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To save a keyboard, pt. 2

Shift Happens book updates
To save a keyboard, pt. 2
By Shift Happens book updates • Issue #15 • View online

What am I typing this on
This is that rare story where a Twitter disagreement led to something amazing.
In May last year, someone tweeted a photo of a rare, specialized, 50-key keyboard:
A few people sent that tweet my way, as they often do (thank you!). I cut right through the author making fun of the keyboard’s ugliness. “It’s a bit of a white whale/holy grail/dream for me to encounter one someday,” I wrote. A few tweets later, I added “I think it’s beautiful!”
That exchange caught attention of a friend of mine, who not only reached out to me saying “I have this keyboard,” but followed it up by the most welcome of messages.
“I actually have two – do you want one of them”?
I took him up on his offer a few weeks later. The bad news was that the keyboard was in a pretty rough shape. Its case was dirty, with pencil marks all over and paint chipping away. Some of the keys were not registering correctly and on the outside, they too were a mess. The “relegendable” key caps – originally consisting of solid plastic underneath a transparent cover, meant to hold a paper insert describing whatever custom function you wanted – were unceremoniously castrated, with ugly stickers carelessly stuck on top. 
The keyboard had an unusual connector, too. But even if I figured out how to plug it to my computer, I had no idea whether internally it was in a shape good enough to be typed on once again.
And yet, there was also good news. This wasn’t the already-rare Model M displayed in the original tweet. No, this here was its parent, the vaunted Model F, better in pretty much every regard: clickier, heavier, more durable. 
The keyboard was part of IBM’s 4700 Finance Communication System – “designed for banks, savings units and other financial institutions” – which was so uncommon and so professional it’s almost impossible to find any photos of it in operation.
The components of the IBM 4700 Finance Communication System
The components of the IBM 4700 Finance Communication System
This being Model F also meant it was built really well, sporting a heavy zinc outer shell, and a metal plate inside. (This 50-keyer alone was heavier – much heavier – than my laptop!) Despite the keyboard looking like it’s been through many awful moments, chances were it still had a beating heart inside.
Lastly, I hoped I myself was part of the good news.
Even though this keyboard was made in the early 1980s, it wasn’t attached to an early home computer or even an office one, and there was zero nostalgia for it on the internet. I decided to care for it anyway. Hours of watching computer restoration on YouTube – I imagine this is why other people watch cooking shows? – paid off. I knew whether to use windex, denatured alcohol, or baking soda to clean the keyboard’s case and its cable. Relegendable keys are hard to find today, but I knew at least where to order replacement blank keycaps. And I researched how to fix bent springs that prevented some of the keys from working properly (surprising solution? chopsticks).
It took a few weeks – an hour here, another there – and even though I couldn’t figure out how to remove some of the grime, in the end the keyboard looked much more presentable.
I also imported a special connector from Japan that I hoped would allow me to actually use it (no one perhaps ever tested it on this particular weird model, but the keyboard itself was part of a larger family, likely all to be using the same protocol). And so some five months after I first saw the tweet, I plugged the 1980 keyboard to my 2019 laptop.
The first thing I heard was a frightening, shrieking, six-second beep. (I knew older keyboards had speakers, but I didn’t expect this!)
The second thing more than made up for the first. After a few nerve-racking moments, my Mac matter-of-factly threw a regular dialog box on the screen, the one that says “you attached a new keyboard to your computer, but I have no idea what it is.”
In the end, the zinc-coated, over-engineered keyboard worked perfectly well. I used a little bit of software to remap the keys into letters of alphabet. And here, right now, I’m still using this particular keyboard for the first time in twenty years, typing on it to tell its own story.
What’s happening with the book
I’m working on the visual side of the book; my InDesign file is filling out with photos as I find and secure rights to them. There are 200 photos inside already, they all serve a purpose, and I’m excited and proud of so many of them.
This part of the process feels overwhelming at times. I routinely have 500, 600, 700 tabs open in my browser, and the spreadsheet I use still has hundreds more possible rows to fill out – far too many to even attempt a sticky note wall I tried for writing.
What helps me is people and institutions being surprisingly accommodating in allowing me to use their photos. 
