge.
As it goes with art, I could pick up a $5 rubber mound keyboard at the local thrift shop, just as easily as I could buy a Salvador Dali poster at Frames R Us and proceed to spend more on the glass. This keyboard has more in common with an editioned sculpture than a lithographic print. Though anonymous, it is apparent that behind this device is an individual or two who devoted time to conceiving of an experience they wished to convey. The experience is approachable on multiple levels, and an individual with the right knowledge and experience can even share in the conception without being personally in front of the object. The board was made to stimulate the senses, included imagined senses – and it was created specifically to inspire the imagined senses of someone who loves to type as a potter loves to turn clay.
Visually the average keyboard may be spruced up with decoratively molded plastic, sprinkled with extra buttons, or its keys may light up. All regarded as kitsch and abandoned, this board is of classic architecture without gimmick. Rather, one has to go ‘under the hood’, either by listening or by physically removing the keys and spotting the switches and mounting plate beneath.
Computer users who have been along for the ride from the first days, and have not lost their enthusiasm (or use) for typing know of a legend among keyboards – the IBM Model M introduced in 1985. It is necessary to explore this legend, for the Cherry Blue mechanical switch is said to be its closest descendant.
Without knowledge of using a Model M, it is difficult to grasp the origin and sense of the aesthetic terms ‘clicky’ and ‘tactile’ that are referenced to it. Within the patent for the ‘Buckling Spring Torsional Snap Actuator’ we find these sweet poetics: “The constraints upon the depression column spring have changed from an initial end clamped condition to an end clamped-pinned condition. This sudden change provides the tactile response of the key and is accompanied by a sudden rocking action of the rocker member 4 which creates an acoustic feedback as well.”
What this describes is the feel and sound combination that combined with a board of ‘cylindrical keys’ creates a responsive experience more akin to playing an instrument than pressing mere buttons. As with much of art, the more one knows, the better one can appreciate.
The cylindrical keys are shaped by row, when the board is propped to the correct angle, to form a convex barrel that enhances the motor memory behind touch typing by subtle changes in wrist angle moving up and down the rows. A considered geometry for the body whose proprioceptive thinking would seem to owe much to the spirit of musical instrument invention. Curiously it is the fruit of one company’s engineering exuberance for total concept, which I am about to relate as it is vital for the appreciation of this keyboard. Not only were cylindrical keys never thought of throughout the 100 year advent of the mechanical typewriter, and entirely incidental to technology shift, but their elegance is so kinesthetic only a typing connoisseur could articulate significance over their presence.
For most of us, if we even took the time to run our hands across the keys before buying a keyboard, we will simply have that classic pedestrian response which art is famous for, to know only whether we like or dislike it. So it goes with the senses, and the curiosity of creative invention – a basic touch response delivers a basic preference, while an informed response strays into the realm of intuition and delivers a truly artistic merit to the creation of cylinder type-keys. It is not likely that there will ever be a lifelong longitudinal study that records the physical merits of using these angles; it is nevertheless known intuitively, bodily, by the enthusiast. This merit of bodily intuition and response, and the ability to refine it is one of the great foundations of abstract expressionism.
The spring-return in the switches does a number of things to compound a bodily, sensual experience and enhance the motor memory process. The first blessing is the key-return, providing key-strokes that press back and definitively justifies the term tactile. The key return was a de facto requirement of the now ephemeral mechanical typewriter, as an axle is to a wheel. As the mechanics advanced, less force was required while spring return increased, making late models the subject of pleasant discussion for their degree of grace. Among later manual typewriters the Olympia SM9 was considered the pinnacle of typing pleasure, but could not compete with the paradigm shift of the IBM Selectric.
Being situated at the very roots of computing, the Selectric began a total overhaul of ‘correcting’ the typewriter experience, ultimately becoming with few changes the first computer terminal keyboard. It introduced changeable fonts, ended keystroke jams, limited rollovers (characters missed due to fast typing), introduced a correction key, and allowed for repeated (“typematic”) entry by holding a key down. It became the first independent machine to store memory, initially in mechanical binary form.
I reference the sheer number of typing improvements the Selectric introduced at one time as a possible explanation as to why the IBM Model M keyboard was designed from scratch as thoroughly and as well as it was. Benefitting from tremendous war-time funding, rooted in meeting the customized, innovative needs of the scientific world, International Business Machines entered the consumer market with what would today be considered excessively generous ingenuity. Similar devices today would be incrementally introduced, either scaled on release into pricing tiers from cripple-ware to deluxe editions, or sold as annual revolutions, one improvement at a time. Needless to say the Selectric precedent did not hold so far as Microsoft is concerned.
