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Hardware Hacking

A USB Typewriter? 79

jashmenn asks: "In my search for a furthering of the arts combined with technology I recently had the idea of hooking up an electronic typewriter to my USB port. The idea is to eventually write a script that would automatically send the text of emails to be typed on the typewriter. Does Slashdot have know of resources I can use for combining new and old school technologies such as these?"
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A USB Typewriter?

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  • depending on your ultimate goals (journey v. destination, etc), an impact printer might serve your needs.
  • Do you own a printer?

    What purpose would this USB-Enabled Electronic Typewriter serve? Other than the "Just because I can, damnit!" I mean.
    • Obviously, he intends to use the typewriter keyboard for input. A step backwards from sending email via computer, but perhaps he has a computer-phobic relative.
    • Re:Printer? (Score:5, Funny)

      by rednip ( 186217 ) on Tuesday December 21, 2004 @02:51PM (#11150226) Journal
      What purpose would this USB-Enabled Electronic Typewriter serve?
      I've got an idea... spooky typewriter from hell. Can you imagine having a old fashioned typewriter knock off a note like...
      I'm watching you.
      It would be perfect during a seance.
    • Re:Printer? (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Nos. ( 179609 )
      Sometimes its just fun, or for learning purposes. I'm currently trying to make a home security system that is run by the computer. I've wanted to learn electronics for a while so I went and spent about $15 on some basic parts (door sensor,DB15 to RJ45, wire) and have a linux box now recognizing if a door is open or closed. For some people that may not mean much, but this is the first time I've made a computer interact with the real world. I'm having a blast doing it, and I'm not spending $100s on an ala
      • For your next project: Connect a thermistor or other temperature sensor to a port (a joystick port is good). Then when the door is open, check the temp outside. If it's less than n, have a text-to-speech program shout "Hey! Close the door! Do you think we're made of money or something?"
        • I like that idea :). First I'm more interested in motion sensors or IR beams after I'm satisfied with the way the door sensors are working. A couple of other things I'd like to add are smoke detectors and water sensors (especially in the water softner which decided to overflow a few weeks ago). I'm currently using the gameport (took longer to get Linux to recgonize the gameport than it did to get the door sensor wired to the gameport). I'm currently using the analog driver which gives me only 4 buttons
          • Ack, forgot to mention that the really nice thing is that my cell phone provider allows free incoming text messages which can be sent via email, so remote notification is REALLY simple. The question becomes will my insurance company consider this a "monitored alarm".
            • Re:Printer? (Score:3, Interesting)

              by Anonymous Coward
              True story - when I applied for renter's insurance, my insurance company told me that a 'bunch of cans on a string' counts as an alarm system, and that if it is loud enough to be heard by the neighbors, it can be considered 'monitored'.

              I suppose it depends on your insurer, but I would think that level of sophistication you have would be a pretty safe bet to meet the criteria.
              • I love little tricks like this, but what happens when your house is broken into, and your insurance company refuses to cover it because you cheated on the application?
          • Re:Printer? (Score:4, Informative)

            by harrkev ( 623093 ) <kfmsdNO@SPAMharrelsonfamily.org> on Tuesday December 21, 2004 @05:34PM (#11152521) Homepage
            You should get a microcontroller. Those suckers are tiny microprocessors with boatload of I/O. Most have some sort of A/D, too.

            You can program the microcontroller to read off all of its input port, and dump the data to a serial port. Then, you just have to make Linux open up a serial port and watch the data pour in.

            You could also use the microcontroller to drive things, too. Have the PC send serial data, and the microcontroller acts on it.

            Microchip makes some ones that are good for beginners, just add assembly or C. Parallax makes some that are programmed in BASIC. Fun stuff!
          • Re:Printer? (Score:2, Informative)

            by AndroidCat ( 229562 )
            Circuit Cellar [cellar.com] magazine is probably a good place to start for projects and ideas. Over the years, they've had quite a number of projects in that area ranging from the simple to the complex, and they probably have archive CDs fairly cheap.
  • Daisy Wheel (Score:5, Insightful)

    by m0rph3us0 ( 549631 ) on Tuesday December 21, 2004 @02:38PM (#11150067)
    Why not just get a daisy wheel printer from the 80s and hook it up to a usb to parallel/serial adapter? IBM also made some printers with ball type print heads.

