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The Lisp keyboards

Posted: 07 Feb 2011, 01:50
by webwit

This is an overview of legendary Lisp keyboards. If you know of any more, please add to the list. I have a couple myself (including the prototype below) but not the first two (I would give a $250 bounty for the golden tip, excluding the keyboard itself!) EDIT: I now have some Space Cadet guts!

The Space-cadet keyboard




From Wikipedia:
The space-cadet keyboard is a keyboard used on MIT Lisp machines and designed by Tom Knight, which inspired several still-current jargon terms in the field of computer science and influenced the design of Emacs.
This keyboard was originally designed for the Plasma Fusion system, as well as MIT LISP machines. It was sold with the early commercial LISP machines, such as those from Symbolics.

This is probably the most legendary and well-known Lisp keyboard, it still pops around regularly on programmer's forums and social networks aimed at geeks. Good name!

More info and pictures here.

The Knight keyboard


From Wikipedia:
The Knight keyboard, designed by Tom Knight, was used with the MIT-AI lab's bitmapped display system. It was a precursor to the space-cadet keyboard.
See also here for more information.

Much less known, it started with this keyboard. Apparently Tom Knight is still giving class as a college professor. I once mailed him and inquired about the keyboard, but unfortunately didn't get a response. Later, by pure accident I was contacted by one of his students who saw my collection, and he told me Tom had two Knight keyboards hanging on the walls of his office.

Symbolics 364000



The older of the Symbolics keyboards. This keyboard is interchangeable with the later versions (PN 365407), it just looks less "metallic". It has the advantage of a cable which unplugs at both ends, which makes it easier to carry about and stack away.

See here for more information, here for inside pictures.

Symbolics 365407

The newer of the Symbolics keyboards. Comes in three revisions, A, B and C. Rev C had LEDs in the Caps Lock and Mode Lock keys, earlier revs did not.

Rev A:




Rev C here, insides here.



The Racal-Norsk KPS-10 Lisp Prototype Keyboard

Racal-Norsk was a UK company, a symbiosis of British Racal Electronics and Norwegian Norsk Data. The objective was to make a multi-user Lisp Machine. I got the prototype from someone who was working with Symbolics system at the time and was press-ganged into working at Racal-Norsk in lisp software.

They built a Lisp Machine based on the Norsk Data multi-port processor (ND-570 and ND-550) and MIT ZetaLisp (circa 1984/5).

The keyboard is probably the only one of its kind. One of the people who was working at the company at the time was Richard Stallman. Peter Richards was involved in the design of the keycaps. The objective was to make the ultimate lisp I/O experience, but this was the first and last prototype.

At the very time that the first Lisp image came up, Racal and Norsk pulled the plug on the company and fired everyone. The project was moth-balled and presumably sleeps in some dungeon to this day. It could have been something significant, and a ~20 man team worked away for 2 years to create a formal specification of MIT Zetalisp (for many the grand-daddy of Lisps). Racal-Norsk bought the worldwide rights to MIT Zetalisp outside the USA.

The yellow nature isn't the tradional yellowed plastic from sunlight, it's the nature of the prototype material.








More pictures of the prototype here.

Posted: 07 Feb 2011, 07:24
by sixty
The mousepad is so awesome.

Posted: 07 Feb 2011, 07:54
by intealls
That mouse/mousepad looks identical to the Sun (Type 4?) ones. If you want one, I've got a couple laying around.

Posted: 07 Feb 2011, 09:44
by jbl
This has me thinking about hunting down a MacIvory setup or a real Symbolics system.

Posted: 07 Feb 2011, 15:42
by webwit
The mouse was made by Mouse Systems:


Posted: 07 Feb 2011, 16:01
by kidchunks
Really digging the 364000 and 365407. How long have you had them for? Looking clean!

Posted: 07 Feb 2011, 16:45
by webwit
I had these for about a year. You can still buy these if you look for it.
Like here:
and here:

Posted: 14 Feb 2011, 11:05
by lowpoly
What type are the Micro USA switches in the 364000? I often read they are Hall effect but I think that's just a repeated missunderstanding. I'd guess they're linear (I never opened mine).

