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Many of us have heard of the so-called "Space-cadet keyboard" from 1978 (famous for including a mind-boggling number of modifier keys including control, meta, hyper, super, shift, top, front, and Greek), but neither Wikipedia nor the Jargon File explain the reasoning behind the name.

Why was this keyboard called the "Space-cadet keyboard"? Has there ever been an explanation as to the reasoning behind the name?

  • Was it named that because it was inspired by similar devices in contemporary science fiction novels?
  • Was there an intention to market the keyboard to space programs for use on spacecraft?
  • Was it designed by someone whose nickname was "Space-cadet"?
  • Is there some other reason?

As Dúthomhas mentioned, I am not really interested in armchair speculation as to why the keyboard was called this. I am interested in either official or contemporary literature describing the reasons for naming it as such (e.g. a project kickoff plan or design document), first-hand accounts (e.g. interviews with people who were a part of the development of the keyboard at MIT or Symbolics in 1978), or any other source describing the actual or likely actual reasoning behind the choice of name. If the name was only ever unofficial, that can be an answer if it is supported by evidence (e.g. interviews) from people who remember those days and the reasoning that was given then for calling it that.

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    Calling a person a "space cadet" was a slang phrase meaning that the person was in some way spaced out. This, in turn, may have been derived from a much earlier series of stories, titled "TomCorbett, Space Cadet". This usage may be connected to the keyboard reference you are interested in. Commented Dec 20, 2022 at 12:27
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    I wonder if there’s any connection to the name of the LISP Machines the keyboard was used with (MIT CADR) — the pronunciation doesn’t match, but that might not have been a limiting factor! Commented Dec 20, 2022 at 12:58
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    I wasn't there when they named it, but I remember the first time I laid hands on a Symbolics keyboard. All those keys!! All those symbols!! I can imagine how somebody might compare the transition from a world of ASR-33 Teletypes and IBM 029 keypunches to the world of Lisp Machines to, for example, the transition from driving a car with a three-on-the-tree gearshift to piloting Tom Corbett's space ship. Commented Dec 20, 2022 at 17:29
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    These kinds of threads always kind of tick me off. Rather than a whole bunch of guesses as to the answer, has anyone the resources to contact someone from what used to be Symbolics and ask if they have an authoritative answer?
    – Dúthomhas
    Commented Dec 21, 2022 at 17:09
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    The keyboard is not in Google Ngrams even once to look for early mentions in context. But "space cadet" springs into existence about 1950 and almost totally dies out in the early '70s before slowing come back, which makes me wonder if its early uses might've had a different nuance than the zoned-out airhead meaning we read into it now. This happens a lot with words. It might've mean something like boffin or egghead or whizzkid... Commented Dec 21, 2022 at 20:11

4 Answers 4

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Not authoritative, but the term space-cadet has long been in use to describe

  1. (slang, derogatory) One who deals with reality in a way consistent with being under the influence of (or "spaced out on") drugs.
  2. (slang, derogatory) One who forgets, daydreams, or otherwise is distracted from reality more often than most.

The usage applied to the keyboard seems to be have a somewhat more positive connotation: one who is so far removed from our ordinary reality as to need (and be able to fluently use) all the extra keys.

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    I'm really not sure if the marketeers did indeed think about that properly ;)
    – tofro
    Commented Dec 20, 2022 at 14:30
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    @tofro AFAIK the keyboard was never marketed as the “Space cadet”, nor were marketeers necessarily involved ;-). When it was being designed the keyboard was referred to as “the new keyboard”. Commented Dec 20, 2022 at 15:44
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Cadets newly serving on a spaceship would be surrounded by all kinds of buttons they do not immediately understand, which are labeled in an unintuitive but efficient way with simple shapes instead of long words, and which may have horrible consequences when pressed at the wrong time, or not pressed at the right time (hence the need for efficiency).

This keyboard evokes the same feeling in people.

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    This does seem a much more intuitively reasonable explanation than the one that the keyboard would be used by someone who is far removed from ordinary reality, as if they are daydreaming or on drugs. Unfortunately, this answer (nor the other answer...) lacks any sources or justification, so it's difficult to make any assessment about its correctness aside from what one personally thinks makes sense (and that's never a reliable guide to the world of computing). Commented Dec 21, 2022 at 9:17
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    However, this answer, unlike the others, very much fits with the way people thought about technology in the 70s.
    – Dúthomhas
    Commented Dec 21, 2022 at 17:07
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As mentioned by the others, the term "space cadet" (with no relation to keyboards) is defined like this in several sources:

  1. a person who appears to be in his or her own world [...]

