I don’t know how this works in other museums, but at the Computer History Museum in California, a decade ago, the front-of-house volunteer ladder had three steps.
The first one was being a greeter – saying hello to visitors, explaining the museum’s layout and activities, and handling purchases. After getting some experience doing that, you could graduate to a docent, and sign up to give one of the few pre-arranged public tours.
CHM volunteers at work: greeters (upper row) and docents (lower row)
It was leading those tours that inspired me to tell tech stories in a non-tech way. I became eager to be moved up to a senior docent for its sole perk: a senior docent could put together their own tour. Some months later, I did get my promotion; soon, once in a while, visitors could sign up for my own tour about the history of Macintosh and graphical user interfaces.
But there was another perk I didn’t know about. As a senior docent, you received your own set of keys to the museum.
I can’t explain how thrilling that was. My office was nearby, so some evenings I would drop by the museum to witness it like I’ve never seen it before: dark, deserted, dreamy. I could walk by all of the old computers and artifacts at whatever pace I wanted, bothered by absolutely no one. Sometimes I’d bring my notebook. Other days, my camera and lights.
Some photos taken by me in the Computer History Museum after hours
Giving tours to visitors had so much appeal, but this was something my introverted side related to even more. These solitary evening visits helped me understand the power of just contemplating and observing an artifact, made me fall in love with the place I was now allowed to visit on my own terms, and taught me to appreciate the efforts of people trying to preserve everything around me.
When I started working on the book, I was obsessed with finding definitive answers to a few questions, and among what seemed most exciting was: what was the largest keyboard ever made?
Over time, I learned that most such questions weren’t interesting. Most answers were bad, and many good ones kept bouncing off of definitions (“what exactly do you mean by large?”) or caveats (“one person made a big keyboard, but it was a one-off, and not really a keyboard anyway”). Eventually, I narrowed the definition of “largest” to “manufactured” and “highest key count,” I started compiling a list, and wrote the chapter about it all… only to scrap it later – it felt like a listicle, without a good underlying story.
But there was something on that list of keyboards that I couldn’t let go of.
The lineup started with the legendary space-cadet keyboard, looming large in nerds’ hearts – even though it came with only 100 keys.
The were many keyboards in the 100–200 category, among them the very random Berthold (161 keys), and the elegant Viditext (171):
The 200–300 range was obviously sparser, and bracketed by two Japanese keyboards: Topre RealForce airline ticket terminal (200 keys), and Yokogawa word processor I found in a book (289):
The list went further, but not by far: a Fujitsu MARS keyboard I saw in Japan had 310 keys – and a rare old calculator, Duodecillion Comptometer, came with 360:
And then, at the end, there was the only keyboard to reach above four hundred keys – with a total of 434, a typesetting machine Monotype LD400:
And yet. My list concluded with one more item, grayed out. One article in a 1988 magazine mentioned a Polish typesetting system: a more common third generation computer, PolType-03, and an advanced fourth generation one for complex mathematical typesetting – PolType-04 – with a “very large keyboard” attached to it. There were no further details or photographs of that keyboard – except, in parentheses, a number:
Five hundred and ten keys! I wanted confirmation that this keyboard was actually made. I googled it to exhaustion, but nothing much showed up. I started emailing every typesetting house in Poland that could’ve been a customer of PolType two decades before, but the only singular response I received was “no idea what you’re talking about.”
A sampling of my “Searching for a historical typesetting keyboard PolType” emails, with the only answers coming from mailer daemons
A hint of a message at an old discussion forum had me emailing a typesetter emeritus who miraculously got back to me. He indeed use to use a PolType system (yes!), preserved his old keyboard (yes!!!), and could retrieve and photograph it for me (yes!!!). When he did so a few days later, however, I found out it was the more common 179-key PolType-03 model:
Within months, I exhausted my sources. A few Polish typesetting experts I contacted had few clues. An interlibrary request came back cancelled – an old book that could’ve had more info was already destroyed.
But weeks later, as it sometimes happens, I got lucky. Not knowing about any of the above, one of my followers messaged me on Twitter saying “I’m assuming this is some kind of one-off (looks too detailed to be a prank?) but I don’t see it on your timeline yet.” Attached was a link to a post on Reddit.
I clicked on that link, and within seconds I understood I was looking at the keyboard I have never seen before, but one that I already knew really, really well.
This was PolType-04 – not an old photo, but one taken just days before. The keyboard got manufactured after all, and at least one exemplar survived thirty+ years. The photographer found it in a corridor of a random building of Białystok University of Technology in Poland, having no idea what it was exactly.