Also, it's kind of sad that DKS (or whoever) sold the symbolics domain.

Posted: 14 Feb 2011, 12:34
by webwit
Someone mentioned that the original keyboards by Tom Knight were hall effect boards. Didn't open the 364000 either, but they feel linear to me too.

Posted: 14 Feb 2011, 13:57
by sixty
Even if linear, it could still be hall effect, no?

Posted: 14 Feb 2011, 14:58
by daedalus
I would have imagined that hall effect keyboards would be linear anyway?

The Racal Norsk one looks like its a foam and foil.

Posted: 14 Feb 2011, 15:08
by sixty
The hall board that I have is linear, yeah. Bummer for foam and foil. Such a terrible system.

Posted: 14 Feb 2011, 15:47
by webwit
I really should open these up some time.
I know this is another "neckbeard" comment (love that term), but anyone who ever used the Tom Knight MIT-AI lab keyboards knows in his heart that those were the best keyboards ever made by mankind. Seriously.

They were made by Microswitch (a long defunct subsidiary of Honeywell) and used Hall-effect (mechanical throw) switches with the smoothest throw you've ever felt in your life. So smooth that typing was more like swimming in thought than hitting keys. Sigh, I miss those things every day even after 30 years...

Even the second-generation (first-generation Lisp Machine) keyboard that John Kulp originally had manufactured (all custom-made & designed of course) for the Fusion Lab video terminals (had one in my office when I worked for the MIT-EECS department) were astoundingly good, if not quite as good as the TK keyboards.

Posted: 14 Feb 2011, 19:09
by daedalus
Microswitch are still in existence as a subsidiary of Honeywell, as a quick Google search will show.

Posted: 14 Feb 2011, 19:16
by sixty
So awesome btw...
lold.JPG (34.78 KiB) Viewed 53486 times

Posted: 14 Feb 2011, 20:21
by daedalus
Webwit - are those Hi Tek switches linear? They remind of those NMB "Space Invaders" switches.

Posted: 14 Feb 2011, 20:46
by webwit
Yes they are linear.

Posted: 14 Feb 2011, 20:52
by sixty
Btw, yesterday I learned that Koreans call the "Space Invader" switches "Robot Face" switches. I guess no one knows their real name.

Posted: 14 Feb 2011, 20:59
by daedalus
They have the same contact mechanism as another type of 70s linear switch I've seen (in the DEC VT100's keyboard and HP desktop calculators amongst others) with the 'snapping jaws' that clamp together when pressed.

Posted: 06 Apr 2011, 18:37
by webwit
This will be the first topic with 10,000 views.

Posted: 06 Apr 2011, 19:08
by Ascaii
webwit wrote:This will be the first topic with 10,000 views.
This IS the first topic with 10,000 views :)

Posted: 07 Apr 2011, 09:22
by CeeSA
what beauties

Posted: 07 Apr 2011, 11:33
by Peter

And today it's 15702 views ..
Seems a bit strange, doesn't it ?

Posted: 07 Apr 2011, 11:37
by Brian8bit
It's been relatively popular on twitter if you search Deskthority and if you google search "The Lisp Keyboards" for the last 24 hours the link has turned up in lots of places.

Posted: 07 Apr 2011, 11:52
by sixty
Previous main traffic came from reddit, new one comes from here:

Posted: 09 Apr 2011, 01:19
by daedalus
What are those Hall Effect switches like?

Posted: 09 Apr 2011, 01:28
by webwit

Posted: 09 Apr 2011, 17:04
by Findecanor
The holy grail of linear switches, that is, right?

Posted: 12 Apr 2011, 01:50
by daedalus
How stiff are they?

Posted: 12 Apr 2011, 02:29
by webwit
I don't think they are all the same. And that a hall-effect keyboard can feel terrible as well. But I don't have one.