Medical transcriptionist melts keyboard with fingertips

Ryan sez, "We have a medical transcriptionist on staff who has been using the same keyboard for the last 8.5 years. My co-worker replaced it yesterday, and when he first showed it to me I thought someone had taken a blowtorch to it! The most frequently used keys have been completely worn through, exposing the mechanism beneath. Zoom in and check out the indentation on the Backspace key! The keyboard still works fine, so there's something to be said for durability. BTW, it's a NMB Technologies model RT2358TW."

Some people are hard on keyboards -- I tend the blow the contacts on the left side of the board really fast, knocking out the Ctrl, Alt and left side of the spacebar. Charlie Stross's keyboards lose their lettering in mere months, and my pal Seth Schoen types like a machinegun, but I've never noticed any particular wear on his keyboards. Link


  1. I have a co-worker who has very badly worn keys on her keyboard as well. She used to joke that is was because of how hard she was working.

    After further troubleshooting I came to the conclusion that the issue was because of the kind of lotion she was using on her hands, not because of how hard and frequently she was pressing the keys.

  2. I have my gaming keys set up to use the number pad on the right.
    Initially the idea was to offset the wear gaming would put on (then precious) keyboards and to give myself a more ergonomic layout for my left hand in FPS games.

    Since then I’ve become completely dependent on those key binds and keyboards are now cheap and plentiful.

    I’ve also never experienced a failure, only screening rubbing off the keys from wear.

    Go figure.

  3. Dear Boing Boing, please tell us when a link’s destination is behind a regwall that requires you to sign up in order to see it (such as this one, where Picasa apparently requires you to sign up for their service before you can view people’s photos). KTHX :-)

  4. That’s amazing. I think this is a great example of the particular beauty and fascination that objects heavily worn through use can develop.

    It immediately makes me speculate about what could have been different about that typist to have worn the keyboard down that way: (Warning: my projected stereotypes about “medical transcriptionist”, and use of the singular “they” below)

    -Is that polished-smooth abrasive wear, or the result of something dissolving the material of the keys?

    -Do they use any products on their hands, that might contain solvents or make their skin or fingernails harder or more abrasive or just change the tribological properties a bunch?

    -Do they just type really hard with normal skin and fingernails?

  5. in addition to the lotion being a culprit, the PH of sweat varies with different people depending on diet.
    I constantly have to clean my Black MacBook because I leave “greasy” fingerprints on it if my hands have not been washed in the last hour.
    I tried colored pillowcases once and found them bleached within a week and the collars on several of my shirts look like I had slathered my neck with bleach as a cologne.

    So there may also be a chemical reaction going on here that aggravates this degradation in addition to the mechanical abuse.

  6. Actually kerrihicks, Picasa does not require you to sign up to view photos, which is exactly why I use it!

    And ike, this particular user does have some decent fingernails.

  7. I too have seen this before. One of my friends who is an online editor at IDG wore through her keyboard in a pattern very similar to this one. I never investigated to see whether she used some particular kind of hand lotion or anything, though.

    I’ll have to send her a link to this post.

  8. “I tend the blow the contacts on the left side of the board really fast, knocking out the Ctrl..”

    Another proud member of Emacs Anonymous I presume?

  9. I’ve changed a few like this! I worked desktop support at a children’s hospital years ago and they would go through them like that once in a while – there was a pool of about 20 of them.

    It’s just their fingernails and awesome speed that wears them out. I always found it really odd going into the room where their cubes were. They wear headsets and take dictation from a central digital (was analog) dictation server. All you could hear was the din of those 20 keyboards going at breakneck speed – sounded like a monsoon rainfall on a corrugated steel roof!

  10. I long ago wore off the lettering on those two keys, and only those two keys. It seems odd as they’re not the most used. What makes N and M so special? All the keys on the home row, for example, look fine.

  11. Maybe there’s some sort of horizontal component of the keystroke, distributed evenly across the keys in the case of people like Stross, and limited to certain keys in the other cases?

