SLIDESHOW

Keyborgs! Check Out the Bizarre Keyboards

A parade of quirky, imaginative and just plain weird keyboards that were actually developed, if not sold.

21 Bizarre Keyboards

If our ancestors of the late nineteenth century hitched a time-machine ride to 2009, nearly everything about the technology we use would leave them dumbstruck. They would, however, immediately recognize our computer keyboards, nearly all of which work in pretty much the same manner as the ones on Victorian-era typewriters. Which is not to say that a bevy of inventors haven’t tried to improve on standard-issue QWERTY. It’s just that most of their bright ideas go absolutely nowhere. Herewith, a gallery of Google Patents finds, including ones that never got off the drawing board, ones that flopped on arrival, and a few that achieved at least minor success among typists with open minds. Oh, and just for fun, there’s one bizarre keyboard in here that turned out to be bizarrely successful, too.

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Improvement in Type-Writing Machines

Patent filed March 8, 1875

When typewriter pioneer Christopher Sholes rearranged the alphabet for this early model’s keys, he didn’t do so to make typing faster or more comfortable–early typewriters jammed if you pounded the keys too swiftly, and QWERTY tended to slow typists down. Given that the initial assumption was that typewriter keys would follow the move obvious A-Z order, he also invented the bizarre keyboard. The only reason we don’t think of QWERTY as being kinda odd is that it remains so omnipresent.

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Typewriter Keyboard

Patent filed May 21, 1932

Unlike Chris Sholes’ QWERTY, August Dvorak’s keyboard arranges characters to make fast typing easier, not harder. Dvorak failed to dislodge QWERTY, but for more than seventy-five years his brainchild has flourished as a cult item; some of the brainiest people I know swear by it. I’ve never tried to go Dvorak myself -- for one thing, it favors right-handed folks, and I’m a southpaw -- but the people who use one swear by it. There’s probably an alternate universe where it caught on, and nobody thinks there’s anything the least bit whacko about it.

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Keyboard Assembly and Typing Method

Patent filed April 1, 1987

The patent for this keyboard devotes thousands of words to making the case that neophyte users will find it easier to learn keys that use little raised symbols in different colors to help them tell one key from another. I’m not buying it. (And neither, apparently, did anyone else.) Note the tiny alphanumeric characters–the keyboard is designed to let you switch between multiple layouts, such as QWERTY and straight alphabetical order.

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Combination Computer Keyboard and Mouse Data Entry System

Patent filed August 15, 1988

It’s tough enough for a technologist to convince the world to adopt one jaw-droppingly different idea; asking it to embrace three of ‘em is just asking for trouble. But this invention proposes (A) a unique mouse design; (B) that we use not one such mouse but two of them; and (C) that we dispense with a standard keyboard in favor of inputting characters using sunken buttons on the mice. Among the words the patent filing uses to describe this rig: improved (!), easy (!!), and intuitive (!!!). Side note: The keymice seem to be plugged into a fake classic Mac.

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Computer Workstation with Mnemonic Keyboard

Patent filed March 24, 1989

The inventor responsible for this setup believed there was something ergonomic about placing a gullwinged keyboard in front of the screen on runners that let it slide up and down. Maybe. But my favorite feature is the circular arrangement of the function keys, with Ctrl, Alt, and a Shift button forming a peace symbol in the middle. I also like the jigsaw-like shape of the Enter key.

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Cybernetic Interface for Computer that uses a Handheld Chorded Keyboard

Patent filed November 3, 1989

It may look like a game controller, but this is an alphanumeric keyboard–one which puts some buttons under your thumb and others under your fingers, uses chording to provide a full complement of characters, and doubles as a gyroscopic mouse. Unlike some designs here, this one reached the market, as Handkey’s Twiddler. It appears to be unavailable at the moment but is promised in a modern USB version.

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Keyboard Having Convex Curved Surface

Patent filed March 19, 1990

Lots of “ergonomic” keyboards have a gentle swoop to their case, but this one is shaped–well, like a lap. It’s meant to rest on your thighs while in use–dig the kneeholes on its bottom. It brings to mind visions of a laptop in the same radically curved shape. And no, I’m not sure why it appears to have two full-sized spacebars.

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Ergonomic Keyboard

Patent filed September 10, 1990

As far as I can tell, there is no keyboard configuration so inherently silly that someone hasn’t claimed it was ergonomically ideal in a patent filing. This design involves two half-keyboards connected by a strap; you were supposed to drape them over your monitor–yes, the one in this picture looks like a microwave oven–and type by raising your hands to the sides of your display as if you were about to hug it.

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Ergonomic-Interface Keyboard System

Filed January 27, 1992

The gent in this picture is sitting back and enjoying a keyboard that looks like a high-tech hand-dryer and places half the keys in a well on the left and the other half in a well on the right; it’s not clear in the picture, but you place this gizmo in your lap. The goal was to reduce the risk of repetitive-stress injuries, and as with many of the keyboard here I don’t understand how you were supposed to learn to use it given that the keys aren’t visible when in use.

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One-Handed Keyboard

Patent filed February 25, 1992

Call this the TREWQ keyboard–or, if you prefer, the YUIOP. It’s both, because it’s designed to be used with one hand, and puts two letters of the alphabet on most of its keys. The layout preserves compatibility with QWERTY by sort of folding it in half. Inventor Edgar Matias formed a company that sells a keyboard based on this idea, although today’s Half Keyboard folds the layout the other way, which feels more logical.

