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.

56 thoughts on “Crypto Features: They’re Not For Girls

    1. My mom was involved in crypto as a WWII WAVE, so I’m getting a kick out of this article…

      Seriously, though, good on them for adding a “hidden” feature to the Barbie typewriter. We need more girls to get (and stay) interested in math and science.

      1. I called Buzzfeed (I have them on speed dial) they will get to the bottom of this, Infact should I say bottom? that is kinda a sexualised part of the body and I am now probably perpetuating rape culture.

      1. I think the title was meant to be a commentary on the mentality led Mattel to leave out any documentation on the Barbie Typewriter’s ability to double as a cypher machine rather than a reflection of author’s own beliefs, since the writer clearly thinks different. And to goad people into clicking it, of course.

      1. Your Honor, the accused Susie Derkins has admitted to owning this banned device, and using it to encrypt communications in an unbreakable algorithm called “ROT-1”, developed by an agent codenamed “Caesar”. Following our glorious nation’s philosophy of “nothing to hide if innocent”, we believe she has become involved with an international terrorist organization.

        The prosecution recommends public execution.

  1. BTW Daisywheel toy typewriters when I was a kid, you had to manually twist the daisy wheel to set each character. You could do a kind of ROT13 or whatever it was, probably more like ROT20, with numerals etc, by lining up the actual stamps of characters toward you, instead of the legend on top because they’d be opposite sides.

  2. The basic mechanism would be the real prize here – connecting this to a favorite µcontroller and putting more cipher into it via stepping motors would be a lot of fun.

    Also, Mattel’s omission of the secret code key reference is likely not an onslaught by the oppressive patriarchy, but is simply omitted (as it is in the English manual present on the Crypto Museum’s reference page) and was never caught in production. Always suspect incompetence before conspiracy.

  3. Why is this standalone?

    Why not just make it a peripheral, for the pink Barbie computer?

    Thy existed, maybe fifteen years ago, not for Barbie, but for the girl who had Barbies.

    Boys weren’t left out, they could get the same specs in a Hot Wheels computer, probably blue, but I cant remember.


  4. Except they’re not disabled. The feature still works even on today’s model. They’re just not talked about. If they had disabled the feature I could understand the “Mattel didn’t pay for it” angle but…

  5. I know I am in the minority in this “society” (welcome brother), but I am sick to death of all this racism/sexism crap every time you turn around… I know, stop turning around. You can read anything on the internet without there being sexist/racist accusations. You know what… I need a safe space. I’ll be sitting over in the corner sucking on my thumb, holding my teddy bear and coloring in my My Little Pony coloring book. Let me know when the world starts spinning again…

    1. Many years ago I had a repair call out to a shopping center for a ‘children’s entertainment kiosk’ with the fault description ‘color black not working’.

      It was a large touch screen computer in a box masquerading as an electronic coloring book.

      On the touch screen was coloring in line art and a color palette. The intention was that you touch the color you want in the palette, it’s says the color to acknowledge the color press and then you touch the area where you want the color and it fill that area with that color.

      Touching the colors in the palette all yielded an annunciation of the color except black. I then press another color and an area in the coloring in section and that section filled with that color. I then tried the same with black and it worked with the exception that it didn’t annunciate ‘black’.

      A call to the manufacturer relieved that it was designed NOT to say black because that may be offensive to non-white people.

    2. Comments like these are hilarious.

      You’re sick of people talking about sexism and racism? Well, cry me a river. I’m much more sick of actual sexism and racism, and I’m glad that people are finally talking about it. If you think your life is hard because you have to listen to people talk about sexism and racism, I have news for you: there are people who actually have to *experience* sexism and racism. So on the scale of how sorry I feel for your terrible plight of seeing words in the Internet that you can easily just not read, I’m falling somewhere around “not very much, buddy”.

      1. Really? I live in a community that is roughly half black and half white with both black and white hispanics. It’s also roughly half male and half female. I simply don’t see any of the racism or sexism the media keeps telling us exists. Everybody assumes it is happening elsewhere. Where are the actual examples? Frankly, I don’t think that people would put up with it if it was, in fact, happening. Look up James Manning on youtube. Search for his “white people gonna riot” video. He says it very well. People are sick and stinking tired of being called racist, sexist, homophobe, etc.

      2. As a victim of sexism, homophobia, transphobia, mysoginy, trans mysoginy and sexual harassment, I couldn’t agree more.

        Literally every day I leave my house I’m facing a elevated risk of abuse, violence, rape and murder. I do actually spend a lot of time and effort on ensuring my physical safety.

      3. I too am bothered by the trend of unsubstantiated claims of racism/sexism far outstripping actual evidence of it (in general, not in specific reference to this article). It’s not a matter of “I heard/read the word and it hurt my feels” as you seem to assert, but of the boy (ahem, person) who cried wolf. As a progressive person, I see the cause of equality slipping backward a tiny bit each time, as even I find it incrementally harder not to automatically lump racism/sexism/etc. claims in with antivax and cold fusion claims, I.e. “total bullshit until proven otherwise”. I shudder to imagine the impact on those many folks not actively trying not to reach that point.

