48 Solenoids Transform This 1960s Typewriter into a Computer Printer

Arduino Computers & Mobile


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.

YouTube player
YouTube player

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!

[via Reddit]

7 thoughts on “48 Solenoids Transform This 1960s Typewriter into a Computer Printer

  1. LatheOperator says:

    It should have been typing out “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”, though I suppose the quick brown fox sentence tests all the letter keys.

  2. mschwanzer says:

    Very cool! My almost 100 year old typewriter prints tweets, for aesthetics, I kept the solenoids under the table: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lPcGAFuTVxg Great to see a different approach and I assume way better electronic engineering! Congrats, great project!

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  4. Lucas M. Peters says:

    Though it was common to not include an exclamation point or use a numeric one key, not all typewriters lacked an exclamation or used the lower case L key to make a numeric one. Some typewriters have a full-number row (I have an Olivetti MP1 ICO with this keyboard set up) and other typewriters include all sorts of accent keys, punctuations, fractions and symbols. In fact (perhaps surprisingly) there was never really a “standardized” QWERTY keyboard set-up for all typewriters.

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  7. viadd says:

    This used to be a product you could buy. Check out the back pages of Byte c. 1979.

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Jeremy is an engineer with 10 years experience at his full-time profession, and has a BSME from Clemson University. Outside of work he’s an avid maker and experimenter, building anything that comes into his mind!

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