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When keyboards were desks

Shift Happens book updates
When keyboards were desks
By Shift Happens book updates • Issue #16 • View online

I felt a little bad for the few weeks of delay in sending the previous newsletter, so here’s an extra edition. Just like with the jokes issue, there’s no story here – just a stroll through two folders in my database: “Built into desks” and “Tech posed in nature.” I hope you enjoy.
If you’re reading this in Gmail, it will cut it off in the middle. You might consider opening it right now as a page for uninterrupted reading.
Computers were once so big that in order for keyboards to feel natural, they had to be embedded within desks:
Those desks sometimes had interesting shapes. Here is another Univac machine, complete with a blinking lights console and a troika of huge drives:
(I apologize for the sexist nature of those photos. I thought it would be better to show them as they were, instead of photoshopping a greater past.)
Even desk-sized keyboards could still feel tiny in context of really large computer systems. Here’s Hitachi HITAC M-280H from early 1980s:
It wasn’t just computers, of course. Remember your Casio pocket calculator? The 1957 version was slightly bigger:
The whole company changed name from Kashio Seisakujo to Casio Computer Co. on the day the 300-pound, 300-watt Casio 14-A was released. Look at this display!
Calculators existed even before electronics, like in this example of National NCR 395, which combined an old-fashioned full-keyboard calculator with a typewriter:
Or this imposing Exacta-Continental 6000 from 1950s:
Before displays, computers leaned heavily on typewriters too, like this CDC 3300 computer with an amazing console:
(Eventually NCR made computers also, among them this gorgeous red NCR 315.)
I know this is weird. This comes from an ad, and is the only photo of NCR 315 I could find
I know this is weird. This comes from an ad, and is the only photo of NCR 315 I could find
Those computers were far from portable, but that didn’t stop a company called Amdahl from showing a whole series of computers awkwardly hanging out outside. Here’s 470V/7 posing a hazard to not one, but two cable car lines in San Francisco:
Keyboards in nature was its own mini genre. Here is Teletype Model 40, which “gives you a lot of ways to go,” metaphorically at least:
Here are some people, you know, hanging out on the golf course with their specialized terminal, like all tech-savvy architects did back in the day:
Here’s a computer from 3M that’s freezing in the cold because… it’s unclear why, exactly (the tagline was “uncommon com,” but that’s such a huge stretch):
A 1970s Sol was transported to the desert since it was “the small computer that won’t fence you in”:
And if you prefer gentler sands, here’s an Incoterm terminal on the beach…
…and even an entire Incoterm family during a boating trip.
Any questions?
But let’s go back to indoors desk keyboards. I am particularly fond of sunken keyboards and screens of some of the systems. Here are some inspiring bezels of the IBM 5382 System/38:
And an embedded display of Sharp Hayac 3800, with a large Japanese input device:
Here is IBM 3741 from the early 1970s:
And a HP 250, just a few years younger:
One thing you might have noticed in the above photos are the minuscule screens with weird shapes. Turns out, displays were really expensive when they first came around. This explains the tiny, red display of Burroughs B 80-41/141:
…and such a huge focus on the printer in the IBM 5320, right next to a minimal screen…
…and a special version of IBM 3741 called 3742, where one screen was split with a prism, and served two people sitting by the same desk, with two keyboards embedded and ready for typing:
Dual desks were not the only interesting design explorations. There were computers that looked more like cubicles – here’s Burroughs B91:
San Diego’s Noval made a rare machine that screamed “executive” and its appearance dates it so, so well:
But the best-designed desk keyboards belonged, of course, to Olivetti, from the late 1950s ELEA – Elaboratore Elettronico Automatico – 9003:
Photograph by James “Docubyte” Ball
Photograph by James “Docubyte” Ball
…through the 1967’s P203
…to the Olivetti TCV 250 terminal (with a tiny again, but beautiful screen) from around the same time:
But probably my favourite of all of the above, the itself beautiful Olivetti Programma 101, came in a model mounted on what appeared like… a school desk:
The era of keyboards as desks was over pretty much as 1970s came to a close.
There were exception, of course – later specialized keyboards that had to cover a lot of area to accommodate all the keys…
Aesthedes, a video editing platform
Aesthedes, a video editing platform
Note how *every* PR photo in this newsletter omitted or removed cables. Not this one.
Note how *every* PR photo in this newsletter omitted or removed cables. Not this one.
But otherwise there will never be another era like this – and the one we’ve had is growing hazier by a year. The reason many of the photos above are fuzzy scans of ads, is that many of the machines themselves never made it to 2019 – thrown away as too large to keep, too young to preserve, too corporate to care.
And that’s why it’s worth treasuring a good photo of a large furniture-like computer, and I want to leave you with a modern one that’s among the best of them all. It’s a photograph of a 1965, display-less IBM 1130, made by James “Docubyte” Ball as part of his stunning Guide to Computing. It does a great job showcasing a forgotten beauty of those old machines, and reminding us of that weird time where keyboards were among the smallest part of a computer rather than – as today – the biggest:
Next time: The conclusion of the trilogy.
Marcin Wichary
This was newsletter №16 for Shift happens, an upcoming book about keyboards. Read previous issues · Check out all the secret documents
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