  12. In addition to the personal pH issue — It’s interesting that the folks reporting this problem are mostly women despite the fact that keyboard use has become nearly gender-equalized. I find myself wondering whether the real problem is acetone from fingernail polish.

  13. I type quickly, with what I would consider medium pressure, and I have experienced something similar on my Micron keyboard that is about 7 years old. The down-arrow key looks somewhat melted, and the left-shift key has a hole worn right through it.

    I’m positive this has less to do with frequency of use or finger pressure than with some chemical reaction, since the plastic on the left-shift key (the one with the hole) is fairly thick. Also, keys that get just as much (if not more) use, such as the spacebar and letters, show virtually no sign of wear.

    However, the labels on some of the keys have worn off, making it hard for a non-touch-typist to find which keys are which. Keys hit hardest by this syndrome are A, S, D, F, L, C, V, N, M, comma, period, slash, and Ctrl.


  14. Given the crap materials they make keyboards out of these days, I am hardly surprised by this. This is as good an argument for heavy typers to use a Model M Keyboard as I’ve ever heard. If someone manages to wear one of those out, I will be truly impressed.

  15. pH definitely plays a part. My laptop, below the keyboard and a portion of the (plastic) steering wheel in my car have lost their coloring where I rest my right palm the most. And don’t even get me started about what happens to the backs of cheap watches I buy…

  16. Do you suppose there’s any correlation to people who learned to type on manual typewriters? I’d imagine those folks would be pretty hard on keyboards…

  17. I must echo the sentiment about the classic model M – it’s damn near indestructible, you can pound on it with a hammer and cause no damage. Heck, you can use it as a hammer in a pinch, or bludgeon intruders with it.

    Every time I find somebody who says they keep wearing out their keyboards, it turns out that they’re paying less than £20 for them. You simply cannot expect quality at that price. You don’t expect it from your desk or chair or carpet – why would cheap keyboards be any different?

    My sweat destroys the labelling on pointing devices in a matter of months, but I’ve been heavily using this model M for almost ten years, and the lettering is still as sharp as the day it was made (according to the label, in 1985). It needs scrubbing with a stiff brush and abrasive cleaner every few years to remove the build-up of grime on the frame, but aside from that you couldn’t tell that it wasn’t brand new.

  18. This is as good an argument for heavy typers to use a Model M Keyboard as I’ve ever heard.

    Or, for the Macintosh user, the original Apple Extended Keyboard.

    Mine is over 20 years old, and looks and works as if it just came off the assembly line.

    When I got my dual processor G4 Mirror Door Drive Mac, I upgraded to OS X 10.4 and a Griffin iMate ADB to USB adaptor, so that I could continue to use my Extended.

    The Extended Keyboard worked just fine. As it does under OS X 10.5.

    Real mechanical keyswitches, excellent tactile and audible feedback, superb “feel”. It’s a pleasure to use for hours on end.

    Every modern keyboard I’ve used feels like I’m poking at a slab of silly putty.

  19. “E” is the most commonly used letter in the English language but I guess the fact that you have to reach up for it must diminish the pressure on it and account for why it doesn’t appear to be one of the worn through keys.

  20. HA! She never would have been able to destroy the Northgate Omnikey. In fact, it would have happily *insisted* that she type with a blowtorch, and use a hammer for emphasis.

    I was lucky enough to find an entire box of 40-some Omnikeys back in the 90’s – 101s, 102s, Ultras.

    When I was certain I was going to make a living as a Quake marine, my Omni Ultra came along for the ride.

    10+ years later, the first one I picked out of the box is still with me, and looks like it did back then – withstanding day-long FPS sessions and the furious frustrated pounding after my virtual death, coffee spills, a monitor being dropped on it, and angry missives to ex-girlfriends.

    It now sits quietly, as my audio workstation keyboard, waiting for me to hit the spacebar again and again.

