Crypto Features: They’re Not For Girls

If you have worked in an office that contained a typewriter, the chances are you’ve been in the workplace for several decades. Such has been the inexorable advance of workplace computing. It’s a surprise then to discover that one of the desirable toys from many decades ago, the Barbie Typewriter, is still available. Are hipster parents buying toy versions of vintage office machinery for their children to use in an ironic fashion?

Gone though are the plastic versions of mechanical typewriters that would have been the property of a 1970s child. The modern Barbie typist has an electronic typewriter at her fingertips, with a daisy-wheel printer. We’re treated to a teardown of the recent models courtesy of Crypto Museum, who reveal a hidden feature, Barbie’s typewriter can encrypt and decrypt messages.

Now the fact that a child’s toy boasts a set of simple substitution cyphers is hardly the kind of thing that will set the pulses of Hackaday readers racing, after all simple letter frequency analysis is hardly new. But of course, the Crypto Museum angle is only part of this story.

This toy is made in a suitably eye-watering shade of pink, and sold by Mattel with Barbie branding. But it didn’t start life as a Barbie product, instead it’s licensed from the Slovenian manufacturer Mehano. The original toy makes no secret of the crypto functions, but though they persist in the software on the Barbie version they are mysteriously absent from the documentation. The achievements of American women are such that they have given us high-level languages and compilers, or their software has placed men on the Moon, yet it seems when they are young a brush with elementary cryptology is beyond them in the way that it isn’t for their Slovenian sisters. This is no way to nurture a future Grace Hopper or Margaret Hamilton, though sadly if your daughter is a Lisa Simpson this is just one of many dumbed-down products she’ll be offered.

If you see a Barbie electronic typewriter in a yard sale or similar, and you can pick it up for a few dollars, buy it. It’s got a simple daisywheel printer mechanism that looks eminently hackable. Just don’t buy it for your daughter without also printing out the Crypto Museum page for her as the missing manual.

When the Martian lander running her code has touched down safely, you’ll be glad you did.

Via Adafruit.

Hackaday Links: October 30, 2016

Diablo. Mech Warrior. Every LucasArts game. There are reasons to build an old PC, and no, emulation cannot completely capture the experience of playing these old games. [Drygol] set out to create a retro PC and succeeded brilliantly. The built features an old desktop AT case (when is the last time you saw one of them?), a 233MHz Pentium with MMX technology, an ancient PCI video card, and an old ISA Ethernet card (with AUI connector). Incoming upgrades will be an ATI 3D Rage PRO, PCI SoundBlaster, and hopefully Windows 98SE.

Right now, we’re gearing up for the Hackaday Superconference next weekend. It’s going to be awesome, and we’re going to announce the winner of the Hackaday Prize. We have another contest going on right now – the Enlightened Raspberry Pi Contest. The name of the game here is documentation. Build something, document it on hackaday.io, and you get some cool prizes.

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The Origin of QWERTY

There are very few things that are surrounded with as much hearsay and rumor as the origins of the QWERTY layout of typewriters and keyboards. The reason behind the QWERTY layout isn’t as simple as ‘so the bars for each letter don’t collide with each other.’ That’s nonsense – it would make far more sense to improve the mechanism before changing the arrangement of the keyboard around.

That’s not the only fallacious argument for the creation of QWERTY. It’s also been called a marketing ploy; Stephen Jay Gould popularized the idea of the QWERTY keyboard being as it is so a salesman could peck out TYPE WRITER on the top row [1]. This also makes little sense. Why would the top row and not the home row be so privileged as to contain all the letters the make up the name of the machine. For that matter, wouldn’t a sales pitch be more impressive if TYPE WRITER were typed with one hand?

This doesn’t mean there’s not a method behind the madness of QWERTY – it’s just not as simple as jammed typewriter mechanisms or appeasing the wishes of salesmen in the 1870s. QWERTY didn’t come out of thin air, though, but folk tale history of this keyboard layout is sadly deficient.

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The Voice Recognition Typewriter

Typewriters with voice recognition have existed for over one hundred years; they were called secretaries. Robots are taking all the jobs now, and finally dictation and typing is a job that can be handled by a computer. [Zip Zaps] used an old Smith Corona typewriter to automate the process of turning dictation into print. Like a secretary hunched over an anachronistic IBM Selectric in the first season of Mad Men, this robot will take dictation and accept the overt sexism of a 1960s Manhattan ad agency.

Instead of the machinations of a few biological actuators, this typewriter is controlled with an array of servos driven by Pololu Maestro servo controller. There are twelve servos that move a small actuator down onto the keys, and another twelve servos that move the others above the correct row of the keyboard. The carriage return lever is actuated by a stepper motor, linear rail, and giant plastic lever.

