Wheelwriters & Quietwriters - the earliest Model Ms turn 40

According to Wikipedia and various other media outlets such as PC Gamer and The Verge, the IBM Model M keyboard began manufacture and/or being marketed in 1985[1][1]
Wikipedia - Model M keyboard [accessed 2024-06-12]. License/note: retrieved via Wayback Machine (2024-02-02 capture).
Tom Li @ PC Gamer - The five most iconic gaming keyboards ever made [accessed 2024-06-12]. License/note: retrieved via Wayback Machine (2023-05-31 capture).
Adi Robertson @ The Verge - King of click: the story of the greatest keyboard ever made [accessed 2024-06-12]. License/note: retrieved via Wayback Machine (2024-02-03 capture).
. Whilst those statements would be true for the quintessential Model M keyboard - the IBM Enhanced Keyboard - it ignores the true beginning of the Model M-style (membrane-based) buckling spring key-switches. In 1984, IBM launched the Wheelwriters 3 and 5 and the Quietwriter 7 electronic typewriters, which actually introduced the first keyboards that exhibit properties we come to know as "Model M". Whilst their official launch didn't come until the end of 1984, manufacturing began as early as the first half of that year, and with them, familiar Model M properties but also some very interesting and unique things. Today, the earliest of such a keyboard in my collection turns 40 years old, so we will take a close look at one of these very early Model Ms.


In the days leading up to this article's publication, I was pretty ill after either attending or commuting back from a recent meetup. Due to lost time, this article had to be reduced in scope to meet the birthday of the keyboard in question, as such, the removed material will be finished as a new separate article in the near future. Apologies if this one doesn't seem up to the expected quality.


A "Model M" is a Model M

In most keyboard and retro computing enthusiasts' circles, IBM Model M's history begins in 1985. Specifically, on 21st May 1985 when the IBM 7531 and 7532 Industrial Computers were announced[4][4]
IBM - IBM 7531 Industrial Computer Brief Description of Announcement, Charges, and Availability [accessed 2024-06-12].
IBM - IBM 7532 Industrial Computer Brief Description of Announcement, Charges, and Availability (#185-054) [accessed 2024-06-12].
and used the "industrial" grey coloured IBM Enhanced Keyboards. There is no denying that Enhanced Keyboards are the quintessential Model M - clicky buckling spring key-switches, full-size layout, wedge shape profile, and no-nonsense aesthetic. Given that Enhanced Keyboards were released before any other well-known Model M variant and US-made ones say "Model M" on the bottom - and the subject for today doesn't - it makes sense why 1984 isn't considered. Only really other dedicated keyboard enthusiast resources like Deskthority Wiki reference before Enhanced Keyboards[6][6]
Deskthority Wiki - IBM Model M [accessed 2024-06-26].
. But in my opinion, were are poorer for not considering them.

Are Wheelwriter and Quietwriter keyboard assemblies Model Ms? To my knowledge, IBM never officially described what a "Model M" should be. Heck, they were supposed to be Model G and we don't really know for sure why they changed to "M"! IBM long stopped making its own keyboards before anyone really cared what it really meant, so they never elaborated. So in my opinion, the best we can do is guess based on a few things like there are keyboards no one would dispute are "Model M" despite lacking the official designation, and there are keyboards no one thinks of as "Model M" that are designated as such like M3, M4/M4-1, M6/M6-1 and M7/M7-1/M8/M9/M11. Keyboards clearly designated as "Model M" can even have one of three key-switches; buckling springs, buckling sleeves, or Quiet Touch rubber domes.

I have come to think of "Model M" as being a moniker for a premier, flagship keyboard or keyboard assembly for any given market segment, rather than anything strictly designated on features besides all Model Ms' mutual use of membrane assemblies. Model B and Model F keyboards were the same for their respective eras but happened to only make use of one key-switch design each. This is the current understanding and policy for Admiral Shark's Keyboards.

So... typewriters?

