In search of the fleeting pingy sound

9/9/2008

Kenneth Burchfiel

 

Imagine, if you can, a distant age when the internet was a foreign phrase. When today’s billionaires were yesterday’s garage programmers and software hackers. When the dawn of the computing age was yet to shine on the horizons of technology.

An age when keyboards made a pingy sound.

 

We have progressed so far in the realm of computer technology that to look back is to see but a blur of gadgets, interfaces and networks atop which we build at a dizzying rate. Compared to today’s byte-sized wonders and world-linking devices, the earlier years of the internet age seem relatively droll in comparison. Who would want to bring back green-text monitors and floppy disks?

And yet, for the lowly keyboard, the late eighties were an age of glory. An era where no gadget could quite replace its monumental task. Mice, monitors and motherboards have since evolved, but as far as traditionalists are concerned, the days before the World Wide Web were the peak of the typing experience. Since then, the keyboard has only gone backwards.

I grew up a stranger to that nostalgic era—or, at the least, blind to it. I figured that all keyboards, black or white, short or fat, were made equal.

From a cosmetics standpoint, I was correct. But keyboards have never been about outside appearances—at least, not before companies started placing their emphasis on pretty curves and a button for every pixel on the monitor. The soul of a board lies deep inside the casing, hidden from the mainstream eye.

Today’s standard QWERTY device has a different heart than the legends that preceded it. Do you hear that muffled “dun dun” sound when you press a letter? That’s the hallmark sound of a “rubber dome” key connector, available in China by the truckloads. Dome keyboards are quite cheap to manufacture, a selling point that—combined with their office-friendly noise level—has made the technology popular in just about every environment.

Yet these modern input devices, ergonomic and flashy they might be, have no appreciation of the glory days of typing. They lack that inner soul that defined 80′s computing:

The pingy sound.

Back in the seventies and eighties, programmers and other heavy typists demanded the very best in key press technology. The computer builders’ solution? “Buckling Spring” technology, a keyboard style in which depressing a letter causes a spring under it to bend and touch a connector. Letters arrive on the screen in metallic fanfare.

These springs were what produced the pingy noise I refer to. But it wasn’t just the commanding sound that set these boards apart. It was their enhanced typing speed; the springs’ responsiveness resulted in faster typing than rubber dome alternatives. It was their stunning durability. IBM’s Model M, the quintessential keyboard of this era, remains in use—and in demand—after twenty years of active service.

Alas, the soul era of input devices ended before I was even born. The pingy sounds of yesteryear all but died out, rejected by a world it could no longer understand. Imagine the shame these monuments of engineering must have felt as their owners threw them into dumpsters or left them for dead at yard sales.

There is yet hope in these dark times, mind you. A few old-style producers have survived—no, prospered—in this indifferent age. “Clicky Keyboards” and Unicomp are but two examples.

Perhaps it is but a niche market these companies cater to. That is understandable. But if there is anything that makes me optimistic about the future of the valiant buckling spring, it is that wherever such a keyboard is brandished, its keystrokes announce its presence to everyone in the vicinity. Its bulky shape commands attention from co-workers and roommates. Its legacy, preserved so well in the steel-and-plastic shell, echoes down the hall in staccato bursts.

Such is the destiny of all spring-designed versions today: to carry on the tale of the pingy sound and the decades that relished it. A keyboard could not ask for a nobler task.

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