Symbolics Keyboard

Back in the 80s there was an AI (artificial intelligence) boom – a euphoric time of specialized computers and the belief that we were going to be able to invent smart computer systems. It was after Xerox PARC‘s peak but before personal computers had the computing power that eventually put specialized high-end workstations on the path to extinction.

My first job after college was in Boston at BBN — working in their AI and Experimental Psychology departments. And we had a set of high-end Symbolics Lisp-machines that we used to do our programming work. Because there weren’t enough machines for everyone they were all together in what we called the Lisp-Machine Room (at the time it sounded very sexy). You often had to sign up for time to use one of them.

The machines were the perfect software environment for their very specialized task — programming in Lisp. The combination of operating system, programming environment, text editor (a variant of Emacs – which was where you did almost all your work), and programming language was seamless. Every aspect of the machine, including its operating system, was also all written in Lisp — and you could get to the source code to anything and change it, in real-time, while the system was running. It’s hard to describe just how fluid an environment it was – so perfectly suited for its specialized task – that  it wasn’t unusual to enter a kind-of state of flow when you were using it.

But the machines were eccentric — their keyboards especially so. Non-users were baffled by them. They were big and heavy. At the top there were square, triangle, and circle keys. There were Control, Meta, Super, and Hyper keys at the bottom.  You could type a parenthesis without holding down a shift key. And the delete/backspace key was labeled Rub Out… and it was on the left side of the keyboard!!  Bizarre, but once you learned it all, it made so much sense that you wanted every keyboard to be like it.

The keyboard was a work of art. Its layout and feel were so ‘right’ that you could get almost everything done, and often faster, too, without ever touching the mouse.

In a way they were similar to the IBM Selectric typewriter (originally designed by Elliot Noyes). Perfect for its function and era. But, over time, they became less and less relevant. Put aside because of new ways of working and new technologies.

Symbolics Keyboard (image source: Wikipedia)
Symbolics Keyboard Layout
IBM Selectric II (image source: Flickr)