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Chair with a Supplemental Keyboard

Patent filed October 9, 1992

Yup, this is an office chair with a keyboard split in two and placed on the armrests. In order to use it, you’d need not only to use the layout but to be so comfortable with it that you could do so without seeing the keys–by definition, all typing would be touch-typing. (Maybe that’s why the patent filing repeatedly says this would be in addition to a standard keyboard, not in replacement of it.) The cable hanging off the right armrest is a nice touch, but if this product were to be brought to market today, it would presumably all be done via Bluetooth.

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Pyramid-Shaped Ergonomic Keyboard

Patent filed April 20, 1993

The guy using this keyboard in the illustration appears to be happy–guys in patent illustrations always do–but this gizmo looks anything but comfy to me. (On the other hand, it would go great with the pyramid mouse.) I can’t decide if he looks more like he’s conducting a seance of some sort or giving his keyboard a massage.

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Snap-on Ergonomic Keycaps

Patent filed August 20, 1993

The illustration looks like it’s of a keyboard that’s been in a dreadful accident, but this patent is actually for snap-on caps you fasten onto a garden-variety keyboard to–in theory–make it more comfortable. The ones on the right on the long stalks are especially unsettling.

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Impact Absorbing Keyboard, Contoured to the Natural Shape of the Hand

Patent filed October 21, 1997

How can you cushion hands from the harshness of extended typing on a hard, plasticky keyboard? With…cushions! The blobby things interspersed with standard keys in this drawing are special pillow-top keys designed to be kind to your fingers; note also the palm rests and the unique shape of the space bar. Among the things that leap to mind when I look at this: a mushroom garden and/or a mouth full of really bad teeth.

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Expandable Keyboard

Patent filed June 18, 1998

At first blush, the keyboard in this patent appears to have a rare QWERUI layout, and to be missing six characters. Actually, the top illustration shows the keyboard in the process of being opened up, revealing a numeric keypad and various other keys in the middle. It was meant for use in subnotebooks and would have operable in either closed or expanded mode. In this era of netbooks, maybe it’s time to give the idea a try? Okay, no, not really.

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Handheld Messaging Device with Keyboard

Patent filed June 26, 1998

Here’s an early iteration of RIM’s BlackBerry keyboard, from back when the BlackBerry was a superpager, not a smartphone. Its descendants are used on most BlackBerries to this day, and it’s been imitated by just about every phone company except Apple. I still remember reviewing the first BlackBerry way back when–I gawked at the keyboard and deemed it peculiar. Then I tried it, and I believed. I include this landmark idea in this gallery as a reminder that “weird” and “successful” aren’t mutually exclusive concepts.

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User-Friendly and Efficient Keyboard

Patent filed July 29, 1998

Most alternative keyboard layouts (including QWERTY) look like they might have been generated randomly in an attempt to confuse us. This one, however, is radically straightforward: It starts with A and ends with Z, and sticks four punctuation marks in the middle. (Don’t ask me why it includes a semi-colon but not a colon.)

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Virtual Reality Keyboard and Method

Patent filed December 31, 1998

In the future -- as defined more than a decade ago in this patent, anyhow -- we’ll all live much of our lives in virtual worlds that involve strapping on special goggles and wearing gloves with cables running out of them. These alternate universes will have PCs -- ones that look just like 1998 desktops, with both 5.25-inch and 3.5-inch floppy drives. And we’ll be able to enter information into these virtual PCs by just typing in mid-air as if there were a keyboard beneath our fingertips. Impressive. Inventive. Hopelessly goofy.

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Method and Apparatus for Entering Data using a Virtual Input Device

Patent filed February 11, 2000

Sometimes, science fiction becomes amazing reality–and fails to change the world. Canesta’s technology lets handheld devices project a full-screen keyboard onto a tabletop; it functioned well enough that the company used to demo it at tradeshows. But I know of no shipping devices that has incorporated it. Seems like if it works adequately it could still be a welcome smartphone addition–I’d find it handy on airplanes, anyhow.

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Portable Computer Keyboard

Patent filed August 18, 2000

This keyboard was meant for use in handheld devices, and whatever it gained in compactness, it lost in sheer weirdness. Some of the keys pivot up into place, and the layout bears just enough resemblance to QWERTY to make all the ways it diverges from it even more confusing. You were supposed to use your left hand to type on the larger section, and your right on to type on the pivoting addendum–I think. As with all keyboard patents, the filing for this one confidently explains how quick and efficient this all was.

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Keyboard

Patent filed August 15, 2001

Here’s the patent for Prodikeys, an eductional device that’s two, two, two keyboards in one–it packs both QWERTY and a musical keyboard. Prodikeys was invented by Creative Technologizer’s founder, Sim Wong Hoo, who demonstrated the first version to me personally. It’s at least somewhat more practical than the patent drawing suggests, and quite a bit of fun–and Creative sells several models to this day. By the standards of oddball keyboards, it’s a hit. Or at least not a failure.

More patent weirdness:

Mouse Trouble: 20 Weird Pointing Device Patents

Laptopia! The World’s Weirdest Portables

The Secret Origins of Clippy: Microsoft’s Bizarre Animated Character Patents

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