Vintage IBM Daisywheel Prints Again after Reverse Engineering

Just before the dawn of the PC era, IBM typewriters reached their technical zenith with the Wheelwriter line. A daisy-wheel printer with interchangeable print heads, memory features, and the beginnings of word processing capabilities, the Wheelwriters never got much time to shine before they were eclipsed by PCs. Wheelwriters are available dirt cheap now, and like many IBM products are very hackable, as shown by this simple Arduino interface to make a Wheelwriter into a printer.

[Chris Gregg] likes playing with typewriters – he even got an old Smith Corona to play [Leroy Anderson]’s The Typewriter – and he’s gotten pretty good with these largely obsolete but lovable electromechanical relics. Interfacing a PC to the Wheelwriter could have been as simple as scrounging up an original interface card for the machine, but those are like hen’s teeth, and besides, where’s the sport in that? So [Chris] hooked a logic analyzer to the well-labeled port that would have connected to the interface card and reverse engineered the somewhat odd serial protocol by banging on keys. The interface he came up with for the Wheelwriter is pretty simple – just a Light Blue Bean Plus and a MOSFET to drive the bus high and low for the correct amount of time. The result is what amounts to an alphanumeric printer, but with a little extra code some dot-matrix graphics are possible too.

Having spent a lot of time reverse engineering serial comms, we can appreciate the amount of work this took to accomplish. Looking to do something similar but don’t have the dough for a logic analyzer? Maybe you can free up $22 and get cracking on a similarly impressive hack.

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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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