Here’s one example. Some weeks ago, searching for something else altogether, I encountered someone’s Flickr page with a rare terminal. This was another specialized IBM keyboard, but a much earlier one. I have only seen it in old, grainy, mostly black-and-white snapshots, and I didn’t expect any of the keyboards to have actually survived.
An example of such photo
An example of such photo
But here was a recent photo, in full colour, and good quality. I gasped.
This was a keyboard much more significant than my 4700. It belonged to an important airline reservation computer. Its late art deco style reminded computer keyboards existed decades before home computers. Its function keys – above the keyboard! – were among the first, and even the blue colour was part of the tale (IBM was known as “Big Blue”). This was exactly the kind of visual storytelling I wanted in my book.
But the photo was just a random snapshot, not good enough for the book. I reached out to the photographer to ask where they found the keyboard, and he got back to me rather quickly, mentioning he found it years ago at North Carolina Transportation Museum.
This sent me pacing through my room. I looked at my map, bookmarked with many keyboard-related destinations, but both North Carolina and even states next to it were blank. Would I travel to this museum and back just to take a higher resolution photo of this keyboard? Or would I hire someone to do it for me? And, even if I did, what would I do with this keyboard’s rough shape? Its bad condition wasn’t telling an actual story, and I didn’t imagine the museum would allow someone to arrive with windex, denatured alcohol, and baking soda.
I spent a day or two trying to figure it all out. Eventually, I found the unlikely answer to both of the dilemmas. It was… Photoshop.
I downloaded the photo, and the very same things I once achieved with paper towels and solvents, I replicated using pixels on my screen. I got rid of the old tape, I cleaned up gunk from some keys, I took care of the yellowing. I then removed the background and recreated the shadow. Just like before, it was a sequence of small, unimportant steps that led me there. But then I put the original photo and the new one side by side, and I gasped again.
This – a random Flickr photo I almost missed – now looked like a PR photograph, good enough to put in the book and help to tell the story of the arrival of function keys on computers.
I’ve known Photoshop for almost as long as it’s been around, but this still felt like a revelation. Somewhere in the last decade even amateurish, smartphone photos gained print quality.
I reached out to the person, and he immediately allowed me to use the cleaned up photo. And many others since did so, too; a person I contacted because they had a great snapshot of a rare keyboard on eBay in 2018 came back to me and said “here are all the photos of keyboards I’ve ever taken, feel free to use however many you want.” Just yesterday, an Etsy seller allowed me to use the entirety of his back catalogue of hundreds of immaculately photographed typewriter photos.
Since last newsletter I’ve also emulated old Mavis Beacon software, scanned many ads, had fun with typesetting (more on that later), and bought a lightbox and photographed a bunch of keyboards I have… including the beeping 4700:
Please wish me luck for the rest of the spreadsheet to go as smoothly.
What am I typing this on, cntd.
I’m still typing on the restored 4700, the QWERTY layout awkwardly superimposed onto its three rectangular areas. But I wanted to do something more with this banking keyboard that probably led a pretty boring life.
A very rare photo of the 4700 keyboard – accompanied by a tiny 5" screen – in its natural habitat in the early 1980s
A very rare photo of the 4700 keyboard – accompanied by a tiny 5" screen – in its natural habitat in the early 1980s
After some thinking, I decided to ask it to do something no one else thought of, and something definitely missing from its original design specs. I asked it to control the lights in my room.
I eventually found a set of relegendable keys on eBay, divided them keys into different functions – changing the hue, saturation, brightness – and printed some new legends.
Then I installed them inside the new keys…
…and eventually wrote a little piece of software that allowed it to talk to my Hue lights.
And so, without further ado, the serious, clicky-as-hell, indestructible 4700, caught during its most unusual moment:
IBM 4700 keyboard controlling my lights on Vimeo
IBM 4700 keyboard controlling my lights on Vimeo
I don’t know if I decide keep the 4700 as the oddest light controller. But I feel like this journey from original tweet, to… whatever this is already accomplished its goal. Sometimes, to save a keyboard, you have to tell its story. But sometimes what you need is to dress it in new clothes, plug it in decades after anyone else, wait patently for its six-second cry to finish, and then let it enjoy life.
Marcin Wichary
This was newsletter №15 for Shift happens, an upcoming book about keyboards. Read previous issues · Check out all the secret documents
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