Lee Byron


The Canon Cat was a computer designed by Jef Raskin, who also dreamed up the Apple Macintosh. Steve Jobs meddled too much in the Mac and Raskin left Apple to create the Cat1. It was a commercial flop, but had some awesome ideas mostly lost to time.

Raskin was no fan of the computer mouse2 and thought keyboard driven UIs could be much more powerful, and the Cat has a couple tricks which show that he was truly onto something, most notably: Leap.

The Cat keyboard is really unique. This computer has no mouse and no arrow keys3. Instead it has “Leap” keys under the space bar.

Canon Cat keyboard

This is so different from what we’re used to that it seems like it might be frustrating to use and rightfully part of history instead of current kit, but I find this inspiring. I wish I could get my computer to work this way!

I’ve been using VIM exclusively the last few weeks and trying to get used to it. I’m realizing that I spend way more time moving around then I actually do typing new things. I’ve come to really appreciate the / and ? commands which search ahead and back for some text to move towards. It’s very powerful, but slightly awkward to use, so I find myself not using it as much as I should. Having that functionality under my thumbs would feel like a super power.

There aren’t that many Canon Cats still floating around, but if you want to get a feel for what using one of these is like, you can run its software in emulation mode thanks to the Internet Archive! How to use this is not very clear, but here’s what I figured out so far:

Obviously, it’s not quite the same as having the Cat keyboard in front of you, but I still found it very curious to use and gave me confidence that this could be an easily learned and very fun to use digital world to live in.

There are surprisingly almost no modern tools that reference back to Leap and the Canon Cat. One notable exception is the Left text editor by Hundred Rabbits, which very recently added Leap.

Here are some resources with a lot more content, digitized instruction manuals, history, and other bits and bobs down this particular rabbit hole:

Finally, I’ll leave you with this convincing promotional video showing off the Cat in use, showing both more of what it can do5 as well as some truly excellent ’80s hairstyles.

  1. Jef Raskin started the project by founding a company, Information Appliances, and called the computer SWYFT: “Superb With Your Favorite Typing”. Canon acquired his company and their marketing team came up with the name “Cat.” No idea if Apple intentionally took a pot-shot at Jef with Swift.

  2. Jef Raskin briefly discussed the Canon Cat’s Leap innovation in an Feb 1992 episode of High Tech Heros, a public access show from Los Altos.

  3. Arrow behavior is kinda still there. Tapping Leap on its own moves the cursor ahead by one. they fittingly called this “Creep”. Shift+Leap would scroll the page up and down.

  4. The “Use Front” key is essentially your “Command” key, but they printed the commands on the front of the key caps, hence “Use Front”.

  5. Like running calculations (or code!) live in a document with a key press instead of having a dedicated calc app. Really cool ideas.