On 16th October 1984, IBM announced its then next generation of typewriters that were to replace its famous IBM Selectric electric typewriter line and their earlier attempts at electronic typewriters with a new line of (exclusively) electronic typewriters. The difference between electric and electronic is that the latter makes use of electronic components and digital technology to provide more features than a purely electric typewriter - which just uses electricity to power an elaborate mechanism - can. Presumably as a homage, IBM originally named this new line "Selectric System/2000" and it consisted of the IBM 6746 Wheelwriter 3, IBM 6747 Wheelwriter 5 (retroactively type 6747-1) and IBM 6750 Quietwriter 7 (6750-1). At least in the United States of America, the first customer shipments of Wheelwriters 3 and 5 began on the day of the announcement, whereas Quietwriter 7s were expected to start shipping from 18th January 1985[8][8]
IBM - IBM Selectric (R) System/2000 Typewriters Announcement (#184-123) [accessed 2024-06-12].
. This original trio was withdrawn from marketing in November 1987[9][9]
IBM - Withdrawal of Typewriter Models 6747-001 and 6750-001 (all languages) (#ZG87-4066) [accessed 2024-06-12].

Wheelwriters were standard daisywheel printer based typewriters, whereas Quietwriters used a non-impact printer technology designed to provide a quieter operation. Regardless, these typewriters blurred the line between a typewriter and a basic personal computer. They supported optional features such as an external display adapter, word processing technologies such as spell check, and could even be adapted to operate as a printer for a PC. IBM also used these printer technologies for standalone printers such as 1984's IBM 5216 Wheelwriter (which was announced at the same time as the Selectric System/2000)[11][11]
IBM - IBM 5216 Wheelprinter Announcement (#184-129) [accessed 2024-06-12].
, 1985's 5223 Wheelprinter E[12][12]
IBM - IBM 5223 Wheelprinter E Model 1 Announcement (#185-131) [accessed 2024-06-12].
, and 1987's IBM Personal Typing System's choice of impact or non-impact based printer that heavily resembled a Wheelwriter or Quietwriter sans the keyboard.

Whilst they technically replaced all of IBM's previous typewriters, its real predecessor was the IBM Electronic Typewriter series. It consisted of 1978's models 50, 60 and 75 as the initial series and 1982's models 65, 85 and 95 as the revised series. They were IBM's first typewriter that was electronic and as such they used more conventional keyboard assemblies compared to the IBM Selectric's tightly integrated keyboard that operated through a whiffletree mechanism to encode what the printing element (the Selectric "ball") should do.

The IBM Electronic Typewriter 50/60/75 Keyboard Assembly was rather large and resembled an IBM Card Punch keyboard assembly that used a series of reed sensors on the bottom to encode input. The IBM Electronic Typewriter 65/85/95 Keyboard Assembly was by contrast a more 'modern-looking' Model F-based (capacitive buckling spring) keyboard assembly notable for being the only Model F style keyboard with plastic rivets. Wheelwriters and Quietwriters used Model M-based (membrane buckling spring) keyboard assemblies, which is of course the subject of this article.

Meet the 1984 Model M

Without further ado, enter my IBM 6747-1 Wheelwriter 5 Keyboard Assembly from June 1984! 40 years old today and made almost a year before the first Enhanced Keyboards came on the market.

IBM 6747-1 Wheelwriter 5 Keyboard Assembly (P/N 1351000)
IBM 6747-1 Wheelwriter 5 Keyboard Assembly (P/N 1351000)[ASK]

This is in fact my second oldest example of such an early Model M. I have an earlier (6th June 1984) keyboard assembly but it's not in great condition like the above. The oldest known currently belongs to my friend tamsin (from April 1984). My two oldest are the second and third oldest I'm aware of. You probably see quite a few properties on this keyboard that are intriguing and will be discussed in due course. But who made this early Model M? What IBM factory started Model M production?