    • Even better, score an old electric typewriter with a parallel port. They 'doubled' as printers.
      • Re:Daisy Wheel (Score:2, Interesting)

        by AndroidCat ( 229562 )
        I rescued an old daisy wheel Smith Corona (15ish CPS) from the trash at my apartment building. Sweet! One of the last typewriters with a small LCD edit window, spell checker, large buffer, etc, etc. I would have killed for this for doing school papers back then.

        However it only had a 9 pin connector on the back. I think it was serial, but non-standard and no documentation. I didn't have time to fiddle with it at the time, and it either got lost during a move or buried under a whole pile of stuff. ("Some of

        • actualy it was probably to hook up to a display monitor, I have seen hundreds of these types of word processors. though i could very well be wrong
          • Possibly, although some were also printers. The outputs looked like RS232, but I didn't spend much time on it. I also couldn't find anything on it when I searched. Someday its lost/buried state will collapse. If it was buried, I'll take another look--maybe follow the lines back to the PC board and see what they connect to.
            • some word processors could be hooked to modems if my memory serves me correctly.you could try hooking it to an old word processor monitor if you can find one, which should not be too hard almost all the ones I have seen used a standard db-9 connector I once found an IBM PS/2 based wordprocessor that could be converted to a standard PS/2 with a minor upgrade, now there was an interesting piece of hardware had a CGA monitor
  • by CAPSLOCK2000 ( 27149 ) on Tuesday December 21, 2004 @02:42PM (#11150121) Homepage
    I've got an old electric typewriter that has a parallel port. It works just like a regular printer (text only). Seems like that's what you need. But if you're just doing this for fun, be my guest and hack up an USB connection yourself.
  • by Glog ( 303500 ) on Tuesday December 21, 2004 @02:43PM (#11150134)
    ... you can use a printer - I hear they work quite well for hard-copy output of emails.
  • When I was in college I read an article on hooking up an IBM selectric to an IBM PC's (8086 I think) parallel port. Been a while, I don't remember much. Your idea sounds fun, and ideal for a pic.

    Have fun!

    • There was an article in Radio-Electronics about 20 to 25 years ago about hacking a Selectric, basically just adding a tap onto the wires connecting the keyswitches to the part that controlled the printball, but I don't remember if it was supposed to be an input or output or both. At the time my mom had a fairly new Selectric but if I'd tried to mod it I wouldn't be alive to be typing this today.
  • by Marxist Hacker 42 ( 638312 ) * <seebert42@gmail.com> on Tuesday December 21, 2004 @02:44PM (#11150156) Homepage Journal
    connected to a serial->USB converter?
  • by Otter ( 3800 )
    I suppose Dan Rather might be interested in one of these...
  • We had a Brother daisy-wheel printer for our C=64 that had a keyboard attachment, allowing it to be used as a typewriter. You could probably hack something up with such a beast to do what you want since it was already half printer/half typewriter.
  • by Naikrovek ( 667 ) <jjohnson.psg@com> on Tuesday December 21, 2004 @03:09PM (#11150452)
    I remember in High School (1991) using typewriters that had a serial (maybe parallel) port on the back. you could hook them up to a PC and use it as an output device.

    Try looking for typewriters like this [ebay.com], the work is already done for you.

    If you're wanting an OLD 100% mechanical typewriter, ebay has those too. You'll need to create some USB trickery that accepts serial data and decodes it into individual characters. then sends a signal down a wire associated with the appropriate character, which you amplify and activate solonoids with. solonoids are about the only thing strong enough to fully stroke a mechanical typewriter key with any speed.

    Disclaimer: I have no idea how you'd do this.
    • ...or if you can wait, you can probably find a whole lot better of a deal on a typewriter at a garage sale or flea market. I imagine the shipping alone on a typewriter would be a fair percent of the cost.
  • Low IQ today (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 21, 2004 @03:11PM (#11150494)
    Geez, the collective Slashdot IQ is particularly low today. Let's see, so far I've seen people asking why bother, use a daisy-wheel printer, use a teletype, and plenty more of "why".

    For pete's sake, people, he said he was doing this for "art". I think he's probably already considered other printer options (daisy-wheel, teletype, etc.) and wants to have a typewriter, for the look of it.

    At one point, I had an IBM Selectric typewriter that could also be driven by a parallel port (though the encoding was odd -- it might have been EBCDIC, come to think of it). That might fit the bill, though I've no idea where to find one. It'd certainly look cool. Be sure to send us a follow-up when you get this working. :)
  • Serious, either you have the ability to do this or you don't.

