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16-12-2019 02:45:20  #1

Key action vs key touch

Hi all,

Since I am not a native English speaker, I was wondering what the exact difference is between key action and key touch. Or are they both used to describe the same?



16-12-2019 15:25:02  #2

Re: Key action vs key touch

Hi Laurenz

Here's the way I understand the difference. The key action of a typewriter is determined by the design of the various linkages between the key and the type bar. The key touch is how the keys feel as you are typing.
The key action is built right into the mechanism and can't be changed. If the machine is properly serviced and everything is adjusted properly according to the manufacturers specifications, that's as good as the machine will get.

The key touch on the other hand can often be adjusted to increase or decrease the resistance as felt by the operator to suite the individual typist. Some typewriters have quite a lively feel to the keys, while others feel almost dead, like you're typing into mud. Of the typewriters I've used, the first generation Hermes 3000 and the 1950's Smith-Corona portables have the liveliest feel to the keys and my 1959 Consul 1511 felt dead and jarred your fingers every time the type slug contacted the platen.

I'm interested to hear how other forum members describe the difference between key action and touch. Hopefully you can draw your conclusion from the answers. Take care and all the best,


We humans go through many computers in our lives, but in their lives, typewriters go through many of us.
In that way, they’re like violins, like ancestral swords. So I use mine with honor and treat them with respect.
I try to leave them in better condition than I met them. I am not their first user, nor will I be their last.
Frederic S. Durbin. (Typewriter mania and the modern writer)

17-12-2019 08:44:30  #3

Re: Key action vs key touch

Hi Sky,

thank you for your comprehensive reply. I am too interested in how others describe the difference.

Moreover, since the touch (or action) is such an important aspect of the whole typing experience, I wonder if we can figure out a more detailed way to describe it.
Some brands of beer for instance have a table on the label with some characteristics like bitterness, fruit tones etc.
Maybe we can do the same? I think of travel (distance needed to make the impression), leeway (typical for Olympia SM 8-9 series), force (the power needed to make a nice dark impression) etc.


     Thread Starter

17-12-2019 10:38:20  #4

Re: Key action vs key touch

Laurenz, good idea. If you're going to do it, let me suggest a few parameters:

 * Center-to-center distance between keys (the pitch, between keys)
 * Width x depth measurement of the character keytops
 * Angle of rise of the keyboard  (a different kind of pitch: how steeply the keys rise)
 * Flatness of stroke  (How much does the angle of the keytop with respect to horizontal change during the full stroke? the so-called "piano key" effect that people claim to sense)
 * Height of top row above the desk
 * Height of bottom row above desk
 * Leeway  (? What is this?)
 * Keytop travel  (rest position to the stop? or rest position to the successful impression? This may vary depending on the machine's history of maintenance, etc.)
 * Force  (...required for dark impression. This will definitely vary and may not be reliable or useful.)
 * What else?
 * Perhaps a diagram of the entire keytop-to-typeslug linkag, to scale (since this can have a huge effect on action and is fascinating in its own right)

The first three are what most people are mentioning as concerns. The rest are for completeness; "as long as we're doing this anyway...."

Part of the effort should be to define the methods of taking these measurements so that everybody's numbers can be trustworthy comparisons. Metric or English? What device and technique to measure the force? How detailed a description of the condition of each machine (as found, cleaned [to what degree?], "restored")? Indeed, how detailed a description of the machine (Smith-Corona Sterlings were made over many years and used many unrelated designs, so you can't just say "S-C Sterling"; Remington Streamliners, too. etc.)? Should measurements be averaged, reported as high / low variance, or listed individually by serial number?

Nice Project!


17-12-2019 11:26:33  #5

Re: Key action vs key touch

Wow, that are a lot of parameters! And good thoughts too. Suddenly my idea looks like a giant project
I think we can devide the parameters in to two categories:

1) The metrics (the first part of your list)
2) The behaviour (the rest)

I am personally looking for a simple way to describe a keyboard in a more precise way then 'feels like mud' or 'snappy keys'.
But after seeing your list and notes I am wondering if it is even possible.
On the other hand, should such information be available in a database, then I'm sure we can engineer a formula around the data wich will descibe keyboards efficient.