Most other definitions are worse, often including drug (ab)use, being silly, and so on.

But that definition mentioned up there fits the original Space Cadet Keyboard very well. While using many meta keys was not uncommon back then (having survived in, e.g. the Emacs editor, which could use all those keys today as well, and sometimes even requires them in a virtual fashion (i.e., pressing and releasing the ESC key to simulate Meta on modern keyboards which do not have that key or which do map a separate key (Alt/Command) to Meta, but have sometimes problems processing certain complex combinations), the Space Cadet keyboard clearly was the pinnacle of that approach, back in the day.

So, people using that keyboard to its fullest, or advocates developing control schemes requiring so many meta keys, clearly appeared to "be in his or her own world". They would seem eccentric or overly nerdy even amongst "normal" eccentric or nerdy folks back then. As this source puts it, the Space Cadet was the "holy grail" of keyboards even back then.

As brought up by Stephen Kitt, you can still view the archive of the mailing list where the design process discussions where had (note that this keyboard is from 1978, so even pre-dates UseNet). The manual of the LISP machine it was intended for is available. Skimming through either, I get the feeling that if the engineers back then were aware about the "nerdiness" of the machine back then, they kept their professionalism in the docs and discussions; I cannot find a mention of the "space cadet" term in either.

So while I appreciate that you are not looking for arm-chair speculations, I'm afraid it seems unlikely that you will get any closer.

Note, there is a thing called the "tap dance" in keyboard afficionado circles (and I have heard it called "space cadet dance") which means you put meaning to a quick single- or double-tap of otherwise silent keys (i.e., shift, ctrl etc.). It's note quite on the Space Cadet Keyboard level, but I use it on many of my machines, and it's very cool to avoid far-reaching movements (i.e., you could bind [ to a tap of the left Option, ] to a tap of the right Option, and {/ } to the left/right Command keys on a Mac keyboard).

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    The relevant discussion forum from back then wasn’t personal emails, it was bug-lispm, where much of the keyboard design was hashed out; see the list archives on IA. The keyboard manual isn’t lost to time; it’s just that it was documented as part of the system it was provided with, the LISP Machine, and is documented in the latter’s operating manual. Commented Dec 22, 2022 at 10:40
  • Awesome, thanks, I've included that in my answer. @StephenKitt
    – AnoE
    Commented Dec 22, 2022 at 10:52
  • re: Meta key: I always used Emacs on Windows and it used the Alt key as Meta. What system do you have to use Esc for Meta? Commented Dec 22, 2022 at 10:57
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    @RobertColumbia, yes, Windows has Alt=Meta by default, and Mac uses Command=Meta, but the option is still there - you can still press ESC as a prefix and it acts like holding Alt/Command. I think I have used that feature very seldomly in the past in the context of running Emacs in a VM on a machine where not all key combos are transferred verbatim (i.e., the virtualization might swallow too many key presses with too combos...). I mean EMACS can be read as ESC-Meta-Alt-Control-Shift amongst others, which uses up all the usual modifier keys on both Win and Mac ;) ).
    – AnoE
    Commented Dec 22, 2022 at 11:48
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    The manuals did occasionally express some whimsy. IIRC, the description of the mouse cursor magnifying when moved rapidly (a feature MacOS finally adopted a few revisions ago) included a warning that it might scare young children.
    – Barmar
    Commented Dec 22, 2022 at 16:30
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I recognize some of the symbols from the APL class I took back in the mid-80s. APL is a language where the operator symbols were borrowed from multiple languages and even a few made-up ones. Wikipedia has one such example keyboard layout here.

You could easily write a program in one line that was a Taylor series polynomial approximation, multiple matrix operations and more. More to the point, you could be at a total loss to explain what it did just a few days later.

The whole keyboard seems to be designed to provide shortcuts to elaborate and heavily abstract operations. The person who uses this sort of keyboard is going to be the textbook definition of the absent minded professor. They'll be so busy thinking about the implications of your last question that they'll forget you're still there waiting for an answer.

So, yeah, very spacey but not necessarily for the usual reasons.

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