Converting An 80s Typewriter Into A Linux Terminal

Typewriters may be long past their heyday, but just because PCs, word processor software, and cheap printers have made them largely obsolete doesn’t mean the world is better off without them. Using a typewriter is a rich sensory experience, from the feel of the keys under your fingers that even the clickiest of PC keyboards can’t compare with, to the weirdly universal sound of the type hitting paper.

So if life hands you a typewriter, why not put it back to work? That’s exactly what [Artillect] did by converting an 80s typewriter into a Linux terminal. The typewriter is a Brother AX-25, one of those electronic typewriters that predated word processing software and had a daisy wheel printhead, a small LCD display, and a whopping 8k of memory for editing documents. [Artillect] started his build by figuring out which keys mapped to which characters in the typewriter’s 8×11 matrix, and then turning an Arduino and two multiplexers loose on the driving the print head. The typewriter’s keyboard is yet used for input, as the project is still very much in the prototyping phase, so a Raspberry Pi acts as a serial monitor between the typewriter and a laptop. The video below has a good overview of the wiring and the software, and shows the typewriter banging out Linux command line output.

For now, [Artillect]’s typewriter acts basically like an old-school teletype. There’s plenty of room to take this further; we’d love to see this turned into a cyberdeck complete with a built-in printer, for instance. But even just as a proof of concept, this is pretty great, and you can be sure we’ll be trolling the thrift stores and yard sales looking for old typewriters.

26 thoughts on “Converting An 80s Typewriter Into A Linux Terminal

    1. The machine already knows how to translate keypresses into characters to feed the stream to the print-head – why not intercept it there for the terminal I/O instead of bypassing the machines keyboard ? Also , get a nice pair of Bell 212A modems with acoustic couplers to go in between, and use two land-lines with standard hand-set phones. Get a nice roll of yellow TTY paper, and you’ve got a Model 41 ! Oh, and get Unix System III on the host — even if it’s in a PDP emulator.

  1. Long ago I had one of these typewriters and the rare rs232 interface box. When you used it as a printer it would shake the whole table rather violently and it sounded like it was going to explode in a shower of tiny parts. I don’t think the mechanism was designed for such use.

  2. By the time those electronic typewriters readily available, I’d given up my electric typewriter and was using a computer for writing. They were a step up from electric typewriters, but not by much.

    I can’t see them useful as terminals. Maybe in 1990, but there is a whole lot of more recent computer equipment avaioable cheap. I keep a couple of Mac laptops around for the purpose, never used them as terminals

  3. It looks like Staples here in the USA (office supply chain) still sells what looks like a new real electric typewriter:

    Royal Consumer Scriptor AC Power Typewriter (69149V) Final Price $229.09 Item #: 2604742

    Wanna bet it’s made in China or India? There are also new Royal brand mechanical typewriters on the market, but they are poorly made according to the reviews..

    1. The royal scriptor is a rebranded nakajima wpt-150. They are actually made in Indonesia. Most modern electronic typewriters are a rebrand of 2 models that Nakajima makes.

  4. The missing/bad characters look like the terminal needs flow control, using either xon/xoff or cts/rts. It may help to reduce the baud rate also, perhaps 50 would work….

    1. I may have missed a subsequent episode where Gerry Seven returns to the Star Trek “universe”, but I always thought that original episode left the stage door wide open for a sequel.

  5. If this d00d was smart, he would have realized that his typewriter uses an 8051 Microcontroller with external ROM and RAM, so he could have just disassembled the ROM to understand how it all works, and then replaced the ROM with a Flash ROM comtaining his own code, zero extra hardware required.

    If he was of at least average intelligence, he would have had realized that his “a4du1n0” had enough pins to scan the keyboard, no multiplexers required.

    As it is, he’s using a pretentious name like “Artillect”. WTF relay man?

  6. So, every time I see a paper-terminal restoration or build project it’s a conflict between the part of me that likes seeing old tech refurbished or builds respectively and the part that realizes what a waste of paper that is.

    This time that lead to a thought. What if the paper was laminated and attached to itself so that it runs through in a large circle? And the ink was something like what is used in dry erase boards and just before it re-enters the terminal the “paper” went past a squeegie?

    I don’t have time for another project. I’d love to see someone else do it though! If they want to.

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