Turning an old-school typewriter into a printer


Maker transforms his 1960s Smith Corona electric typewriter into a percussive printer.


One thing that continues to amaze us about the Maker Movement is the ingenuity of DIYers in how they upcycle antiquated devices, from floppy drives to old phones to typewriters. Just when we thought we’ve seen it all, Tufts University computer engineer Chris Gregg decided he wanted to transform his vintage 1960s Smith Corona electric typewriter into a printer that could be controlled by his PC.

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Gregg had initially hoped to find a way to drive the key switches without actually having to touch the keys of the typewriter, but quickly learned that this was impossible as the switches were not electronic. The machine was instead activated by a complex mechanical system, not to mention was so meticulously constructed that there was virtually no way to interface anything inside of it. Upon coming to this realization, the Maker put the project on the shelf before finally coming back to it several years later.

“Flash forward to winter 2015. I was sitting with my colleague at Tufts University, Bruce Molay, and I mentioned to him my failed idea, but he encouraged me to give it another shot. So, I brought the typewriter into work the next day, and Bruce took one look at it and said, ‘solenoids.’ This was the answer, although not really the one I wanted to hear,” Gregg explains.

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With this newfound plan of activating the keys with the solenoids controlled by his computer, the project continued onward with a little help from his fellow colleagues. The solenoids were then mounted to a laser-cut, two-layer acrylic holder. Meanwhile, the system employed a TPIC6A595 shift register capable of handling up to 50V — which meant the Maker only needed to use one Arduino pin to provide an input value and a few more pins for shift register control.

After debating between a Raspberry Pi, Arduino or a LightBlue Bean to serve as the brains of the operation, Gregg finally selected an Uno (ATmega328). The Arduino converts input over USB to a bit stream that can be used by the shift registers, which is fed data through an OS application, while a custom CUPS driver enables the MacBook to print documents using the typewriter.

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“It has been a bit wonky so far, but I’ve proved the concept and need to debug it some more,” the Maker says in reference to the CUPS driver. “Bruce wants to write a graphics-to-ASCII art translator so we can print any document, but I fear that may tax the poor Smith Corona a bit much.”

To best demonstrate the project, Gregg naturally chose to have it play percussion for Leroy Anderson’s “The Typewriter Symphony.” Trust us, you’ll want to see it in action below!

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