Good afternoon, everyone.
Unicomp makes keyboards. If Shinola is the perfect example of made-in-USA-as-branding-tactic, then Unicomp is the anti-Shinola. They make everything, soup to nuts, right here in the States. They are the inheritor of what is perhaps the oldest existing tradition in the relatively young field of personal computing. Their products are reliable beyond imagining and they are cheaper than the Chinese alternatives. If you want to own the best of something — anything — and you work at a keyboard, then today is your lucky day. You don’t even need to finish this article. Don’t need to click the jump. Off you go, friendo.
What? You want to hear the whole story? You have that kind of time? Well, let’s start with this: If you ever think that your childhood was lame, compare it with mine. Pretty much the biggest highlight of my nine-year-old life was going to my father’s office once a week or so, because I had a chance to use his secretary’s IBM Selectric II. What did I do with it? Very simple: I wrote the weekly newsletter for my school’s video-game/computing club.
Easy there, ladies. I’m spoken for.
The IBM Selectric, and its Selectric II successor, represented the absolute apex of the purely mechanical typewriter. I could go on for quite some time about why this is so, but it can be boiled down to a few key factors. You had the interchangeable-ball system, which allowed quick font changes and ensured even pressure, and therefore presence, on the typed page. Remember how we talked about “fist” last week? Most mechanical typewriters have an immediately-recognizable “fist” as well, a consequence of how their individual constellation of typebars actually presses the ribbon against the paper. Take a look at any typed document from before, say, 1975. Note just how uneven it is. The Selectric has no such issue. It is almost perfect.
Just as important, perhaps more so, the Selectric is also fast. Consider: As a twelve-year-old, I was the fastest typist in my high school typing class by quite a margin. I was actually too much for the electronic Royalwriters that we used in class; when I was in full flight I could overrun the buffer and crash the typewriter into a daisy-wheel Pentecost of unintelligible character vomit. This was considered to be quite the amusing happenstance by my classmates. There was a senior girl named Jo Lynn who would come and sit on my lap while I typed, laughing all the while. She was physically larger than I was, being all of maybe five foot two. Her neck would press against my cheek, simultaneously oppressing and exciting me with the hot scent that rose from her deep cleavage. I could never figure out why she did it. In the evenings, I would dream that she took my virginity and let me drive her ’79 Camaro. The latter seemed more important than the former.
As fleet of finger as I was — wait a minute, maybe that was what animated my eighteen-year-old tormentor, in that more innocent age? — I could not exceed the performance envelope of a properly-tuned Selectric. It could reach 14.8 characters per second, which is 176wpm in continuous operation. In theory, I could type 180wpm; I did it a few times for tests, using memorized passages. In practice, composing the newsletter as I worked, I rarely beat 120. It would take me a good solid ten minutes to type our one-page newsletter, my father standing there in his Pierre Cardin sky-blue suit, tapping his foot impatiently.
I rarely made mistakes, and when they did they were my fault. The Selectric had a way of making you a better typist. It had intelligently-shaped keytops back when most typewriters were either slightly concave or just plain flat-topped. The mechanical feedback was second to none. There was more thought, and more effort, put into that typewriter than you get in a thousand modern consumer products combined. You could have gone to war with it.
At the same time, I was learning to program on the Apple ][+ and Atari 800. Those early 8-bit computers, and the pair of TI 99/4As that my father won in a contest and gave to me, had keyboards that were woefully inferior to that of the mighty Selectric II. They were clumsy, slow to respond, mechanically inept with friction points and false positives all over the place. You can imagine my joy when Dad changed jobs and got an actual IBM PC — complete with the “Model F” keyboard.
The Model F was, more or less, a Selectric keyboard for a computer. It was not an adapted Selectric electro-mechanical board; those did exist and one description of them goes like so:
Under the typebars, there are 6-8 horizontal bars. These get displaced every time you type. If you pay attention, each keypress displaces a unique number of these. IBM put a magnet under each and a reed switch to detect the keypress. You can just as easily use a microswitch under each and “decode” the presses. This is likely the best/easiest way. It’s also 100% reversible and won’t affect the mechanism much.
But it was meant to offer the same quick response and tactile feedback of the Selectric. To do that, it used a “buckling spring” design. When you press the key down, you are compressing a spring which eventually “buckles” or “pops out” to one side. The feedback curve of that mechanical device is why you have strong initial resistance followed by a constant but gentle pushback.
The Model F was the Big Daddy of computer keyboards, and I would go on to use one for years at Miami University. But when Dad’s IBM PC was swapped for an IBM PS/2 around 1985, it came with the simpler Model M. The Model M immediately became the standard by which all computer keyboards are measured. It is fundamentally eternal, having very high-quality moving parts that outlast most possible usage situations. It was made in the United States by the division of IBM that would eventually become Lexmark.
Back in 2001, I had the chance to buy about fifty Model Ms from a reseller for $1 each. He just wanted them gone. I cleaned a few of them up and gave them as gifts to my hacker pals. In 2007, I bought a 24″ iMac to do video production and music stuff with. It was not Model M compatible, because all of my Model Ms used either a PS/2 plug or the older “AT” nine-pin big plug. That’s when I found out about Unicomp.
Unicomp bought the production tooling from Lexmark when that particular firm completed their descent into the Sheol of overseas-manufactured bubble-press keyboards. They continue to make the Model M, to the original specification, with the option of additional keys for Windows or Mac use. I have a Mac-compatible Unicomp. After a decade of near-continuous use, first at my hands and then as Danger Girl’s office keyboard, it shows no visible or tangible signs of wear.
DG would happily use the Unicomp until the heat death of the universe, but there’s one little problem; it’s too loud. When she’s on a conference call, the jackhammer noise of her note-taking upsets the delicate snowflakes in her management chain. So as of yesterday, she’s rolling with a Corsair Strafe RGB. Complete with German-made Cherry MX Brown switches. They are not silent but they are not oppressive, either. It seems like a good choice for her. But I will miss hearing her on the Unicomp upstairs, the state of her emotions clearly audible to me as I sit in my office chair, a distant station receiving Morse from an exotic locale.
My Unicomp is not for sale. Get your own. Get it soon; I don’t think that the business model of charging $89 for USA-made keyboards is as durable as the keyboards themselves. The funny thing is that the mechanical-keyboard enthusiast community that has popped up in the past few years has no love for the Unicomps. They spend $200 or more assembling Chinese junk. They love to talk about how close they are getting to the original Model M’s tactile feedback and precision, using rare-source parts from a certain factory in Shenzen or the like. But the real Model M is still out there. It just doesn’t have the all the exciting possibilities for color, backlighting, and so on. It’s just a tool.
If you are a “content creator”, you should know that a good keyboard will change your life. The Unicomp Model M isn’t just a good keyboard. It’s the best. And while I’ve been forced by circumstance to choose a different keyboard — more on that later in the week — you can’t do any better than a Unicomp. It’s cheap and it lasts forever. It’s made in Kentucky. It’s the anti-Shinola. If that matters.