    If you do have the ability to do this, then you will buy some USB interface chips, there are several on the market, choose one with a good development kit. (You might even be able to get a free sample). Google can help you choose too. Then you disassemble your typewriter and toss some glue electronics between the output of your USB chips and the keyboard. The rest is just software. Dig in and do it! Be prepared to fry some chips in the ear

  • You might try the previously mentioned suggestions of using a Daisy wheel typewriter with a USB-Parallel adapter.

    If you're looking for a more creative outlet, Si Labs sells a USB development board based on they're 8051 products. Either way, post the results here. There're a lot of people (like me) who like seeing old technologies adapted to the modern world.
  • Hack the typewriter, figure out how the signals work, wire them into a microcontroller (I recommend Microchip Inc's PIC line), connect the microcontroller to the USB port either using a USB UART or a USB->serial converter if you're lazy. Write some software. Done.

    Some of the PICs have a builtin USB UART. The downside to this approach is you have to write a device driver on the computer end of things. On Linux you can hack up one of the drivers that comes with the kernel, on windows you'd have to use the
  • by Sean Johnson ( 66456 ) on Tuesday December 21, 2004 @04:44PM (#11151780)
    I hate glomming onto another submitted story, but I have a similar need. I have a Brother word processor circa 1991 that I would love to be able to hook up to my serial port or something. I have a lot of text data that would be convenient to transfer over to my PC.
    I understand there might be some difficulty interpreting the word processor code and file structures. It might even be nigh IMPOSSIBLE. Has anyone ever heard of any sort of interpreter for communication with a Brother word processor, or is that info stritclty porprietary and FORBIDDEN?

    Even easier would be to somehow allow my PC to read the file structure for the floppies. Is there any info on the fundamentals of the Brother word processor's file structure floating around out there? Aren't there other people who have data on these things and would like it transferred to another format? I can't imagine this sort of thing has not been looked into yet.

    • This link [demon.co.uk] seems to cover what you are asking. Google Answers [google.com] has some ideas as well.
    • If it isn't too much, you could always print -> scan -> OCR.

      Cheesy and crude, but for 20 pages or so, probably the easiest option.
      • Yeah, I had thought of the print -> scan -> OCR method before. This takes time of course. But I agree it might in the long run be easier since I really don't have a significant amount of text to convert over.
        Plus I prob need to go find a ink cartridge for it. Does anybody sell those anymore. I saw them a few years ago at WAL-MART, but I don't know anymore.
        • Even if you can't read the contents of the disks, I'd at least make backup images of them, since floppies don't last forever. You could use the linux command dd to back it up, or if you use windows, something like undisker [undisker.com]. My sister was keeping her resume and other old papers on a floppy disk that windows wouldn't read, but I was able to use undisker to get her data back.
    • I hate glomming onto another submitted story, but I have a similar need. I have a Brother word processor circa 1991 that I would love to be able to hook up to my serial port or something. I have a lot of text data that would be convenient to transfer over to my PC.

      I understand there might be some difficulty interpreting the word processor code and file structures. It might even be nigh IMPOSSIBLE. Has anyone ever heard of any sort of interpreter for communication with a Brother word processor, o

  • http://www.buzbee.net/heavymetal/
  • Would do the job.. but unless you really NEED to use multipart carbon type forms.. why bother??

    Sure ' just because i can' is Ok, but why not do something cool instead?
    • I'm just wondering, did you read the question completely?

      The person asking says (s)he wants to do this for the sake of art, and the point is to connect old technology (the typewriter) to new technology (the computer).

      Getting hardcopy output in the most practical way was really not the point of the question I think..

      So, the 'because I can' argument plays a big role here, and the 'coolness factor' is pretty personal anyway (I find the idea way more cool then doing this with a device that was sortof intende
  • ideas and problems (Score:5, Interesting)

    by dutky ( 20510 ) on Tuesday December 21, 2004 @05:29PM (#11152439) Homepage Journal
    If you want to convert an old electric typewriter into a USB input/output device you will face a few challenges.

    First, traditional electric typewriters were mostly mechanical beasts (electric, not electronic) actauted by springs and levers with the user's finger motion enhanced by a flywheel. Only the flywheel was driven electrically, all the rest was mechanical. This means that there are no electical siganls generated when the user presses a key, just a series of levers and catches that connect the flywheel with a typearm and some mechanism to advance the carriage. Even the carriage return and platen advance was mechanical: as the carriage advanced a spring was stretched. The carriage return released the carriage, which was pulled rapidly to the right by the carriage return spring. When the carriage slams into the stop at the rightmost end of travel, a pin or wedge caused the platen to advance to the next line. The driving force for the platen advance was the momentum of the returning carriage.

