Knowing the history of their hardware is often as important to keyboard enthusiasts as the feel and sounds of the keys they’re pounding away on all day. But it’s hard to imagine a keyboard having a more interesting backstory than this bizarre layout that was salvaged from a Minuteman III nuclear missile silo.
The Nuclear Keyboard, as the YouTube channel Pointless Tinkering refers to this Cold War relic, was originally purchased on eBay along with a matching trackball accessory because of its fascinating layout that includes special function keys marked with ominous labels like “GO TO VOICE,” “INITIATE,” and a big blue “ABORT” button which should really be a standard button on every keyboard. When purchased there was no doubt this was a keyboard designed and used by the military, but as Pointless Tinkering dug deeper into its origins, they discovered it was actually hardware that very few had the privilege of operating.
The keyboard and trackball’s origin dates back to the late 1980s when the U.S. Air Force’s Strategic Air Command (SAC) initiated a 632 million dollar program called Rapid Execution and Combat Targeting, or REACT, for short, whose goal was to update the control systems in nuclear missile silos that had been in use since the 1960s and 70s. The main goal of REACT was to make it much easier to retarget both individual missiles, and the Air Force’s entire nuclear missile fleet, which was traditionally a process that took weeks, but by the 90s had been reduced to less than a day with the new hardware.
That was three decades ago, however, and the hardware used in the Minuteman III nuclear missile silos has been updated again, but instead of sending the REACT consoles to the junkyard, in true capitalist fashion, some of them ended up on eBay.
The first USB ports only started showing up in computers around 1998, and there was little chance it was available in time for the Air Force’s new REACT consoles which undoubtedly took years to design and develop before being implemented. As a result, the keyboard and trackball communicated through the old RS422 protocol, requiring a complete teardown, some clever reverse engineering, and the use of an Arduino Pro Micro to get key inputs translated to a USB port that could be connected to modern computers.
The trackball also required some extensive TLC to get it back in smooth working order, but given its age, it doesn’t appear to be as reliable or accurate as modern trackballs. On top of that, custom software had to be developed to get both devices to play nice with something other than computers designed to launch nuclear missiles, and that can be downloaded here if you happen to come across a Minuteman III REACT console to call your own but don’t have a nuclear missile silo to go with it.