In the last ten years, the manual typewriter has made an astounding comeback. Writers across the globe have returned to the analogue. Like the Moleskine notebook or the fountain pen, today’s writers seek antiquated tools for a sense of nostalgia and inspiration. However, completely forgoing modern conveniences such as spell check, email, and word processing is a hard sell. For those seeking something old that still has the tools we desire, there exists another option: the mechanical computer keyboard.
Mechanical keyboards were the first computer input devices before the invention of the mouse, but they fell out of fashion with manufacturers because of high costs. Cheaper to manufacture, the spongey feeling rubber dome membrane keyboards replaced them in the 90s. By contrast, mechanical keyboards use switches and springs with distinct stages of actuation, producing a satisfying “click” with each keystroke.
The most common mechanical keyboard design is the German Cherry MX, which uses downward motion against a spring to push a plunger piece and complete the circuit. The plunger “snaps” downward when enough pressure is applied, making the sound. The other equally revered, but much less common, design is the “buckling spring.” These have a keycap resting on a spring, which buckles against the walls of the stem when pressed and rocks a “hammer” plate to complete the circuit. IBM invented and popularized this design on their 1984 “Model M keyboard,” which today is regarded as the ultimate typist’s keyboard for its quality and feel. Only one small company in Kentucky called “Unicomp,” made up of former IBM employees, carries on the buckling spring legacy.
The next time your MacBook keyboard fails, and you yearn for something analogue but cannot completely forego modern computer conveniences, consider a mechanical keyboard of 1980s design. It can do for you what the manual typewriter has done and continues to do for writers like David McCullough, John Mayer, and P. J. O’Rourke. A mechanical keyboard will allow you to commune with the past and an analogue experience, while still allowing you to get real work done in a modern workflow.