    In theory, you could instrument the typewriters mechanics with sensors to detect key presses and carriage return events using optical or electronic sensors. The sensor states would be fed into a microcontroller which would format them for communication over the USB port. This would allow you to use the typewriter as an input device.

    Using the typewriter as an ouput device, however, is more complicated. You would actually have to add a bunch of actuators (solenoids, for example) to the typewriter's mechanism. I can think of a few ways to do this, but they are all labor intensive (I'd mount the solenoids vertically beneath the typewriter and connect each solenoid to the actual key it drives by a wire or shaft. When the soleniod is activated, the key is physically pulled down, just as if the key had been pressed normally.) and power hungry. Again, a microcontroller would be used to accept data from the USB port and translate it into signals to actuate the solenoids. The MCU would need to keep track of, or be able to sense, carriage position and put suitable delays between keystrokes to prevent jamming the device.

    It all sound quite fascinating, but of very little practical value. It is likely to be a bit costly as well, but that shouldn't stop the dedicated hobbyist. Of course, for a lot less effort and money you may still be able to find an old ASR-33 [pdp8.net] teletype [columbia.edu] with an optional RS232 interface (most ASR-33's used current-loop [made-it.com] interfaces, which are not directly compatible with RS232). These old teletypes are pretty much what you are looking for, ready-made. You may freely substitute a DECwriter [columbia.edu] for the ASR-33 and I think there may be some versions of the IBM selectric [wikipedia.org] that also fit the bill.

  • This would be great! I'd be able to print out all my old newsgroup ASCII pr0n.

    Seriously though, wouldn't this be kinda cool for any old ASCII art someone might have? Old sigs on e-mails? Funky. Wish I had even an inkling of how to answer this question.

    • If you want to print out your old pr0n, just print it on any printer. As it's ASCII, any text editor should be able to take it, and LPT1: should take it straight on DOS or Windows ("copy newsgrouppr0n.txt lpt1" - this assumes your printer plugs into a parallel port, it'll be com1-com4 if it's serial, and usb001-usb??? if it's USB (don't know if the USB one will work)). On Linux, use a2ps, and send the result to the printer.
  • I scrounged a reservation system from Holiday Inn back in the 80's. It was in part an IBM Selectric typewriter with little solenoids that pushed on (five or six, I don't remember) little bars in different combinations that controlled what characters were printed. This would be pretty easy to (re-)implement. Try All Electronics or some other surplus store for solenoids, etc.

    • Not to reply to myself 8-), but check out this article [classiccmp.org]. An excerpt:

      The more clever (IMHO) mod was to attach seven solenoids to the Selectric between the keyboard encoding mechanism and the print mechanism, to directly control the tilt and rotate. And two more for the carriage return and paper advance. This has the advantage that you can still use it as a typewriter without having to attach and remove the solenoid box, and it's potentially less expensive since it takes nowhere near as many solenoids. I s

  • by RobertB-DC ( 622190 ) * on Tuesday December 21, 2004 @05:46PM (#11152727) Homepage Journal
    I say we, but it was really my dad (an electronics technician) and my stepmom (a computer programmer) who did it. They took the TRS-80 parallel port output, which was a slow, simple 8 data lines and a clock, and connected it to an IBM Selectric.

    The Selectric was already wired to accept electronic input, but not in ASCII. It expected tilt-and-rotate codes, which were directly transmitted to the golf ball shaped typing element [ibm.com]. To translate the TRS-80's ASCII to tilt/rotate codes, my parents drew up a table of equivalents. Then, my dad came up with a way to logically combine the TRS-80's output with values stored in an EPROM to get the tilt/rotate codes.

    I ended up using the computer for my typing class homework. Fortunately, the teacher didn't mind that I was writing BASIC programs like this:

    20 FOR I% = 1 TO LEN(A$)
    30 POKE addr, ASC(MID$(A$, I%, 1))
    35 some sort of delay for the ball to get repositioned
    40 NEXT

    I thought I was getting away with something... but my teacher wisely realized that I was actually doing more typing by hacking around than I would have been if I'd used the actual typewriter.
    • Is it possible to connect them the other way round and use the Selectric as the keyboard for your computer? I haven't used IBM's electric typewriters (only seen them) but I imagine the feel of the keys is a lot better than most spongy modern-day keyboards. The lack of Ctrl and Alt could bite though.
      • Is it possible to connect them the other way round and use the Selectric as the keyboard for your computer?

