Thursday, December 19, 2019

IBM 5291 Keyboard USB Mod

Typewriters are wonderful, distraction-free writing tools. Actually, I don't really believe that. Typewriters are a feast for the senses; the smell, sound, and tactile feel are all part of the magic that is part of non-digital writing. Some very sick people even love the gentle hum of a Selectric's motor. Instead of being distraction-free they are right-distraction devices. The things that draw our attention are all in service to the visceral feel of pure communication.

Even so, we are called on to engage with digital devices. It's a cruel reality of a "modern" world. I don't like typing on a computer, but when I do, I always use mechanical keyboards. You know the kind; clicky, tactile, loud, and ancient. My daily typer is a 1987 IBM Model M. It's a nice keyboard. If you'e never had the chance to use one of these keyboards, you are missing out. On a tuned specimen, nothing compares. If you've used an IBM Wheelwriter before, you have used this type of keyboard.

The Model M's cult following is well documented. There are people who will wax philosophical on the feeling and sound of the buckling spring keyboard. There are actually YouTube videos on the subject, but that is hardly a sigil of eccentricity.

Connoisseurs will tell you that the predecessor to the Model M, the Model F, is even more refined. It's as close to the urkeyboard as you can get (barring beamsprings). This is what I wanted to share with you today.

Bigfoot is what some collectors call this. It is big and heavy. It types beautifully.

I recently completed a USB conversion for this IMB 5291 Terminal keyboard. Most people would think that Soarer's Converter would be the way to go. However, Soarer's is closed-source. It's not being actively maintained. There is also the sudden and strange disappearance of Soarer from the keyboard enthusiast's bulletin boards. These three things prompted me to look elsewhere for firmware. I decided on QMK Firmware. It ticked all the boxes; Atmel support, open-source, current updates, large user-base.

Wiring up the converter was fairly easy. I used a Teensy 2.0 to upload the firmware from the QMK online builder. You can customize, compile, and download all from within a web browser.

Just a little debugging and I was able to start using it on my home computer. I just completed grades using this keyboard and it was so nice to finally use it. As I use it more, I might just make it a permanent daily typer. The sound and feel of this keyboard are a perfect right-distraction.


  1. Here's a tip I learned a long time ago. If you are using an external keyboard with number pad, a "num lock" can give you fits when it converts the j k l keys to a number pad. So don't use it. When you want to enter numerical data, just hold down the left shift key while you enter the numbers with the right hand. Release the shift key when the last number is entered. Your left hand isn't doing anything, anyway. Great when working on tax programs or spreadsheets where you have to switch frequently between numerical and alpha data.

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