In this respect, the Model M was not only a well considered product, but conceptually holds many tales – the changes it represented in technology, the cultural history of IBM in the workplace, fulfilling high expectations and perhaps even common assumptions for performance from typists, generations of time producing a lore for the mechanical, and the paradox that quickly arose of making a device that will outlast its own utility. Indeed, pulled from a garbage heap, with the right adaptor, the likelihood is incredibly high that every key will still work, no matter how many cups of coffee splashed across its surface (in any case, they insured that all keys could be removed for total cleaning). If the overall tactile experience of it was not enough (I will get into the sonic click factor shorty), the Model M being the Tonka truck of the computing world makes an inextricable part of its legend sheer absurdity.
The correction of such a paradox is now its own professional discipline: the efficiency expert, trained in the prevention of something that is manufactured too well. And by correction through historic hindsight, through a comedy of successes we arrive upon one way a legend is made in art or technology; it is an impossibility that something truly brilliant can be repeated except by intentional reproduction.
So much for speculation into the origins of the tactile, mechanical keyboard. From here the hands take over to provide their input. The more the hands are accustomed to take flight over a keyboard, the more likely a person is to know their average words per minute rate, the greater the likelihood that a raw attenuation to this board’s qualities are present. Beyond the angulature of the key’s faces, and a spring return which fulfills an old-fashioned typing function, the tactile experience includes degrees of pressure and return. A key is not simply pressed like the start button on a clothes dryer, rather pressure is floated upon a subtle threshold of degrees. Distantly it could be associated with testing fruit to see if it is ripe, though this does not simulate the return, or pressing one’s finger into the palm of their hand, though this can not simulate the resistance.
Only by human engineering, coupling imagination and attuned to the particular demands of dexterity can such a touch-experience be fabricated. The keys are not simply pressed but can be done so lightly or given a real hammering. They can be pressed halfway in consideration, elegantly rolled into or away from the completion of the character’s input. And by completing a responsive, rolling effect beneath the touch of the typist, whose hands know where they are at all times, the mechanical key-switch achieves the extraordinary – making it unconsciously, physically engrossing to write quickly and fluidly. Only in the arts are such subtle degrees of sensitivity well described. For a drawn line the gross aspects of medium, substrate and hue are instrumental, but the measures of pressure, arc, grace, control, and inner force are at once instinctual and concrete.
Beyond the experience of touching the keys, two other elements compound the senses and make this keyboard artful. The weight of the board itself is indirectly sensed. An inert firmness that encourages full contact – the board will not move unless it is directed to do so. The light, inexpensive keyboards of today are delicate feathers, they must be pressed down upon as if to keep them on the Earth. The very tilt of this board suggest forward motion, to be leaned into as a sailboat does the water. The firm, static resolve is felt as a confirmation, the sensation of a lack of contention – this is an allowance that breathes confidence into forgetting the board itself. It delivers that quality of the borderlands between sensual input and synthesized thought experience, which is to detect an anodyne stimulation.
Saved for the last of the retroactive acknowledgements between this board and the Model M, and for its useful closing analogy, we have the ‘clicky sound’. The very fact that it has a pet attribution, that extra ‘y’ at the end, says a great deal about the instinctive affection those who appreciate it possess. Indeed, anyone who reads this and remains absolutely puzzled over why a knockoff of a green-screen era keyboard would deserve remembrance at all may experience a slight shift if they were to hear one again. I theorize the clicky sound will stir up time-based memories and emotions. It will deliver the hearer to specific places. In addition to the input sent into the computer, the clicky keyboards were instruments that could broadcast the depth of focus, skill, emotion and attitude of the typist. They speak, have their own language, a dialect of the typist’s own being. While they speak their incidental chatter, they return to the typist’s brain as signals acknowledging every gesture upon the board. As with any subtle instrument, an attuned writer may unconsciously proceed with certainty that they have entered the correct number of letters, that the sound of an often used technical word matches, and that the tab and space keys were entered in their proper order. Very much like art, the clicky sound that serves as music and whimsy to one set of ears is like nails on a chalkboard for another. Here is my final evidence of real potential for human affinity with this object.
Ultimately, the point is that the greatest portion of keyboard owners will not find value in a mechanical clicky keyboard, something that is nevertheless superior on many levels. So it is with art. The satisfaction is entirely in the possession of the observer, who in some act of independence noticed it. The credit goes to them, for noticing, and to the maker, for creating something worthy of note. That the tactile and clicky board may not have been intended for appreciation at all, but by coincidence was worth remembering; that the reproduction of its best features is less the result of enthusiasts, and more the result of an incidental endurance useful to those who are less interested in its other traits; that the object in itself has little value without someone to experience it that can employ its virtues; that for its scarcity it enters a market at higher cost and retains its value long after its intended use; that it was created as an exception in an environment where demand does not remotely hold it in preference; in many respects there is little difference between this keyboard and a succesful work of art.