        As I recall, there was no feedback at all from the Selectric back to the driver. We couldn't even tell whether the character had been received -- hence the delay loop. Or we may have built the delay into the hardware, I'm not sure. But I'm pretty sure there wasn't a way to use the Selectric as a keyboard -- at least, not our model.
  • I did this (Score:4, Interesting)

    by spitzak ( 4019 ) on Tuesday December 21, 2004 @06:00PM (#11152938) Homepage
    Well, with a lot of help from my dad. Long time ago.

    The machine was an IBM Selectric editing machine, designed to read paper tape and punch it. My dad wired amps to the paper tape reader so that the parallel port of a CP/M machine could drive it. I wrote the CP/M printer driver to convert ASCII to the codes the typewriter used. I think it was 5-bit, and there was a code for shift-up and another for shift-down, so the driver had to keep track of this state.

    It printed quite beautifully, exactly like a typewriter. At the time everybody only had dot matrix, so reports and letters typed by this thing looked vastly superior.

    It could also print proportional space (excellent for writing reviews of Bush's service records) but we did not have the printhead, which apparently turned this on.
  • Even if you don't find one with an adapter already installed, it'll still be easier to adapt, if only because:

    1) You need far less solenoids since keystrokes get encoded for the ball mechanism, and
    2) The solenoids can be weaker than they would need to be for most other types.

    You'll have a hard time rigging solenoids to anything else, esp. a manual, which would require a more matched pull/push from each solenoid onto each lever or key, nevermind the room required.

    The other thing to watch out for is the d
  • The inverse problem (Score:4, Interesting)

    by mfago ( 514801 ) on Tuesday December 21, 2004 @06:25PM (#11153262)
    i.e. using a typewriter as a computer keyboard (which some responses discuss) has been done before [ahleman.com], and discussed here. [slashdot.org]
    The ElectriClerk is quite a sight BTW, and well worth looking at for inspiration with the current topic.
  • Done that, not fun (Score:2, Interesting)

    by wom ( 240411 ) *
    Way back, myself and an electronics engineer did this for a variety of _electronic_ typewriters, including IBM selectrics, olympia daisy wheel, etc. Each was different, all had gotcha's. We put a microcontroller (8751) between the keyboard connector, and the electronic board that drove the machine. That gave us control over what to print, and we could see what was typed. The machines being fairly mechanical meant that timing everything was complex, and exception ridden. Good luck!
  • by rlp ( 11898 )
    Is that you Dan Rather?
  • I was considering doing this with a vintage mechanical typewriter... woulda looked cool but it's a lot of work. Here's a website of a guy that's already done something like this with PS/2. It's pretty easy to convert ps/2 keyboards to usb. the typewriter-keyboard conversion [multipledigression.com] [http://www.multipledigression.com/type/]
  • I'm reminded of Yogi Berra saying "it's like deja vu all over again."

    Find an old teletype the does 8 bits and has a DB9 serial port.

    Use a USB-Serial coverter.

    Insert paper.


    You must be young.

    I must be old.

    I had an Anderson-Jacobson hooked up up to a serial card in an Apple ][+ in the early '80's. Type on the AJ and it would come out on the printer and on the monitor (or just the paper, depending on how a switch was set). And depending on how another was set, type on the computer keyboard and it co

  • "Build your own TV Typewriter" paper back from Radio Shack 1978 vintage.

    Or the better one was a magizine called Kilobaud, then became Microcomputer. They had plans for convertions.

    There was a set of chips from National Semi that had ascii to row/column of selectic type writer.

    Lastly the best I saw from late 70's early 80's was a device that had a push leaver over each key, and the output from the parallel port was used to translate which key(s) was(were) pressed. Typed very nicely.

    After that build a U
  • robot arm (Score:2, Interesting)

    by corprew ( 24232 )
    All in all, it will probably be much easier to get a robot arm with a USB interface and use that to drive the typewriter than it will be to actually convert the typewriter, unless you use one of the typewriters that already have this functionality (as mentioned in other posts.)

    Not quite the original question, but I'm guessing you're looking for cool more than utility.

  • About a hundred years ago, using a TRS-80 and a model 28 teletype, I did this very thing. Well, I didn't know any better at the time. 5 level baudot code made a very interesting software project, in assembler at the time, for a Z-80. Was fun!

Our business in life is not to succeed but to continue to fail in high spirits. -- Robert Louis Stevenson