That the tech industry is not particularly funny becomes cruelly obvious every April Fools’ Day, when perusing books like these — or, in my world, the day when I realized that a) the “keyboard humour” folder in my database has 250 items, and b) precisely none of it will make it into the book.
But then, there’s nothing preventing us from rifling through it together here, in this newsletter.
Let’s get the really bad out of the way first: the predictable Keyboard For X jokes (keyboard for blondes, a once actual sad product, keyboard for Americans, doctor’s keyboard), and replacing some keys with “funny” equivalents (Make Coffee, Fuck It, Oh Shit — a tactic particularly popular with stock photos sites).
There’s also this early 1990s meme. It made fun of Windows 95’s reliability, and how the infamous keyboard shortcut designed to be impossible to press with one hand eventually became a daily necessity:
The really funny thing, though? A later computer called Vulcan FlipStart actually did do j u s t t h a t, equipping its keyboard with one key called… “Ctrl Alt Del”:
Similarly, whoever made this little visual…
…couldn’t have predicted Apple’s eventual demotion of Esc to a bunch of sorry Touch Bar pixels, and a short-lived barrage of hot takes like below. (They’re funny in some part because you can imagine an alternate universe where Apple’s personality traits lead them to launch exactly this.)
And then, there was a bunch of popular jokes like these:
Kind of funny, right? Except there w e r e actual binary keyboards, from ROM programmers…
…to this TI calculator snap-on overlay for education…
…to keyboards of early hobbyist computers like KENBAK-1:
Leafing through the folder, I found it fascinating how often this happened. We once made fun of antiquated typewriter habits…
…only to see a modern keyboard called Penna celebrate the carriage return lever and make it functional once more:
And, likewise, I bet you’ve seen a variation of this joke:
(There was even a version of it that was turned into a book counting a staggering 100+ pages, likely the brightest example of a premise outstaying its welcome.)
But underneath all this (attempted) laughter was a genuine fear of progress — the worry of unfriendly 1980s computers taking over what was once a simple and understandable act of mechanical typing. And pencils coexisted with typewriters early on, used to draw rulers or missing characters, for example in this beautiful grasshopper-like Oliver:
The pencil would swing to meet paper, becoming something of an honorary typebar
But by the time desktop computers came around a century later, pencils were demoted to describing all the complicated function keys in the cramped areas of the 1980s and 1990s keyboards designated for just that — and the pencil joke made perfect sense.
Other jokes keep evolving in interesting ways, too. The infamous prompt to press “any key” went as mainstream as The Simpsons:
“Any key” was a bona fide usability problem, with companies like Apple and Compaq writing support documents, and others providing stickers like these:
But just last year the creators of Keyboard.io released their first mechanical keyboard, which — as a wink to its audience — included a key actually labeled Any. The joke became real.
Apparently, the key had its revenge during Quality Testing, confounding the technicians
Humour quality aside, I found it surprisingly exciting to peruse the collection. It showed me vintage poems eventually becoming Twitter snark. It alternated between high brow and approachable. It juxtaposed deep cuts and wide audience. There were keyboard jokes from Illustrated Phonographic World in 1894, The New Yorker in 1946, MAD Magazine in 1987, and The Onion in 2017. And there was the same joke made over, over, over, over, over, over, over, over, over, over, over, over, over, over, over, over, over, over, over, over, over, over, over, over, over, over, over, over, over, over, over, over, over, over, over, over, over, over, over, over, over, over, over, over, over, over, over, over, over, over, over, over, and over again.
And I will admit: I found some of these genuinely funny. One 1913 poem was pretty inventive, this poster was a hilarious commentary on the perceived arbitrary nature of QWERTY, and Google in Japan designed a bunch of amusing product announcements for — I’ll be damned — April Fools’ Days in 2010, 2013, and 2016. (They’re so good many people keep assuming they’re real.)
Of course, humour is never objective, but I wanted to end this by showing you the funnest to me keyboard joke. There’s no backstory or multiple layers here… just something that always makes me smile:
The entire above-mentioned humour folder from my database! Check it out, let me know what makes you laugh, and tell me what I’m missing.
I’m in the folder, too! Some fifteen years ago I thought of creating my own computing history comic strip. That went nowhere rather fast, but not before I made this comic:
The comic strip’s name was… Carriage Return.
Still a lot of anxiety, figuring stuff out, questions without answers. It has been hard, but I’m getting there. I’ll share more once the coast is clear.
In the meantime, I printed the first prototype of the book! It showcases how much editing and production work still needs to be done — but opening a table of contents, seeing it all laid out, and being able to jump to the page and start reading… it was all surprisingly emotional.
I also started thinking of production, and figuring out how to take good photos of keyboards. Some of the photography in this newsletter come from my new camera and the little studio I put together.
One: Why are the old keyboard spacebars so often yellow? (Some of you will know this, but if you don’t, it might be fun to try to figure out without looking it up?)
Two: Can you name any other keyboard bar that’s not a spacebar?
I am writing this mostly on the infamous new Apple laptop, but once in a while my hand reaches to the right to press a key on the first ever keyboard I put together:
I’ve wanted to build my own keyboard for a while, and eventually I came up with an idea for something small, something unique, and something that meant something to me. And so, I created a keyboard that outputs only… spaces:
Each key on this keyboard gives me a different typographical space. I can use it to add hair spaces around em dashes — like here — just so they don’t touch the letters. I can e m p h a s i z e without needing italics or bold. Or I can do all sort of trivial or serious shenanigans with the zero-width spaces.
I am a big fan of treating a joke incredibly seriously, inspired by the likes of Weird Al or Penn & Teller and the amount of unseen effort they expend towards what most treat as trivial. And so I decided to go all in on this little keyboard: I used the right key profiles for two of the rows, added ridges on two middle keys to help orient your fingers for touch typing, and added labels… although of a different kind.
Since each space looks the same, I varied the f e e l of every key. I did the opposite of what one normally does, and put different switches underneath keys according to a simple principle: the thinner spaces should be lighter on your fingers than the wider ones, and the spaces not allowed to break will click when you press them.
It’s a goofy project, I know. But it’s also a nod to the century when typewriters ruined typography, an appreciation of today’s universe of DIY mechanical keyboards, and an homage to the decades-old notion of specific function keyboards:
Vintage function keyboards, some from when computers didn’t have displays yet
I feel good that the world of keyboards has room for fun creative projects like this one. And I feel good that we can end with these two photos of women at work, given the first joke this post started with.
But I’ll squander this moment and end back in the land of bad humour. I needed a name for my little keyboard, and I believe I came up a pretty good one, predicated on this being a keyboard that outputs only spaces, and that it was my first ever creation.
I called it the Space Cadet Keyboard.