With Leeway i ment the following: on my SM 8 and SM 9 I can depress the keys and for a short time/distance there is almost nothing happening. Afther a certain point everything comes into action. My Triumphs on the other hand immediately raise a typebar, even if I depress a key very little.


     Thread Starter

29-12-2019 06:57:12  #6

Re: Key action vs key touch

"Laurenz van Gaalen" wrote:

am personally looking for a simple way to describe a keyboard in a more precise way then 'feels like mud' or 'snappy keys'.
But after seeing your list and notes I am wondering if it is even possible.
On the other hand, should such information be available in a database, then I'm sure we can engineer a formula around the data wich will descibe keyboards efficient.

I find this an interesting idea. Once the data is available in machine-readable format, we could use radar charts to visualise that data. The "TypewriterDatabase" website could be extended to include such a radar chart for each uploaded machine. Additionally, an average diagram could be automatically computed for each model by drawing from all uploads for this model, which would probably give a realistic impression of the model in question.

To have the data be comparable, it however is first required to precisely define how each of the parameters is measured. E.g., keytop travel could be defined as: "distance in millimeters between the space bar's upper edge in resting position to the space bar's upper edge when fully depressed". Because all typewriters have a space bar, this measurement can be taken on all typewriters, and it also is independent from the question of how far to press for a "black" imprint (because depressing the space bar does not cause an imprint at all).

Without precise parameter definitions we'd be comparing apples with pies. Everyone needs to measure with the same steps. Also, I think the database should be available in machnine-readable form publically ("open data"). Maybe some creative individuals can then use it in an unexpected way.

Technically, it's probably best if the collection of the data is conducted via the well-known "Typewriter Database" website. Everyone could upload their measurements there, and the site could generate the radar charts automatically from that data. Every once in a while, the whole measurement value database is made available in machine-readable format for everyone's creativity to fiddle with. Is the administrator of the "Typewriter Database" a member of this forum? Would be good to have his/her opinion on the question.

Here's an example of a radar chart, courtesy of Wikipedia:

I prefer filled surfaces, though.


30-12-2019 05:03:44  #7

Re: Key action vs key touch

Hi sirius,

That's a great way to visualize multiple characteristics.

There are a lot of possibilities with this approach, the most obvious is to compare types, classes and/or brands. But what to think of a search function? Plot your own preferences in a radar chart and find all matching typewriters.

The challenge is not to over engineer this. To many datapoints or characteristics are not fun to enter, we must keep it as easy and simple as possible. So what characteristics are really defining for the type-experience and are (easy) measurable?


     Thread Starter

21-12-2020 23:07:23  #8

Re: Key action vs key touch

Hi Lau,

Interesting question, one I too am interested in - I was offline when you asked.

Here is what the words suggest to me, which is the same as they would suggest with a piano. The action is the sum total of all the bits and pieces which translate the motion of the finger into a flying hammer which finally hits the string. The touch of a piano is how the key feels under your finger, but the word "action" is sometimes used for this, for example: Ted sits down to play an unfamiliar piano and pronounces "Nice action". He has no idea about the bits moving under the hood and means how the piano feels to his fingers. There is no doubt a word for this turn of speech, where the whole represents the part, or in this case, an attribute or consequence of the whole. So I would use the words in the same way relating to a manual typewriter, and indeed the analogy seems exact: a mechanical linkage translates the travel of our finger into the motion of a hammer which strikes the paper. But in a way when a person remarks on the action of a typewriter or piano which he has felt under his fingers, that person is referring to both: the feedback of the action feels a certain way under his fingers, and the feedback of the action to a certain power stroke of the player/typist is determined by the detail bits of the mechanical action.

I meant this to be a short answer, but many answers which seem short in the mind become larger in the telling.

Now, what determines the "action" of a piano or typewriter, in the sense of what we more specifically call the touch: the tactile feedback to the user's fingertips? You mentioned what is known as "touch control" and that, to me, is a very limited aspect of the touch and one whose fine adjustment does not much interest me as a typist. Touch control in my experience is always about a higher or lower effective spring tension on the key. I think of this as primarily an advertising gimmick; a poor action is never rescued by fine adjustment of spring tension; this is not what makes an action pleasing to me and it cannot compensate for a poor touch.  So what makes a good touch in my view?