    I still have the box of Omnikeys, so if you want a keyboard you’ll have for the rest of your life, let me know – I’m sure they’d like to be adopted, and be happy with whatever punishment you visit upon them until you’re old and grey.

  21. This melted keyboard looks cool, and as long as it looks cool, there must be a marked for it. I imagine companies pushing pre-worn keyboards on customers in a few years time, like with jeans and Fender Stratocasters.

  22. Does anyone have theories as to why “m” and “n” are the most worn? Is there something about medicine that makes them more common than in ordinary English?

  23. “… something about medicine that …”

    On a more serious note, it might just be that those buttons are pushed the hardest – I’d have thought the index finger on the right hand is likely to be the strongest finger, but I don’t know if it’d be that much stronger.

  24. @scissorfighter You’re right — I guess you don’t have to ‘register’ as such. But if you have a Google account, you have to accept a 231-line, 20-section ‘Terms of Service’ agreement just to view a photograph.

    Oddly enough, if you’re not logged into your Google account, you can just look at the photos all you want.

  25. I’m a hard typer. Like really hard. I helps me keep from missing keystrokes (and bruises my fingertips). I’ve snapped the keys off their little pegs on cheap keyboards. I’ve been able to dial it back enough that this doesn’t happen too much anymore, but my co-workers hate my typing because it’s loud.

    I have very dry skin, and have never worn a keyboard like that out, even though I type hard. I’m guessing the PH idea is what’s doing it, and my dry hands don’t carry enough moisture (or my PH is off) to the keyboard to do this. But it does occur to me that my thumb sits on the spacebar and touches either the “M” or “N” keys depending on where I’m reaching on the keyboard. Maybe that’s why these keys are the ones worn through the most, is because they’re actually getting touched by the tip of the thumb more than any others, even if they’re not being used?

  26. If you keep your fingers on the home row when typing as is often taught, then you have to curl your fingers down to reach the bottom row. For me this means hitting those keys with my nail and not my finger tip. I always wear off the letters on the m and n first and looking at the keyboard I have now which isn’t that old I can see the v, a and l are wearing. I probably have short fingers because using the home row method I have to hit the a and the l with my little fingers and they tend to curl more so I hit those keys with the tip of my fingers half finger half nail.

    The keys I hit with my nail have weird markings and grooves on them, sort of like they are starting to melt, while the keys I use most often are simply shiny.

    The most used key on my whole keyboard should be the w since I play an online game that uses the w to move forward, that key is very much in tact with the letter still bright. Since I have to reach up to hit the w my finger is stetched out flat and so my nail never comes into contact with it.

    Now I never use nail polish because of my job (chocolatier) and I rarely need to use hand lotions because the cocoa butter in chocolate is the best hand lotion so I would say it is merely the human nail that does a lot more damage than we give them credit for.

  27. I too rock the model M. Individual breaking-springs for each key. The best action money can buy. I recommend them highly.

    They can be bought new from

    The added bonus of a model M is that it will drive your co-workers nuts with the clickyclicky!

  28. There’s actually a word, in Japanese, that I can’t remember, but it means something like: “the beauty of an object well-worn with use”. I’ve seen it used specifically to refer to why soft woods are prized for go-boards – because over long usage, the board develops divots where the stones go down.

    Also seen it used in reference to stuff like wood-handled gardening tools.

  29. Don’t overlook abrasion. Hands go everywhere; fingerprints not only carry oils, acids and whatever you had your hands in, grit and solids too.

    In my case, the wear is that the textured plastic becomes polished shony smooth, then the crappy lettering wears through.

    All of my keyboards have the same wear pattern; heavy wear on the space bar, right (thumb) end, then R T I O P (top row) A S D F H L, then B N M, and ENTER, and left shift key, track pad somewhat left of center.

    I type very hard and fast. I work with my hands and they are very rough with callous, like deep filligreed fine black lines. On two laptop track pads I wore through the top layer enough that I started getting crazy erratic pointer behavior.