I knew and within minutes clarified it on that thread. But my celebration quickly turned into worry. This wasn’t an air- and humidity-conditioned environment of a museum – this was a corridor of a university building. The keyboard was behind glass, but a few of the keys were already missing, and the placard explaining it fell down. I knew the importance of this keyboard, but – judging from Reddit responses – no one else did. I feared what would follow was something I already knew from hearing stories from curators at the Computer History Museum: the person who put this artifact behind the glass would retire or pass away, then the keyboard would be forgotten and, not long after that, discarded.
My mission of finding this keyboard quickly turned into saving it. I contacted the original photographer, who clarified the location and sent me another photo:
I contacted a few people at the university, and over the course of few weeks my fears were confirmed: the person who put it up as a little exhibit was already gone, and no other documentation was preserved alongside it.
I rushed to contact people I knew at the Computer History Museum, asking if this would be an interesting artifact for their collection. I offered to fly to Poland to secure it and transport it with me to California, covering all the costs. I was delighted when they said yes.
The only remaining question was: would the Polish university be willing to part with it? It was a tricky issue. Convincing them this was an important artifact could go either way: they may understand the importance of its preservation and be willing to part with it – but they might as well rather decide to keep the suddenly valuable item for themselves. Likewise, saying it would end up in a prestigious American museum could be seen as a great nod of appreciation… or go against national pride, particularly with American reputation far away from what it used to be.
I’ve never done anything like this before, and I didn’t want to blow my only shot. I asked everybody I knew who understood artifact collecting for advice. Eventually, I composed a long (but not too long!), deliberate (but also somewhat casual) essay to the University, and ended it with a question: would you be interested in donating this artifact to the Computer History Museum?
They responded back saying they needed time to discuss and make a decision. In the meantime, I kept dreaming. I imagined myself travelling to Białystok, after visiting my family in Poland as a surprise. I imagined taking great, high quality photos of the keyboard, and maybe even figuring out how to connect it like I did with the PCjr one, taking it on its last typing ride. And then, I imagined the delivery to the Computer History Museum and maybe, some time in the future, the keyboard exhibited behind the glass of the very same corridors I once frequented during weekends and evenings – now safe and recognized, with a plaque I could help write, and a plaque that would never be allowed to fall down.
And what a story that would be: the largest keyboard ever made, the last hurrah of a dying chapter of one-key-one-character keyboards (if the keyboard in the first part of this trilogy invented shortcuts, and the one in the sequel was all about function keys, this was a keyboard whose answer to “more power?” was a hearty “more keys!”), coming from the country I call home, saved because I chose to be loud on Twitter, and a way to give back to the Museum I loved so much.
Then the university came back to me. Their answer was “no.”
It didn’t feel great. I couldn’t help but think I failed. Their rationale – they were building their own local museum and they’d rather save it for that purpose – was ridiculed by some curators I knew (“never going to happen; building a museum is really hard”).
But in the end, perhaps this wasn’t the saddest of outcomes. Perhaps if they didn’t already, my request might have helped the caretakers understand its value. Perhaps if the keyboard was at the risk of being thrown away, that risk was now diminished.
Perhaps to save a keyboard, it is sometimes enough to explain to someone else the keyboard is worth saving.
I might end up in Białystok to take photos of that keyboard either way. But I have to move on. And either way… I’d already found two even larger keyboards.
I’m planning for the book journey to have a more traditional happy ending. Since we’re getting to the last stages, here is a progress report with an update of what happened since last time (black bars):
I’m still working on the photos (400 so far), but I’m closer to the end than the beginning, and I’m really happy about how it’s all turning out. The visual side of my book feels as important to me as the text; I hope for the photos to provide further understanding, joy, delight, or even a nice (moderated) distraction. I’m aiming at no photograph that looks bad, no photograph just because I have it, no visual without a deliberate reason to exist in the book.
My goal is for people reading my book to have both of the experiences I recognize: the text being the equivalent of going on a docent’s tour, and the photos allowing a different kind of inspection and reflection.
Just like the word “largest” lost its meaning as I kept working on the book, its multi-year duration and uncertainty made it hard to know how to use the words “soon” or “progress.” This is the first time I can imagine making a progress chart like above because I think I finally start seeing what it takes to write a book. My plan is to finish with all the visuals by year’s end. I hope to be able to invite myself to Computer History Museum’s storage and take photos of rare keyboards few have ever truly seen. Then copyediting and printing. And then, it’d seem, we’re almost there.
This was the conclusion of “To save a keyboard” trilogy (see part 1 and part 2), and newsletter №17 for Shift happens, an upcoming book about keyboards. Read previous issues · Check out all the secret documents