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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ASCII Art With Pure Data And A Typewriter

[vtol] is quickly becoming our favorite technological artist. Just a few weeks ago he graced us with a Game Boy Camera gun, complete with the classic Game Boy printer. Now, he’s somehow managed to create even lower resolution images with a modified typewriter that produces ASCII art images.

As with everything dealing with typewriters, machine selection is key. [vtol] is using a Brother SX-4000 typewriter for this build, a neat little daisy wheel machine that’s somehow still being made today. The typewriter is controlled by an Arduino Mega that captures an image from a camera, converts it to ASCII art with Pure Data and MAX/MSP, then slowly (and loudly) prints it on a piece of paper one character at a time.

The ASCII art typewriter was recently shown at the 101 Festival where a number of people stood in front of a camera and slowly watched a portrait assemble itself out of individual characters. Check out the video of the exhibit below.

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Don’t You Just Love Comic Sans?

Trick question! Of course you do, everyone loves Comic Sans! It’s only like the best font in the history of the internet! Why would you ever use anything else?

Oh! Is it because you feel like writing your novella on a computer is cheating? You wish you could use Comic Sans on your classic Sears-branded Brother Charger 11 typewriter from the 70’s? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered.

Jokes aside, this is actually a pretty clever hack. He’s modified a typewriter to use custom letters which he has laser cut out of acrylic and super glued to the strikers of the typewriter. Continue reading “Don’t You Just Love Comic Sans?”

Red Bull Creation: A Giant Daisy Wheel Printer

While most of the teams in this year’s Red Bull Creation didn’t really pay attention to the theme of ‘reinventing the wheel’, 1.21 Jiggawatts did. Their creation, a giant typewriter that can be suspended along the side of a building, takes its inspiration directly from 1970s typewriters and printers. Yes, it’s a giant daisy wheel typewriter.

The basic idea of a daisy wheel typewriter is a wheel with a few dozen petals, on the end of which is a single letter. To print a letter, the wheel spins around, and a solenoid mechanism strikes the letter against a piece of paper. This was cutting edge tech in the 70s, and was a fast (and cheap) way for computers to print out letter-quality reports.

1.21 Jiggawatts used a ladder as the rail to move down a line of text. The movement from line to line was supposed to be done by dangling the ladder off a chain with a few sprockets attached to motors. Unfortunately, the team couldn’t quite get the machine working for the competition and live event, but the build does show an amazing amount of creativity and respect for classic, forgotten technology.


Mechanical Typewriter Types Your Tweets!


While we weren’t able to visit the Toronto Maker Faire this past weekend, a friend let us know about this great hack. A mechanized typewriter that types out tweets directed at the maker, @mschwanzer!

[Michael Schwanzer] has a few blog posts outlining the build, but the first part of this news article and accompanying video explain it quite nicely. The printer-typewriter features an array of solenoids that are controlled by an Arduino using shift registers. A Raspberry Pi collects the information from Twitter and then parses the data to the Arduino for typing. A simple concept, but a complex and relatively expensive build.

During the fair, people could have their own tweets printed and streamed on this site. You can still see it in action though, just check out the video after the break! Continue reading “Mechanical Typewriter Types Your Tweets!”