    Sometimes the “palm rest” area abrades as well.

  30. I vote for pH, for two reasons:

    (1) In library school, I was told that George Eastman (Mr. Kodak) tested the pH of all potential employees’ hands by having them leave a handprint on a sheet of metal and waiting to see what happenend. He would only hire people whose hands did not react strongly to the metal.

    (2) A presenter at an archives conference once confessed to having hands so “toxic” that he had to wear *two* sets of gloves when handling photographs. He also said he stopped wearing a watch because they were literally destroyed by his skin.

  31. ModelM++

    The best keyboard money can buy. Holds up to all kinds of abuse, and replaceable keycaps if somehow you manage to damage those.

  32. They really don’t look like they were *worn*, especially the ‘n’ key. It looks more like an acute trauma, to use a medical analogy (how appropriate!) like heat or solvent damage. pH doesn’t really explain it either. To damage plastic typically you need a very high pH. Not something found on human skin. Metal corrosion, OK, polymer degradation, not so much. As for acetone in fingernail polish – yeah, but only if she used the keyboard before the stuff dried.
    Finally, if the ‘n’ and ‘m’ keys look like that, then what do the ‘e’, ‘t’, ‘a’, (all more frequently used than ‘n’ and ‘m’) and space bar look like??

  33. In my case, all the letter keys except Q, J, Z and X are worn clean, while I, O, and L have noticeable dents. The number keys are intact. the < , >, and . are worn off, but the , is still there.

    I don’t use nail polish. I have extremely dry skin.

    I type gently enough that I have to retype from time to time.

    I learned the hunt-and-peck technique, which gets really frustrating when this happens. (Where is that B key again? I keep hitting C or V or N…)

  34. My home keyboards have always had dents in the top two rows of letters and the row of numbers. My mom and I both have long nails in danger of pressing the keys above the ones we want. Despite developing a flat-fingered typing style, our nails have tapped dents into all the upper keys.

  35. anyone else find it sort of eerie that the letters J K are not worn at all? maybe she was was just kidding(jk)!

  36. Another heavy typist with fingernails, and I love my Model M. Given the abuse this thing has had, it might as well be made out of gorgeously clickety granite.

    I believe the keys on the Model M have lettering which is actually embedded into the plastic so it’s part of the key itself. Other keyboards seem to use some sort of transfer thing that wears or peels eventually.

  37. One simple and so far overlooked explanation as to why m and n have degraded so badly could be that those keys just weren’t created equal. Spent a summer working at a plastics factory (third shift, depressing as hell, another story) and can vouch for the fact that you don’t always get uniformity with such things.

    Possible at least.

  38. I have found that using a typewriter keyboard sound program like “Typewriter Keyboard” for Mac helps me hit the keys less hard than having no really audible sound.

    Part of that may be that I learned to type on an actual typewriter, and I don’t feel like I’m typing without the audible feedback. Could also be that the typewriter SFX lets me know I’ve actually hit the key, so I don’t bear down so hard on the keys.

    Or, could be I’m just an old geezer that can’t let go of the sound of typing.

  39. I beat four keys on my old Dell Quiet Key to hell and back. My current keyboard is my grandparent’s ergo, which I personally hate- it slows me down a lot. I’m going to get a Model M or mayyyybeee-

    @Sluggo- I’m interested in that offer!

  40. Although my former keyboard doesn’t have quite the wear shown above, I note that I only used it for about 4 years… I can’t imagine what it would have looked like after 8. There were visible indentations in some of the keys by the time I replaced it.

    I can say with certainty it’s neither nail polish nor long nails in my case as I don’t wear polish and keep my nails quite short in part because I do do a lot of typing. I actually theorized it was heat over time.

    As to why m & n are amongst the worst, I have no theory, but it was true on mine as well. My a key was about the same as those. The left hand side of the keyboard was more worn than the right, which I chalk up to the fact that I’m a gamer (and, notably different than the pictures of the transcriptionist’s keyboard, my left-control and tab keys are amongst the worst, again likely because of gaming).

