The different types of computer keyboards throughout history

In less than a century, computer technology has undergone a vertiginous and difficult evolution. In addition to the creation of ever more powerful PCs and ever more powerful software and hardware, the peripherals we use on a daily basis have also evolved quite a bit, but without having strayed too far from the basis of their original design.

In this article, we will review the different types of keyboards throughout history.

Commodore 64 - Wikipedia
Commodore 64

The Commodore 64

Our computers have undergone a gradual evolution, and the first functional devices were far from resembling the PCs we use today. In its early years, the computer did not yet have miniaturised components and was gigantic in shape. As a result, it was not yet intended for private use.

Personal Computers came later, and started to have a much smaller footprint. So were the accessories that came with them. So, the first keyboard that was really popular and widely used was the Commodore 64 (C64 to its friends). More precisely, the Commodore 64 was in fact a real personal computer with a graphics chip (capable of providing 8 sprites and 16 colours), and a three-voice SID sound chip.

With such features, the Commodore 64 was the most optimised computer for gaming. Many publishers exploited its capabilities and expanded the game library associated with this computer, so much so that it had the largest library of games at the time.

Commodore Business Machines began shipping the Commodore 64 in September 1982 at a price of approximately 595 $. For the time, and considering the advanced technology on board the device, this was considered a very reasonable price. By comparison, its competitor, the Apple II, was sold for around 1,300 $.

This pricing policy was part of Jack Tramel's (the designer of the C64) philosophy of bringing computers to the market that were accessible to all. You may be surprised to learn that the Commodore 64 holds the record for the best-selling personal computer in the world, according to the Guinness Book of Records. In fact, nearly 17 million units were sold according to the 1993 Commodore Annual Report.

Even though the C64 is actually a personal computer, and not strictly speaking the first keyboard in history, it is still the one that made this type of device widely popular.

Clavier mécanique / Mechanical keyboard - TkPx - Médiation Numérique
Modern mechanical keyboards
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Mechanical keyboards

The first mechanical keyboards were used in the 1980s. In terms of operation, the technology used by our contemporary mechanical keyboards is essentially based on the same technology as the first models released.

It is based on a rather simple operating principle called Buckling Spring: when you press a key, a spring underneath the key compresses to the point where it suddenly springs out of its axis. The sideways release of this spring activates a switch, allowing an electrical signal to be sent to display the desired character. This mechanism was widely popularised by IBM from the 1980s.

Cherry then implemented another mechanical alternative using MX-type switches. These switches were divided into several subcategories, each with different properties. The Cherry MX Brown, Cherry MX Black, Cherry MX Clear, Cherry MX Blue and Cherry MX Red can be distinguished.

To this day, the vintage feel of the mechanical keyboard continues to appeal to many PC users, especially for the "clicks" that can be heard every time a key is pressed. The mechanical keyboard continues to be so popular because it offers several advantages.

  • Practical tactile feedback

Firstly, this technology allows for fewer typos. This is the main reason why writers prefer to use a mechanical keyboard. The mechanism of this keyboard sends a precise tactile signal to the finger, thus avoiding the omission of a letter following a typing that has not been recorded.

In addition to this tactile feedback, there is also an audible feedback (the famous "click") which confirms the typing. In terms of feel, the mechanical keyboard can be compared to a typewriter, but a little less noisy.

  • Comfort

Writing with a mechanical keyboard is much more satisfying than writing with a basic keyboard. It is also worth noting that there is generally less pain in the wrists and phalanges with a mechanical keyboard, because the fingers get less tired. This makes it possible to type for longer without pain, unless you already have a real medical problem.

  • Sustainability

Thanks to the technology used, the keys of a mechanical keyboard can withstand hundreds of millions of presses. So there is no risk that your keyboard will give out after a few years of intensive use. The responsiveness and feel of the keys will also remain the same, even after many years.

In case you break one of your keys, you do not have to replace the whole keyboard. In fact, you can simply replace the defective key, as it is possible to buy the keys individually.

Mechanical Keyboard vs Membrane: Which One Should You Choose -
Membrane keyboard

Membrane keyboards

The first membrane computer keyboards appeared in the 1980s. Originally, they were made of polycarbonate. The disadvantage of this flexible material, although functional, was that it was not very durable. This problem has since been solved, and membrane keyboards are now made of several layers of printed polyester (PET type).

These layers of polyester, as well as forming the decoration of the keyboard, also form the various circuits of the keyboard. When you press a key, one membrane (the one with the keys) will deform, causing it to come into contact with a membrane underneath (the one with the circuit board). An electrical connection is then made between the two membranes, which results in the desired code.

Membrane computer keyboards are therefore essentially different from mechanical keyboards in that they are flexible. They are also considerably quieter, as they are not mechanical.

The membrane keyboard is currently the most common type of keyboard, and its aesthetics can vary considerably. You can find original design models on the market, such as the bamboo keyboard from Bamboo Electronics, for example, or made from other woods.

Bamboo Electronics custom mechanical keyboard prototype
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Custom mechanical keyboards

Today, computer keyboards have become commonplace peripherals. Membrane keyboards are the most common, but mechanical keyboards continue to have a strong presence in the market. More than that, there is a growing trend to purchase or build custom mechanical keyboards, or more commonly known as "custom mechanical keyboards".

As the name suggests, the custom keyboard allows you to have a fully customised device that is perfectly adapted to your needs. For example, a web editor who wants a keyboard to optimise his typing speed will have a totally different custom mechanical keyboard from a gamer who wants a device to boost his performance.

Many parameters can be changed, such as the size of the keyboard, the keys (with or without numeric keypad for example) and their layout, the backlighting, the type of USB connection etc.

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