While a robot that can use a typewriter is impressive, the real trick is getting it to take dictation. [Zip Zaps] used the built-in voice recognition found in Windows for this, streaming characters over a serial port to the Arduino-based electronics.

Does it work? Yes, surprisingly it does. Is it useful? Well, typewriters naturally have a cleaner, more analog tone about them, and you can’t replicate the typing experience of an old Smith Corona typewriter with a digital format. This build is just the natural extension of what digital electronics are capable of these days, and we look forward to seeing someone with this amazing device in our local Starbucks.

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Retrotechtacular: Cold War-Era Hardware Keyloggers

As Cold War tensions increased throughout the 1970s, the Soviets pulled out all the stops when it came to digging up information from US diplomats. This NSA memo from 2012 explains how several IBM Selectric typewriters used in the Moscow and Leningrad offices were successfully bugged with electromechanical devices that could possibly have been the world’s first keyloggers.

The Selectric prints with a ball that is spun and tilted to select the desired character. Two mechanical arms control the ball’s spin and tilt, and the keylogger read out the position of those arms. Thus, each character on the Selectric’s type element ball has its own signature. The sensing part of the keylogging mechanism was buried in part of the typewriter chassis, a metal bar that spans the width of the machine, and were so well hidden that they could only have been detected by complete dissassembly or x-ray.

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Turning A Typewriter Into A Mechanical Keyboard

Is your keyboard too quiet? Is your Cherry MX Blue board not driving your coworkers crazy enough? If the machine gun fire of a buckling spring keyboard isn’t enough for you, there’s only one solution: [Russell]’s typewriter turned into a mechanical keyboard.

Converting typewriters into keyboards has been done for a very long time; teletypes, the first computer keyboards, were basically typewriters, and the 1970s saw a number of IBM Selectrics converted into a keyboard with serial output. Even in recent years, typewriters have been converted into keyboards with the help of some switches and an ATMega. [Russell]’s mechanical keyboard improves on all of these builds by making the electronic interface dead simple, and a project that can be done by anyone.

Instead of installing switches underneath every key or futzing about with the weird mechanics of a Selectric typewriter, [Russell] is only installing a touch-sensitive position sensor into the frame of the typewriter. When a key is pressed, it strikes a crossbar in the frame of the typewriter. With a single ADC chip and a Raspberry Pi, [Russell] can determine which key was pressed and use that information to output a character to a terminal.

It’s a very simple solution for an electrical interface to a mechanical device, and the project seems to work well enough. [Russell] is using his new keyboard with Vim, even, something you can check out in the video below.

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Typewriter Types, Plays Music

[Chris Gregg] had a dream. He wanted to convert use a typewriter as a printer. Sure this has been done before, but [Chris] wanted to create his own version. He picked up a 60’s era Smith Corona electric typewriter, with the hopes of driving its key switches with a computer. You can imagine his surprise when he discovered the keys were not electric switches at all, but a complex mechanical system which triggered a clutch to strike the actual paper. Realizing this was not going to be a simple wiring job, [Chris] set the project aside, where it remained for several years.

A conversation with [Bruce Molay], a coworker at Tufts University reignited [Chris’] interest in project. [Bruce] suggested using solenoids to press the keys. [Chris] dove in, and quickly had 48 solenoids on hand. The first problem was mounting the solenoids on the keys. [Chris’] roommate happens to be [Derek Seabury], president of Artisan’s Asylum Hackerspace. [Derek] created an acrylic frame which holds the solenoids and fits directly over the typewriter’s keyboard. This meant that no modifications needed to be made to the typewriter itself. Simply lift off the solenoid array and you’re ready to rock like it’s 1965.

The next step was driving all those solenoids. For that, Chris worked with [Kate Wasynczuk], one of his students at Tufts. [Chris] designed a board using Texas Instruments  TPIC6A595 shift registers. The TIPC “power logic” series work like regular 74 series logic, but have seriously beefy outputs. These chips can handle up to 50 volts and 1.5 amps pulsed output current – plenty for [Chris’] 24 volt solenoids. [Chris] taught himself schematic entry and PCB layout in Eagle. After only two tries, he had a working board from OSHPark.

An Arduino Uno converts serial over USB output to a bit stream ready to clock into the shift registers. On the computer side, [Chris] wrote up a basic CUPS driver which allows him to print from his Macbook. The perfect demo for this project turned out to be musical. Click past the break to see The Smith Corona perform “The Typewriter Symphony”, by Leroy Anderson. This may be the first time this particular piece of music has been performed with actual words being typed, rather than random keys.

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