The Origin: How Mechanical Keyboards Came to Be

November 7, 2023

The evolution of mechanical keyboards is one of resilience, adaptability, and innovation. With a diverse range of switch types, customization options, and advanced features, they continue to thrive in the ever-evolving world of technology.

Let’s trace the lineage of modern mechanical keyboards, from the early days of typewriters to the present-day customizable and tactile wonders that have captured the hearts---and hands---of gamers, writers, content creators, and professionals alike.

What is a Mechanical Keyboard?

A mechanical keyboard is vastly different from conventional membrane keyboards. Rather than a rubber dome membrane underneath the keycaps, a mechanical keyboard uses mechanical switches under every key. Each of these individual switches comprises multiple mechanical components such as springs, stems, and housing to register a key press.

Different mechanical switches offer different sensations. For example, tactile switches offer tactile feedback, a distinct bump when a key is pressed.

Mechanical switches are rated for hundreds of millions of key presses before they need to be replaced, ensuring a longer lifespan compared to membrane or rubber dome switches. This durability is one of the key selling points of mechanical keyboards.

Mechanical keyboards can be customized, allowing users to swap out keycaps and switches to tailor the keyboard to their preferences.

Origin of Mechanical Keyboards

The history of mechanical keyboards is a journey through the evolution of input devices, from early typewriters to the modern, customizable keyboards we have today.

Typewriter Origins

Believe it or not, mechanical keyboards find their roots in the invention of the typewriter in the late 19th century. Early typewriters used mechanical key switches to produce printed text on paper. These typewriters have individual mechanical keys that need to be pressed with force to transfer ink onto the paper.

With the advent of computers in the mid-20th century, the transition from typewriters to computer keyboards began. These early computer keyboards still utilized mechanical key switches for input but lacked tactile feedback and customization.

The IBM Model M

In the 1980s, the IBM Model M keyboard for the personal computer was introduced into the market. The Model M featured a distinctive buckling spring switch that provided tactile feedback and a characteristic click sound. This keyboard was considered the first mechanical keyboard and set the modern mechanical keyboard’s standard for durability and typing comfort.

Key Switch Innovations

As computing technology evolved, so did the design of mechanical key switches. Companies like Cherry and Alps Electric played a pivotal role in developing various switch technologies, leading to a variety of switch types, including tactile, clicky, and linear. These innovations allowed users to select switches that matched their typing preferences.

Decline and Resurgence

In the 1990s and early 2000s, mechanical keyboards fell out of favor due to the introduction and popularity of cheaper rubber dome keyboards. These membrane-based keyboards were cost-effective but lacked the tactile feedback and durability of mechanical switches.

However, the 21st century witnessed a resurgence of interest in mechanical keyboards. Keyboard communities and custom keyboard designers played a significant role in this revival. Mechanical keyboards became popular once again for their exceptional durability, tactile feel, and the ability to customize key switches and keycaps. They enhanced the gaming and typing experience.

They are now widely used for various applications, including gaming, programming, and professional typing, in the keyboard community.

Ongoing Innovation

As new mechanical keyboard technology advances, mechanical keyboards continue to evolve. Manufacturers constantly improve and innovate switch designs, introducing new features and catering to niche markets. Keyboards with RGB lighting, wireless connectivity, and programmable macros have become common, providing users with a wide range of choices.

The legacy of mechanical keyboards stands as a testament to the enduring significance of tactile, precision typing in our increasingly digital world.

Chris Greiner, a Mechanical Keyboard specialist, boasts a solid educational background with dual bachelor's degrees in Computer Science and Business Management from Lewis University. His additional certification in Mechanical Keyboard Design showcases his dedication to staying on the forefront of keyboard technology. Chris primarily writes for keyboard enthusiasts and has been featured on platforms like Jestik, solidifying his reputation as a thought leader in the mechanical keyboard community.
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Jimmy Fuckberg
Jimmy Fuckberg
2 months ago

A lot of terminal displays before the model m came with mechanical keyboards. In fact, cherry was manufacturing key switches before IBM even got into the personal computing game.

Jimmy Fuckberg
Jimmy Fuckberg
Reply to  Jimmy Fuckberg
2 months ago

Chris, do us a favor and take keyboard specialist out of your bio on this website.

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