Let's take a step back to our hominid ancestors howling at the monolith and throwing stones. Man, it is sometimes said, has been designed to throw things, and we still take pleasure in throwing things for sport and watching others do so in a skillful manner. But we all know, before age and aches catch up with us, what a good throw feels like -- maybe we never stopped to analyze it, but we know what it feels like. And I think what it feels like is what an effective and powerful throw feels like, for evolution has habit of making things which are important to our survival pleasurable; good food, good sex, and a good tossed rock. 

What goes into a satisfying rock toss? A controlled transfer of energy into the rock from your arm culminating in the release, when the rock goes sailing on its parabolic path free of your hand. Throwing a crumpled piece of paper is not satisfying because we cannot transfer significant energy to it, and trying to toss something beyond the limits of our strength is not either, but a rock about the size of a baseball is just right. Now when we type we don't have full control of the propelled object, the key, because it is attached to a fixed linkage, but we do have control of the power profile of our keystroke, and tactile feedback from the key lets us know how it's reacting to our work.

So that's my base hypothesis on what makes a typewriter have a good action, that our ancestral machinery intuits an efficient transfer of energy to the mechanism, culminating in the hammer or key bar flying at and hitting the paper, similar to the feel of getting some good English on a tossed rock. What the profile of a satisfying keystroke looks like in terms of a graph of force vs. time and distance, and how the internal components of a well designed typewriter cooperate to create this profile in reaction to the touch of a skilled typist, I leave as an exercise for the reader.  

"Damn the torpedoes! Four bells, Captain Drayton".

06-1-2021 06:23:07  #9

Re: Key action vs key touch

Hi Repartee,

Thank you for your comprehensive post. The analogy with the piano helps a lot. If I follow your line of thought, the "touch" is one of the aspects of the "action". But because the "action" is something we experience through touch, both words are often used to decribe the typing experience.

Maybe the best is to use the word "touch" to describe what we feel with our fingertips, and "action" for the typing experience?


     Thread Starter

10-1-2021 23:17:56  #10

Re: Key action vs key touch

Laurenz van Gaalen wrote:

Hi Repartee,

Thank you for your comprehensive post. The analogy with the piano helps a lot. If I follow your line of thought, the "touch" is one of the aspects of the "action". But because the "action" is something we experience through touch, both words are often used to decribe the typing experience.

Maybe the best is to use the word "touch" to describe what we feel with our fingertips, and "action" for the typing experience?

Not exactly.  I meant "touch" to describe what we feel with our fingertips certainly, but to continue the analogy with the piano the "action" is the physical mechanism which determines the touch -- the touch is an aspect or consequence of the action. Through synecdoche (a figure of speech in which a part of something is used to signify the whole or vice versa)* we may refer to the action when the only aspect of the action we know about is touch. 

Ah pedantry, pedantry, wherefore art thou, pedantry?  It sounds like I'm trying to overcomplicate this whereas I merely lack the whit to explain it clearly!

I am confident in this use of the word "action" in pianos and reasonably confident regarding typewriters. Saying action rather than touch is midway between affectation and enrichment: While we may grasp for the word which shows that we have some inside knowledge of typewriters or pianos, it is also entirely appropriate. The purpose of typewriter and piano actions both is to interface between the fingertips' input and the mechanical output, and when we say "nice action" we mean that the action is doing its job well: the quality of the action is manifested in the relation between its inputs and outputs and to a lesser degree by the beauty of its invisible internal construction The function of the action is, come to think of it, equally measured by the quality of the tactile feedback and effective control of the output -- the nuanced, rapid and controllable striking of the piano strings, or the rapid and controllable striking of the paper. Main difference is, sensitivity of the velocity of the strike to the keystroke is essential to the function of the piano and usually considered a failing in a typewriter: typewriters were not designed to print expressively.

A typewriter which maps the energy of the input to the output closely is hard to control, and for utilitarian purposes some consider the complete decoupling in the electric typewriter -- the same blow on the paper no matter what profile of force is applied to the key -- the ideal trait of a writing machine. The relation of the electric typewriter to the manual typewriter is identical to the relation of the harpsichord to the pianoforte -- and in this case practicality drove the evolution in the opposite order. I am reminded that piano is short for pianoforte, emphasizing that the new design allowed control of the energy of the output. Good manual typewriter actions however minimize the variation in the output so it does not require an expert control to type evenly.  


"Damn the torpedoes! Four bells, Captain Drayton".

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