You may have noticed that its rear label "birth certificate" doesn't specify a country of origin. The best indication I can find is that it's from IBM Netherlands, which had factories in Amsterdam. IBM NL was known to make Model 1A (122-key Model M) Converged Keyboards, which were known for their massive rear labels on the bottom, but the internal keyboard assembly's label (for the most part matches) the label above including even using the US-style MM/DD/YYYY date format instead of DD/MM/YYYY or YYYY/MM/DD despite being European, and having that date in the bar code[16][16]
Jugostran - IBM - The illusive Yugoslavian layout#p500098 [accessed 2024-06-26]. License/note: photo used under fair dealing.
. IBM Netherlands was also known as a major hub of IBM typewriter manufacturing. It had produced two million IBM Selectric typewriters by 1980 and then began diversifying into other products including keyboards[17][17]
IBM - Amsterdam plant [accessed 2022-10-30].

On the surface

6747-1 bottom
6747-1 bottom[ASK]

Okay, let's get it out of the way - yes, the keyboard assembly's base plate is gorgeous. Early Model Ms (and most Model Fs) are known for their "rainbow" looking chromated plates and 6747-1 doesn't fail to deliver. It's approximately 1.2mm thick. Even right from the beginning, the perhaps dreaded plastic rivets used to hold the keyboard assembly together are present, but my example's rivets have held up remarkably well to the point none are missing.

One thing I've noticed about other IBM NL keyboard assemblies is their tendency to have handwriting directly on the base plate. I've also seen that from other IBM factories, but in my experience, more so from Amsterdam. Amusingly, there's also a lone "OK" on the front. Yes, this keyboard is quite okay indeed.

There is nothing notable about the keyboard's frame and frame other than it doesn't span the entire surface of the base plate like pretty much all Model Ms outside typewriters. In my opinion, it's safe to assume the keyboard's membrane assembly doesn't have any unusual characteristics but I didn't verify this as I didn't want to break all these pristine rivets to find out. However, its flexible flat cables (FFCs) have these strips of cardboard-like material on them that I haven't seen on later Model Ms.

'Cushionless' pivot plates & O-rings

Whilst these use IBM membrane buckling spring key-switches Model M users are accustomed to, there is one noticeable difference - the presence of 'cushionless' pivot plates. If you pop off a keycap on your average Model M and 6747-1 (and other early Wheelwriter and Quietwriter keyboards), you can look down the barrels and see that the two sloped-looking plastic bits flanking the spring on the former are absent on the latter. These extensions or cushions (if you will) squeeze the stem of the above keycaps inwards, granting a softer bottom-out feel. So by contrast, the "cushionless" feel is slightly sharper on bottoming out and there feels like there is a tad extra travel. You could say this more solid feel is more akin to a Model F than a Model M (though still with the Model M's weighting and overall force curve of course).

Another observation whilst we are looking down the barrels is that the membrane blanket (the rubbery or latex sheet in between the pivot plates and the membrane assembly) is also missing on the early Wheelwriter/Quietwriter keyboards. A Unicomp employee has stated they (in this context, regular Model Ms) cannot reach their rated 20 to 25 million key-press lifetime without one.

The next interesting thing is the presence of O-rings. They have a ~15.7mm diameter and are ~1.9mm thick. Despite their thickness, their presence doesn't result in a ~1.9mm decrease in travel though. As you can see, the keycap doesn't descend to the plastic protrusions the O-rings rest on to begin with. Without O-rings, key travel is ~4.3mm and is only reduced to ~4.2mm with them. I don't think altering travel is their intended purpose anyway.

On contemporary keyboards with Cherry/Cherry-style key-switches, they are used to suppress clack (the sound that occurs when the key stem hits its surrounding housing on bottom-out)[20][20]
WASD Keyboards - Mechanical Keyboard Guide [accessed 2024-06-26].
... or sometimes phrased as a 'cheap hack' to hide issues with poorly-built keyboards that are loud, have stems that wobble about, and/or have rattly stabilisers[21][21]
/u/SlontS - Comment under "What exactly do O-rings do?" [accessed 2024-06-26].
. After removing a number of the O-rings to compare typing without them, I noticed no considerable difference in sound, but the O-rings might be 'past their prime'. They're very stiff and many of them have slight dents from the aforementioned plastic protrusions.

