During my research I encountered many keyboards that felt awful, looked bad, or were conceptually bankrupt. But it was only a few months ago that I found the vilest of keyboards, a truly cursed idea that I almost don’t want to talk about – since that will make it impossible to pretend it never existed.
This keyboard immediately promotes Atari 400, ZX81, IBM PCjr – even the remote for your space heater – from keyboards we’ve thought of as bad to “aaah, maybe we were pretty lucky after all.”
This is an early 1970s calculator called Royal Digital IV. It’s a basic pocket four-function device whose designers went to extremes in the name of cost cutting.
See, those flat keys are not keys at all. Royal Digital IV is equipped with a tethered stylus with a metal tip. You’re supposed to grab it and then touch… an exposed circuit board.
The stylus is connected via a plug with *one* pin, which is unnerving
I like how its creators (or marketers) called this “Magic,” when in reality you’re basically scraping your way through basic math.
But it gets worse. There was also a Royal Digital III, budget-deprived even more – so much that it remains the sole calculator I know of that shows only four digits.
Four digits isn’t enough, of course. And so, the poor keyboard jumped in to help. The plus key was cut in half, and another added: A “shift” key, toggling between two halves of a number.
Imagine needing to drag your cheap, unpleasant plastic stylus, and scratch a rectangle of metal… just to see the whole result. It’s almost gruesome.
The calculator has about 9 seconds of battery life today. Making this video was pretty tough!
Luckily, as far as I can tell, there was no Royal Digital II or Royal Digital I. It was only the less fortunate alternate universes that were graced with calculators that I assume had two or even just one digit – and more “keys” you’d have to claw to move around.
In our reality, to add insult to injury, this was all in the early 1970s, the decade that gave us beam springs and Correcting Selectric II – lauded as possibly the most pleasant keyboards ever made, and ones whose design decisions inform keyboards even today.
Eventually a Royal Digital 5 was built, with a more proper keyboard. But we’ll have to live knowing that Royal Digital III and IV existed once, far away from touch typing as humanly – at this point, inhumanly – possible. And we can do nothing about it.
This story could go into a bunch of different places now. We could rank Royal Digital against other bad keyboards, talk about all the interesting technologies to make keys feel and sound a certain way, or revisit Steve Jobs’s quip about stylii. We could even look at other weird calculators…
(…because there were so many weird calculators…)
…or go the exact opposite way and juxtapose it with some of the most impressive, sophisticated, hard-working ones – all realized in levers and and knobs, making us imagine a hypothetical world of typing (key)boards employing a similar user interface:
Brunsviga double calculator from the 1950s
We could even go nostalgic and talk about calculator spelling (particularly the “Other languages” section!).
But instead, I want to talk about how happy I feel that I know this particular corner of this particular universe.
Royal Digital III never made it to any of the popular lists of awful keyboards. It barely exists on the internet. I found it as I was methodically going through a small website devoted to calculators. It arrived unceremoniously and it’d disappear quickly had I not realized this was indeed something special.
I’m grateful that I have time and energy to do this. That I can explore, become so familiar with this strange world, get to its fringes and find obscure products, lesser-known events, forgotten people.
And I’m still learning. Not a week goes by without me discovering something fascinating – just recently, a letter Mark Twain wrote on the first typewriter, an absolutely beautiful touch typing manual, and… this. And, originally small stacks of books in my room – all related to my book – are now resembling a skyline:
But this also presents a problem. I’m a completionist by nature – once, I made a website with 150 pages dedicated to one song I liked – but not very many people would be interested in an exhaustive encyclopedia of keyboards, or waiting the infinite number of years required for its arrival.
My book needs to strike a right balance: the right amount of storytelling, the right amount of nerdiness, the right amount of visuals, the right amount of amount. The current draft is not there yet. It’s too big, more of a map, less of a tour – and throughout this year, once in a while I’ve experienced moments of panic since I didn’t quite know how to make it better.
But just in recent weeks, I have made a lot progress. I finally found and hired an editor to help me make the current draft better. We are walking through it now, and I’m so relieved: I can see this book becoming better with every decision we’re talking about. We already came up with an idea for a much better opening and closing. Many bad chapters will go away, others will be reconnected in different ways (just like the Royal Digital story above could become a jumping off point into many different topics). I will – once again – spend some time in front of the ol’ sticky wall. I’ll also have to figure out which of the things I learned since finishing the first draft might need to be incorporated.
A list of new topics in my database since finishing the first draft
My goal for the rest of the year is to come up with an exhaustive plan for rewrites, and then… start rewriting. It will take some time, still, but there’s only good news: the book will be better, I have no shortage of stories to accompany us in the upcoming newsletters, and I will share all the removed stuff with you anyway.
Glenn Fleishman, who is helping me out with developmental editing (and who’s always up to some wonderful creative project), and Tim Lapetino, who’s read a lot of it too (and whose The art of Atari is astonishing: a rare coffee table book with soul).
This book started on at least ten different occasions. That time in primary school when I tried to impress a girl by drawing the whole keyboard layout of my Atari 800XL from memory. That time in college I created a spreadsheet with all the weird keyboards (which was then ~five, so cute). That time this happened:
But one of the most important beginnings was exactly three years ago, when I decided to spend a chunk of the holiday break to write a few “key stories” on Medium. I wrote three. And then I realized: I had a lot of fun doing that, and… I could easily write a few more to arrive at a book I always wanted to write.
I never published those stories, but I wanted to share one with you today: the Key Story that started it all. It’s exactly how I left it in December of 2015. Mostly finished, with a few holes. Readable, I think, but also pretty naïve. Once the book comes out, you will see how bits and pieces of this story were reincorporated in different ways – and I already know the book will feel so much better than this:
Read Key Stories, episode 1: Scroll Lock
One thing I learned in the process of writing is that technological progress is messy. We often talk about it in terms of a simple line going from “awkward” to “amazing,” but there are so many blind alleys, so many false starts, so many products that are simply weird.
Royal Digital wasn’t the original bad calculator that led to better keyboards. No, it doesn’t fit as neatly – it arrived at a particular later stage when better keyboards already existed, but calculators desired to be in our pockets and getting there was still tricky.
I don’t know exactly yet where I will put Royal Digital in my book, although by the year’s end I will. Maybe it will amount to a few paragraphs, maybe a chapter opener, maybe a footnote. Maybe it’ll need a few rewrites to get there (the paragraphs above are already a rewrite of a Twitter thread, originally teeming with awful fake outrage that Twitter is so good at squeezing out of people), or perhaps it won’t even appear at all.
But I believe that, either way, the time I am lucky enough to spend charting the edges of my universe will make the book so much better – adding many small details, that “lived in” aesthetic, a feeling of following a veteran as he walks you through only the good stuff in only the good ways.
And so let this be my holiday wish for all of you in 2019: to have enough time for the universe you love.
HIGH 2019 was my best approximation of HAVE A GREAT 2019! (I had to write the *number* upside down, too.)
This was newsletter №12 for Shift happens, an upcoming book about keyboards. Read previous issues · Check out all the secret documents