Vintage IBM Daisywheel Prints Again after Reverse Engineering

Just before the dawn of the PC era, IBM typewriters reached their technical zenith with the Wheelwriter line. A daisy-wheel printer with interchangeable print heads, memory features, and the beginnings of word processing capabilities, the Wheelwriters never got much time to shine before they were eclipsed by PCs. Wheelwriters are available dirt cheap now, and like many IBM products are very hackable, as shown by this simple Arduino interface to make a Wheelwriter into a printer.

[Chris Gregg] likes playing with typewriters – he even got an old Smith Corona to play [Leroy Anderson]’s The Typewriter – and he’s gotten pretty good with these largely obsolete but lovable electromechanical relics. Interfacing a PC to the Wheelwriter could have been as simple as scrounging up an original interface card for the machine, but those are like hen’s teeth, and besides, where’s the sport in that? So [Chris] hooked a logic analyzer to the well-labeled port that would have connected to the interface card and reverse engineered the somewhat odd serial protocol by banging on keys. The interface he came up with for the Wheelwriter is pretty simple – just a Light Blue Bean Plus and a MOSFET to drive the bus high and low for the correct amount of time. The result is what amounts to an alphanumeric printer, but with a little extra code some dot-matrix graphics are possible too.

Having spent a lot of time reverse engineering serial comms, we can appreciate the amount of work this took to accomplish. Looking to do something similar but don’t have the dough for a logic analyzer? Maybe you can free up $22 and get cracking on a similarly impressive hack.

[via r/arduino]

15 thoughts on “Vintage IBM Daisywheel Prints Again after Reverse Engineering

  1. I remember when “the ladies” at my dad’s office got their first IBM daisywheel typewriter. It was pure magic, with a line buffer so it only started typing after you hit the [Return] key. IIRC the actual daisywheel mechanism was remarkably silent and ran very smoothly.

  2. It is all in the past now, but the venerable IBM “Golf Ball” print head was way better than the wheels to quickly swap fonts and pitch. After all, you were looking for a professional looking report.

    Daisy wheels where good, cheap and simple but a tiny bit delicate when swapping wheels. Quite fiddly with the “ink” tape and the correction tape. Couldn’t rush it.

    Thanks God is all gone now and with a cheap PC/tablet/phone! you can prepare the text and images of a full book (to be printed in a very large, industrial, expen$ive printer, of course!)

    1. Yes, but the (original) “golf ball” only had 88 printable characters, with some of those wasted on characters like ‘1/2’ and ‘1/4’. So even in the glory days of ASCII, some important characters just weren’t available. Daisywheels weren’t bound to typewriter heritage, so they generally included all of the ASCII printable characters.

      I had two different Selectric-based printers back in the mid-80s. The first was a 50-pound “word processing” machine (don’t remember the manufacturer) from the 60s that included a paper tape punch and reader for “memory”, which did not use ASCII and didn’t include a computer interface so I had to tap into the paper tape reader wiring to interface to it, and then write a translator program for my Color Computer 2. It DID have some fancy features, such as a special “pause” character, so that when typing a form letter it would stop at the appropriate points for the operator to type in the appropriate text. Alas, this was long before eBay, so I had no source for paper tape for it. Which wasn’t a big deal because I was only using it as a printer anyway. The second was an Anderson-Jacobsen, which was designed from the start to be a computer terminal, so that one was easy.

  3. Add a reprap and u gots enough steppers and some of the hardware to make a 3D printer. 4988 not enough voltage i think. Need 8825 and pull caps rated ~12V and replace cuz the PS is usually 35V-45VDC on them beasts. Usually a 7805 linear 5VDc side too0. Big ass transformer. Could use the pbl3717 stepper controllers on some of those but probably quicker-better-easier to replace with reprap- arduino. 8032 reverse engineering takes to much time and not benefit IMO.

  4. I found one of those in the street (a simpler model) and i wanted to do th same. But it already run out of ink tape and i can’t find a replacement.
    But i will try to make it print from the pc

  5. “…so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.” Welcome, Mr. Prefect, to the Planet of the Hackaday Readers. You have your towel, I trust?

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