      4. No… I’m not sick of “talking”about sexism and racism. I am sick of everything being CALLED sexism and racism when it is NOT.

        Sorry, for the late reply. I just noticed it today.

  6. First a disclaimer, I am neither a Slovenian, nor married to one (no pun intended), nor live or had permanently lived in Slovenia but, with due respect, I believe I have more clear view at both Slovenia and Mehano then Jenny.

    Slovenia is here unfairly depicted as some backwater, women-put-down country, which is far from truth. Prior to Yugoslavia fall apart, Slovenia was not only most socially advanced and liberal part of the federation, but also ahead of many old European nations in that regard. And Mehano, former “Mehanotehnika” from Izola, was instrumental in forming many geeks (yours truly included) in Yugoslavia, with their range of constructor sets (a variant on “Erector” toys, kits of metal elements joined with nuts and bolts) and electrotechnic experimenter kit “Elektropionir”, which evolved from, and could be combined with them.

    Now about the typewriter, it was probably easier and more economical to make typewriter mechanism a superset of all toy typewriters the company produces, or would produce. I don’t buy it that Mattel only acts as some reseller and brand-stamper for manufacturers, either. Mattel does their own product design, they write specifications and then accept offers from bidders. They certainly have final say in how the toy will be presented and described in accompanying manual, and blame belongs clearly at their feet. Did you expect Mehano to abstain from bidding because their product exceeded specification, or say no to an opportunity out of principle?

    Aside from name-calling and egg-throwing in wrong direction, I think this is great! Smart girls will no doubt discover this “Easter Egg” and will be excited that they have got more then they expected.

          1. Plenty of stuff that we could be proud of, but for some reason aren’t. Or at least, there’s little pride of the companies/products that make it internationally here at home. As for Mehanotehnika, I had quite a few of their toys as a kid. :)

  7. I’m pretty sure it was just a bit of a joke. You people (not you people) :P are taking this a little bit out of context, or maybe I am. I don’t really care; the thing looks cool and now I want to buy a Barbie typewriter.

    Believe it or not, Hackaday is my “safe space”.
    *hugs everybody, love explosion, everyone rolls their eyes…*

    They didn’t market the crypto because, well, it doesn’t really sell.

  8. Actually, it’s a simple shift cipher, at least for the E117B tables on the site, (They seem to contain a few 1s that should be ls, though.) There are 90 characters:
    Each character is encoded as another so many characters ahead of it, wrapping around.
    I'd be interested to know if it is the order of characters on the daisy wheel. Might have made it easy to implement..

  9. So much agreed. I am tired of the constant charges of “sexism” and “racism” that permeate every level of our society. If you want my opinion– the ones who are most sexist and racists are the ones who are sitting around thinking up this shit to foist upon all of the rest of us.

  10. Here is a page in German, describing a daisy wheel with almost the same ordering that I gave, (except with a different starting point and German specific characters &c.)
    All they’d need to generate the code is to add an offset to each position.
    c = getc()
    i = DaisyWheel.position(c)
    i = (i+offset) % DaisyWheel.length

  11. Discrimination is definitively a thing! I have a disability or four so I can vouch for some part of that and I am also sure that museum women that get publicly stoned to death are in fact experiencing a form of sexist discrimination. Here we call it murder.

    I actually come to HackaDay to get away from those realities and those people. I generally find that these sorts of abhorrent behaviors are less common in amongst well educated and/or intelligent people. ie: The probability of a person discriminating on the basis of sex/gender/race etc is roughly inversely proportional to their IQ!

    *So* it comes as a surprise to me that I have now for a second time seen the topic raised in comments to an article written by [Jenny List].

    On both occasions I have completely failed to perceive any racism or sexism in her writings. And why would anyone expect that [Jenny List] is racist or sexist? From the range of technical skill that she has demonstrated I have assumed (either correctly or incorrectly) that [Jenny List] has been some what of a pioneer to enter this industry at a time when it was far more male dominated than it is even today. I am sure she has experienced some opposing sexual discrimination along the way and would be strongly against it.

    Perhaps we need an article about sexual discrimination in this industry. Personally I believe our industries is one of the better industries today but of course there will always be room for improvement.

    With an article like this those who genuinely have experienced sexism can have a voice and the trolls other commenters can get all the whining of their chest.

    I seem to remember programmers once being labeled sexist on the basis of language used in code for variables etc and even code fragments written in other verbal languages that have different meanings for the words were branded sexist.

  12. Mine was a.Tom Thumb, about 1955. The next daisy wheel I saw Valley many decades later, aside from teletypes. I.keep a.functioning 1927 5-tab Remington..Ex-Crypt toe. ???? Men have had the job of tactics where strength and territory were.concerned. Women have taken up tactics within and between social circles. This is naturally superficially overt and harmless, but.with subcurrents.if clandestine.overtures many times. It’s rather a.natural evolution and gives gals some edge in politics, somewhat offsetting their perception of not being uofront, where men suffer as politiclans for simpmy lying and being two-faced. Essentially, people should not be allowed to be politicians, with few exceotions. Robot Wars, “back in the day?!?” Go play with your Barbie, kid. (Tongue in cheek. V cool, actually.)

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