  41. I learned on a manual, and I don’t know that I’m particularly hard on keyboards. Manual typewriters are kind of a momentum thing. It’s not a very high force, but you are accelerating the mechanism for a long time.

    My friend learned to type on an ASR33 and it’s unsafe to be in the room with him while he’s typing. A keycap could let go at any time. Teletypes have a long stroke with all the resistance at the bottom, so he *really* hammers on keyboards.

  42. About the finger pH: I find mine is affected by my diet.

    Acidic sweat gradually makes latex gloves discolour. I’ve found that by cutting meat out of my diet, my gloves discolour much slower. This makes some sense: the body can’t store raw protein, instead breaking it down to ureaic acid for excretion in urine and sweat. Cutting out meat made my protein intake drop, and therefore reduced the acid content of my sweat.

    I have no idea whether slightly acidic sweat could actually incresase wear on a plastic keyboard. Is there a chemist in the house?

  43. I’m with the people who think it’s some chemical thing. I’ve never done anything that bad to a keyboard, but my laptop’s wrist-resting area to either side of the trackpad has had its top layer of paint eaten away by my hands, and the fine texturing originally present on most of the keys is now gone, they are smooth and shiny. Interestingly the letters are still completely intact, unlike my desktop’s keyboard where about 25% are now invisible. I also wore the Logitech logo off my MX1000 in about a month and you don’t want to see the mouse before that…

    I don’t think I type particularly hard, I learned to touch-type on a fairly light keyboard and I don’t hit anywhere near as hard as my Mum (who learned on a manual typewriter in the sixties). Mum’s keyboards, however, remain in pristine condition…

  44. It would have been better if the keyboard got worn after one 8 hour session of typing 300 words per minute. Than we know it would be from the speed of the typist’s fingers.

  45. I’m not sure I agree that it’s really chemical as my keyboard has wear on just about all keys, nice find and shiny. My nails are not long though a little longer than most males (I can’t cut them as short as most, genetics, they will bleed like crazy), I honestly think it might have more to do with *how* you type.

    My keyboard is only worn in one spot, where my thumb hits, I’ve found that I tend to “slide” my thumb along the spacebar whenever I am typing, and I have a tendency to hover my fingers very close to all keys when I’m typing, so it’s likely that I like to slide key to key, in doing so, it’s likely causing a lot of that wear.

    The main reason I think this couldn’t strictly be pH or chemical, is that my mouse has a “dell” logo right where my palm rests, and my mouse has basically no wear at all, wehreas my keyboard’s alphabet has wear on every single letter, (m, n, c, l are completely gone).

    Also the controls on my car’s steering wheel, I regularly will trace patterns on things with my hands when I don’t even realize I’m doing it, I find that ever car I drive I end up wearing the control buttons down normally around the edges and middle of indentions.

    I really think it all plays a small part, but I have to say that I really think that how you “grip” the keys with your fingers has a lot to do with it, even know I feel myself gripping/rubbing/pushing on my key surfaces when I type.

  46. I was a flute player before becoming a transcriptionist – the keys on my “plated” flute wore off – I was told due to the acidity of my fingers.

    Once I became a transcriptionist, the same thing happened to my keyboards – holes worn through on my first keyboard. As I look at my current keyboard, e, r, t, i, o, a ,s d, f, c, v, b, n, <, m, totally gone with g, h, l barely visible. No holes on this re-placed keyboard to date :) I do believe it has something to do with acidity levels as my rings do the same thing - wear through to the point they are so thin, they then break!

  47. what a relief to hear others with this problem! now I dont feel like a freak melting my keyboard :). my husband is on it just as much if not more but its the keys I use the most (ie, passwords etc) that look partially melted. maybe its a hormone thing as someone mentioned women have this problem more? fyi – I never wear nail polish but do use waterless hand soap often??

Comments are closed.