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Don't be a fool, cover your tool: How IBM's mighty XT keyboard was felled by toxic atmosphere of the '80s

The foulest stench is in the air, the funk of forty thousand... cigarettes?

On Call A reader's brush with filth is retold in today's episode of On Call in which the dirtier side of IT is laid bare.

A reader already Regomised as "Jim" got back in touch with another story from the days when the IBM XT seemed to be on every desk and the migraine-inducing clacking of the keyboards filled the office soundscape.

Jim's story takes place in the latter half of the 1980s as the good old XT was beginning to look a little long in the tooth. Still a thing, however, was the thick fug of cigarette smoke that was endemic in workplaces.

Back then Jim was working in the glamorous US city of New York. To be more precise, he was performing the thankless task of hardware support in a market research firm.

older computer

I haven't bought new pants for years, why do I have to keep buying new PCs?


And goodness, the support line was kept busy. "One particular employee was going through keyboards at an alarming rate," Jim told us, "Every few months his keyboard would start skipping letters and become generally useless."

An issue familiar to modern-day Apple users, but not something one expected from the hewn-from-granite IBM XT keyboards of old. Who needed a hammer or baseball bat when one had one of those devices (replete with a chunky five pin DIN connector) to hand?

"We'd swap out keyboards," said Jim, "and the new one would work for a while, then start skipping letters again."

After yet another call to deal with yet another failed keyboard, our hero decided to take matters into his own hands and apply a screwdriver to the latest bit of broken hardware.

However, upon flipping the 83-key device over in order to access the screws, Jim noted a cloud of dust flow out of it.

Sure that there had been no sneaky cremations performed nearby, Jim took a closer look and realised the cause of the failures.

"The employee was a chain smoker, and was exhaling toward the keyboard, thus depositing a fine smoke and ash residue in it which gradually fouled the keys and made it unusable."

Since suggesting that the person concerned might cut down on the cigarettes wasn't a viable option – the 1980s were a very different age – Jim considered the problem. Those IBM XT keyboards weren't cheap and, frankly, his time would be better spent not answering calls resulting from self-inflicted hardware failures.

The answer was, of course, a thing he dubbed "a keyboard condom."

A rubber sheath to encapsulate the hardware, we vaguely remember the protectives shown off at PCW shows of the decade by a never-ending torrent of a coffee-like substance poured over a rubbered-up keyboard.

The 1980s incarnation also had the ability to make every keypress as vague as a jab at classic ZX Spectrum keyboard. Happy days.

The rubbery enclosure did, however, prevent the smoke from entering the keyboard and wreaking havoc within. Handy also for butter-fingered beverage borkage or at-desk dining.

A ban on workplace smoking in later years eventually rendered the PC prophylactic redundant.

Although the coverings remain available, we await anxiously for the moment when a certain computer maker realises that its wares need protection from the frothing of its users, overexcited by the prospect of yet more overpriced hardware, and "invents" the keyboard condom all over again.

Being called out to fix some self-inflicted failures was our favourite thing back in the day, but we don't remember solving a problem with the aid of a keyboard condom. How about you? Send your recollections to On Call. ®

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