Several years ago, Chris Gregg, a Tufts University lecturer and computer engineer, received a letter from his friend Erica. This wouldn’t be so unusual, except that it was typed on an actual typewriter, not a printer.
Gregg is a fan of vintage typewriters, but, as with myself, makes many mistakes, requiring a functioning backspace key. From these requirements came the idea to automate a typewriter for use as a computer printer.
For this idea, Gregg purchased an electric Smith Corona typewriter, assuming that the keys were electrically actuated. Unfortunately, this was not the case, in fact most of it is mechanical, using a clutch mechanism to cause the keys to strike the paper. This idea was then shelved for several years until a conversation with Tufts colleague Bruce Molay inspired him to break out the project again, this time using 48 solenoids to punch the keys.
After this conversation, it still took around four to five months to produce a functional printer/typewriter. Solenoids are held by a double-acrylic fixture cut out by Derek Seabury, president of the Artisan’s Asylum Makerspace in Somerville, Massachusetts. These solenoids are controlled by a custom PCB, interfaced to a computer using an Arduino Uno. Naturally, there’s a lot of wiring involved in this project. Kate Wasynczuk, a computer science major at Tufts, helped out with this after seeing it being developed.
Check out the videos below for a demonstration of the typewriter’s “musical ability,” and a video overview of how it works.
As Chris points out in the video, the keyboard does miss a key once in a while, but he attributes this to occasional mechanical issues. An interesting part of the second video (for those of us who have never used an actual typewriter) comes around around 6:00. It explains that typewriters didn’t have a “1” key or exclamation point. “1” is simply a lower case “L,” and the “!” is made by the key sequence of: apostrophe, backspace, period. Given the extra effort, I suppose you would know that the author really wanted to emphasize something!