Desktop keyboard drawer: Unheraded retro accessory

I don’t look for vintage computers in the wild nearly as much anymore as I look for vintage computer accessories. I was very happy to find a vintage desktop keyboard drawer less than 6 miles from home.

Vintage computer whatzit

desktop keyboard drawer
Here’s what a desktop keyboard drawer looks like if you see one laying around.

On the long running PBS TV show This Old House, they will play a game they call What Is It?. In this game, they look at an obscure but useful item and try to guess its purpose. If a similar show existed for old computers, a desktop keyboard drawer would be a pretty good item for that game.

If you are a regular viewer of Adrian’s Digital Basement on YouTube, you may have wondered what the thing is called that he keeps under his IBM 5170 that holds his keyboard and allows him to slide the keyboard under the very large 5170 case when he isn’t using it. That’s a desktop keyboard drawer. I guess they call it that because it is a keyboard drawer that sits on top of your desk rather than mounting underneath the desk surface.

In my case, I spotted it in a local estate sale. It was sitting on a well-used desk with a very modern keyboard in it and a rather modern LCD monitor perched on top. The previous owner was using it more or less for its intended purpose, just with much more recent computer equipment.

These desktop keyboard drawers used to be relatively common, and companies like Kensington and Curtis made them. A lot of people used them with full size XT or AT desktop cases because that form factor took up a huge amount of space, but as desktop PCs shrunk to a more manageable size, they became less important. When I was working at Best Buy in the 1994 timeframe, we carried them. But they were slow sellers at that point because they were largely obsolete by then.

Sizes of desktop keyboard drawers

desktop keyboard drawer with IBM 5170 PC/AT
Here’s a desktop keyboard drawer in use with an IBM PC/AT.

Conceptually, they are just a big u-shaped piece of metal with ball bearing drawer glides and a plastic drawer big enough for a Model M keyboard. They are generally rated to be able to hold 80 pounds. That sounds like a lot, but the enhanced model of the 5170 weighed 42 pounds and the IBM EGA display weighed 32 pounds. The 80-pound rating leaves six pounds to spare.

My example is 14 inches deep and 22 inches wide. It is just slightly wider than the front of a 5170. The color is a pretty good match and the size difference isn’t very noticeable. But when you find one, pay attention to the size. Some of them are only about 10 inches deep and about 20.5 inches wide. The smaller ones fit an IBM PC 5150 or XT 5160 better than a 5170.

Innovera is still making desktop keyboard drawers today, or at least selling leftover inventory. But the caveats about size still apply.

Finding a desktop keyboard drawer for yourself

desktop keyboard drawer as found
Here’s the desktop keyboard drawer as I found it, at an estate sale.

I’m the first to admit that this keyboard drawer is not a candidate for my greatest collecting find. But I’ve been wanting one ever since I pulled my 5170 case out of the corner and started rebuilding it. Having one makes my 5170 setup look and feel a bit more complete.

If you have a 5170 or any machine in a full size AT case, keep an eye out. Mine came out of a ranch style house built in 1964 in an upper middle class area a short commute away from a number of banks, office buildings, and the local hospital. It’s not impossible to imagine someone living in that area owning an AT clone in the late 1980s, or having used a 5170 at work and taking the drawer home to use at home when it outlived its usefulness at work and was being discarded.

Mine needed some cleanup because the previous owner clearly used it a lot. My standard tricks for cleaning up vintage computers all worked just fine on my desktop keyboard drawer too.

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2 thoughts on “Desktop keyboard drawer: Unheraded retro accessory

  • March 31, 2023 at 8:12 am

    I still use something related to this… an under-the-desk keyboard shelf thing. It clamps onto the desk and allows the keyboard to hang underneath, because I have flight simulator gear attached to the top of the desk.

    • April 1, 2023 at 12:54 pm

      I had an under-desk keyboard drawer/shelf for several years and I liked it. The plastic broke down eventually and I threw it out. This was before I knew how to fix plastics. I see under-desk keyboard drawers more often than desktop drawers.

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