Keycaps & stabilisers

Wheelwriter and Quietwriter keyboards of this early age used entirely single-piece pearl (IBM and family's name for a warm white colour) keycaps, giving them a recognisable look. This was abandoned when IBM introduced Wheelwriter Series II in 1988. This 1984 keyboard sports clear text, though in my experience perhaps in places more bold than slightly later Model M's. That said, given how Model M dye-sub quality is subject to some variance, it's hard to make a concrete assessment. Besides that, there isn't anything else notable about them on the surface.

My 1984 keyboard's multi-unit keycaps all use metal wire stabilisers. Typical buckling spring Model Ms initially just used such stabilisers for their vertical multi-unit keycaps and cylindrical 'rod' stabilisation (requiring plastic inserts inside relevant but disused barrels) for horizontal, however, they later moved entirely to rod stabilisation. The spacebar was the only multi-unit key to always use a metal wire stabiliser (except for Models M1, M2 and M15). It seems Wheelwriter/Quietwriter keyboard assemblies soon adopted the same setup as typical buckling spring Model Ms, however since by at least Q3 1985, plastic inserts for the Code key (for example) were now present[22][22]
ASK Keyboard Archive - P/N 1351000 (1985, IBM-NL) [accessed 2024-06-27]. License/note: photos saved from volatile eBay listing, used under fair dealing.

An observation to make regarding my 1984 keyboard's multi-unit keys is that some of the sprue areas (where plastic was injected into moulds) can be quite rough. The single-unit keycaps are mostly fine and what I expect from any random Model M keycap.

The retaining clips for the 1984 keyboard's wire stabilisers are not a part of the keyboard frame as they are on other Model Ms - they are clearly glued in place. Perhaps this indicates wire stabilisation beyond the spacebar on Wheelwriter/Quietwriter keyboard assemblies was always not long for this world?

The 1984 keyboard's large (carriage) return key uniquely (for Model Ms) employs both forms of stabilisation. It has a wire stabiliser on the bottom half much like any other 2-unit key on this keyboard, but it also has a form of rod stabilisation that isn't cylindrical like other Model M's. The plastic insert also seems looser than typical Model M ones, in fact it slid out when tipping the keyboard upside-down. This overall design was borrowed from the IBM Personal Computer AT Keyboard (Model F) which was introduced around the same time as Wheelwriter/Quietwriter keyboard assembly production seemingly began. Later Wheelwriter/Quietwriter "BAE" return keys simply use a cylindrical rod stabiliser.

What came after?

...and were they also interesting? Yes! Wheelwriter and Quietwriter keyboards continued to be interesting after these earliest of early Model Ms.

In September 1985, IBM announced the 6770 Wheelwriter System and 6780 Quietwriter System (and Function Pack 20 (System/20) and Function Pack 40 (System/40) variants for each) that both came with a discrete keyboard called the IBM 6770/6780 System Movable Keyboard. It's unique for having a detachable 80-character LCD cartridge mounted on it and the keyboard sits in a sort of cradle that allows the inner assembly to be adjusted as an alternative to using flip-out feet. The keyboard's physical layout is more akin to a PC/AT-era desktop keyboard than pretty much all other IBM electronic typewriters.

In May 1988, the original series of Wheelwriters - Wheelwriters 3, 5, and the 1986-introduced 6 (6747-2) - were replaced by Wheelwriter Series II. Besides the display options on the higher-end models that even included small CRTs, the keyboards also got more capable (save compared to the aforementioned Movable Keyboards) and for IBMs 6787 Wheelwriter 30 Series II, 6788 Wheelwriter 50 Series II and 6789 Wheelwriter 70 Series II, were very close to a PC-style tenkeyless physical layout. Series II was replaced by IBM Wheelwriter by Lexmark series in 1993, maintaining most of the same layouts as before.

