Sit next to any piece of machinery long enough and you get to know it by the sounds it makes. Think about the sounds coming from any 3D-printer or CNC machine; it’s easy to know without looking when the G code is working through the sines and cosines needed to trace out a circle, for instance.
It was the same back in the day, when bored and bright software engineers heard note-like sounds coming from their gear and wrote programs to turn them into crude music machines. And now, [Ken Shirriff] details his efforts to revive a vintage IBM 1403 line printer’s musical abilities. The massive 1960s-era beast is an irreplaceable museum piece now, but when [Ken] and his friends at the Computer History Museum unearthed stacks of punch cards labeled with song titles like “Blowin’ In the Wind” and “The Blue Danube Waltz,” they decided to give it a go.
The 1403 line printer has a unique chain-drive print head, the inner workings of which [Ken] details aptly in his post. Notes are played by figuring out which character sequences are needed to get a particular frequency given the fixed and precisely controlled speed of the rotating chain. The technique is quite similar to that used by musical instruments such as the Floppotron, or when coercing music from everyday items including electric toothbrushes.
Lacking the source code for the music program, [Ken] had to reverse engineer the compiled program to understand how it works and to see if playing music would damage the chain drive. The video below shows the printer safely going through a little [Debussy]; audio clips of songs originally recorded back in 1970 are available too.
The Computer History Museum in Mountain View has two operational IBM 1401 mainframes, which use IBM 1403 high-speed printers. They aren’t some decades-old notion of “high speed” that barely looks sluggish today, either. These monsters slam out ten lines per second thanks to a rotating chain of type slugs and an array of electromagnetic hammers. Every 11.1 microseconds, a character in the chain would be lined up with a hammer, and if the control circuitry identified it as a character that needed to be printed, the hammer behind the paper would drive the paper into the print ribbon and the slug, putting an imprint of the character onto the paper. When one of these printers failed with a sync error, it kicked off some serious troubleshooting to diagnose the problem.
Investigation of the problem ultimately led to an intermittent connection in a driver card due to a broken PCB trace, but by then some fuses had been blown as well. In the end the printer was brought back online, but possibly with a slightly damaged coil on one of the hammers.
[Ken]’s writeup on the repair process is highly detailed and walks through the kind of troubleshooting and repairs involved when solving problems with vintage electronics. Electrical fundamentals might be the same, but a deep understanding of not only the architecture but also the failure modes of vintage hardware is needed in order to troubleshoot effectively.
If IBM 1401 mainframes and fixing 1403 printers sounds familiar, it’s because a printer fix has been done before. That was due to a different problem, but still a challenging task to narrow down and fix.