If you want to see the complete timeline of IBM Wheelwriters, Quietwriters, and the related Actionwriter and Personal Wheelwriters, this archived eTypewriters' IBM typewriter timeline is very useful. Maybe some or most of these typewriters are worth future articles, so stay tuned! :) In the meantime, you may be wondering how you can experience one of these early Model Ms. Early Wheelwriter and Quietwriter typewriters are still kicking about and can sometimes be found on eBay or somewhere local (at least in Western Europe or North America). I highly recommend trying these typewriters out if you get the chance, though whilst ultimately no one can dictate what you do with your purchases, I highly recommend you keep the typewriter and keyboard together - typewriters are fun things to play around with in their own right!


ASK. Admiral Shark's Keyboards original content. License/note: CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

  1. Wikipedia - Model M keyboard [accessed 2024-06-12]. License/note: retrieved via Wayback Machine (2024-02-02 capture).
  2. Tom Li @ PC Gamer - The five most iconic gaming keyboards ever made [accessed 2024-06-12]. License/note: retrieved via Wayback Machine (2023-05-31 capture).
  3. Adi Robertson @ The Verge - King of click: the story of the greatest keyboard ever made [accessed 2024-06-12]. License/note: retrieved via Wayback Machine (2024-02-03 capture).
  4. IBM - IBM 7531 Industrial Computer Brief Description of Announcement, Charges, and Availability [accessed 2024-06-12].
  5. IBM - IBM 7532 Industrial Computer Brief Description of Announcement, Charges, and Availability (#185-054) [accessed 2024-06-12].
  6. Deskthority Wiki - IBM Model M [accessed 2024-06-26].
  7. email donations - donated photo.
  8. IBM - IBM Selectric (R) System/2000 Typewriters Announcement (#184-123) [accessed 2024-06-12].
  9. IBM - Withdrawal of Typewriter Models 6747-001 and 6750-001 (all languages) (#ZG87-4066) [accessed 2024-06-12].
  10. Hattiesburg American - Archives: The Blitz is On… IBM [accessed 2024-05-26].
  11. IBM - IBM 5216 Wheelprinter Announcement (#184-129) [accessed 2024-06-12].
  12. IBM - IBM 5223 Wheelprinter E Model 1 Announcement (#185-131) [accessed 2024-06-12].
  13. WorthPoint - Vintage IBM Correcting Electric Typewriter 75 Blue Manuals Correction Tape [accessed 2024-06-27]. License/note: used under fair dealing.
  14. zrrion - donated photo.
  15. emdude @ deskthority - IBM Electronic Typewriter Model 95 - Capacitive Buckling Springs [accessed 2024-06-27]. License/note: photos used under fair dealing.
  16. Jugostran - IBM - The illusive Yugoslavian layout#p500098 [accessed 2024-06-26]. License/note: photo used under fair dealing.
  17. IBM - Amsterdam plant [accessed 2022-10-30].
  18. Croix B @ YouTube - IBM Wheelwriter 5 Typewriter Service Training VHS 1984 [accessed 2024-06-12]. License/note: excerpt video clip used under fair dealing.
  19. BittenEite - donated photos.
  20. WASD Keyboards - Mechanical Keyboard Guide [accessed 2024-06-26].
  21. /u/SlontS - Comment under "What exactly do O-rings do?" [accessed 2024-06-26].
  22. ASK Keyboard Archive - P/N 1351000 (1985, IBM-NL) [accessed 2024-06-27]. License/note: photos saved from volatile eBay listing, used under fair dealing.
  23. Recycled Goods, Inc. - IBM 6770 Wheelwriter System/40 Typewriter F.P. 40 - Word Processor *NO RIBBON* [accessed 2023-02-26]. License/note: used under fair dealing.