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.

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Almost-Modern TeleType Is Silent

If you’ve ever used a real TeleType machine or seen a movie with a newsroom, you know that one TeleType makes a lot of noise and several make even more.[CuriousMarc] acquired the silent replacement, a real wonder of its day, the TI Silent 703. The $2,600 machine was portable if you think hauling a 25-pound suitcase around is portable. In 1971, it was definitely a step up.

The machine used a thermal printer, could have a built-in acoustic coupler for talking over the phone. You could also get a dual tape drive that acted like a mostly silent paper tape reader and punch.

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Logging Into Linux With A 1930s Teletype

Buried deep within all UNIX-based operating systems are vestiges of the earliest days of computing, when “hardware” more often than not meant actual mechanical devices with cams and levers and pulleys and grease. But just because UNIX, and by extension Linux, once supported mechanical terminals doesn’t mean that getting a teletype from the 1930s to work with it is easy.

Such was the lesson learned by [CuriousMarc] with his recently restored Model 15 Teletype; we covered a similar Model 19 restoration that he tackled. The essential problem is that the five-bit Baudot code that they speak predates the development of ASCII by several decades, making a converter necessary. A task like that is a perfect job for an Arduino — [Marc] put a Mega to work on that — but the interface of the Teletype proved a bit more challenging. Designed to connect two or more units together over phone lines, the high-voltage 60-mA current loop interface required some custom hardware. The testing process was fascinating, depending as it did on an old Hewlett-Packard serial signal generator to throw out a stream of five-bit serial pulses.

The big moment came when he used the Teletype to log into Linux on a (more or less) modern machine. After sorting out the mysteries of the stty command, he was able to log in, a painfully slow process at 45.5 bps but still a most satisfying hack. The ASCII art — or is it Baudot art? — is a nice bonus.

We love restorations like these, and can practically smell the grease and the faint tang of ozone around this device. We’re not thrilled by the current world situation, but we’re glad [CuriousMarc] was able to use the time to bring off a great hack that honors another piece of our computing history.

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Line Printer Does Its Best Teletype Impression

Back in the early days of computing, user terminals utilized line printers for output. Naturally this took an incredible amount of paper, but it came with the advantage of creating a hard copy of everything you did. Plus it was easy to annotate the terminal output with nothing more exotic than a ballpoint pen. But once CRT displays became more common, these paper terminals (also known as teleprinters, or teletypes) quickly fell out of style.

A fan of nostalgic hacks, [Drew DeVault] recently tried to recreate the old-school teletype experience with (somewhat) more modern hardware. He picked up an Epson LX-350 line printer, and with a relatively small amount of custom code, he was able to create a fairly close approximation of what it would have been like to use one of these terminals. He’s published all the source code, so if you’ve got an old line printer and a Linux box, you too can learn what it was like to measure your work day in reams of paper.

This is made possible by the fact that the modern Linux virtual terminal is simply a userspace emulation of those physical terminals of yore. [Drew] just need to write some code that would essentially spawn a shell on the Linux USB line printer device, plus sprinkle in some quality of life improvements such as using Epson’s proprietary ANSI escape sequences to feed the paper out far enough so the user can see what it says before pulling it back in to write the next interactive line.

Of course, the experience isn’t perfect as the printer naturally doesn’t have a keyboard attached to it. If you’re looking for something a bit more authentic, you could always convert an old electric typewriter into a modern-ish teletype.

Upgrade Board Turns Typewriter Into A Teletype

It may come as little surprise to find that Hackaday does not often play host to typewriter projects. While these iconic machines have their own particular charm, they generally don’t allow for much in the way of hardware modification. But then the IBM Wheelwriter 1000 isn’t exactly a traditional typewriter, which made its recent conversion to a fully functional computer terminal possible.

A product of the Computer History Museum’s [IBM 1620 Jr. Team], this modification takes the form of a serial interface board that can be built at home and installed into the Wheelwriter. The board allows the vintage electronic typewriter to speak RS-232 and USB, so it can be connected to whatever vintage (or not so vintage) computer you can imagine. The documentation for the project gives a rough cost of $150, though that does assume you’ve already got a Wheelwriter 1000 kicking around.

The GitHub repository includes everything you need to create your own board, and there’s even a highly detailed installation guide that goes over the case modifications necessary to get the new hardware installed. It also explains that you’ll want to get a new keycap set for your Wheelwriter if you perform this modification, as the original board doesn’t have all of the ASCII characters.

So why adapt an old electric typewriter to function as a teletype? As explained by the [IBM 1620 Jr. Team], there are projects out there looking to recreate authentic 1960s-era computing experiences that need a (relatively) affordable paper terminal. The originals are too rare to use in modern recreations, but with their adapter board, these slightly less archaic input devices can be used in their place.

Once you’ve built your new teletype, or in the somewhat unlikely event you already have one at the ready, we’ve seen a couple of projects that you might be interested in to put it to use.

AI-Enabled Teletype Live Streams Nearly Coherent Conversations

If you’ve got a working Model 33 Teletype, every project starts to look like an excuse to use it. While the hammering, whirring symphony of a teleprinter going full tilt brings to mind a simpler time of room-sized computers and 300 baud connections, it turns out that a Teletype makes a decent AI conversationalist, within the limits of AI, of course.

The Teletype machine that [Hugh Pyle] used for this interesting project, a Model 33 ASR with the paper tape reader, is a nostalgia piece that figures prominently in many of his projects. As such, [Hugh] has access to tons of Teletype documentation, so when OpenAI released their GPT-2 text generation language model, he decided to use the docs as a training set for the model, and then use the Teletype to print out text generated by the model. Initial results were about as weird as you’d expect for something trained on technical docs from the 1960s. The next step was obvious: make a chat-bot out of it and stream the results live. The teletype can be seen clattering away in the recorded stream below, using the chat history as a prompt for generating text responses, sometimes coherent, sometimes disturbing, and sometimes just plain weird.

Alas, the chat-bot and stream are only active a couple of times a week, so you’ll have to wait a bit to try it out. But it looks like a fun project, and we appreciate the mash-up of retro tech and AI. We’ve seen teleprinters revived for modern use before, both for texting and Tweeting, but this one almost has a mind of its own.

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Texting With A Teletype

How do you get the kids interested in old technology? By connecting it to a phone, obviously. Those kids and their phones. When [Marek] got his hands on an old-school teletype, he hooked it up to a GSM network, with all the bells and whistles including a 40mA current loop running at an impressive 50 baud.

The teletype in question here is a vintage T100 teletype manufactured in Czechoslovakia sometime in the ’70s. This was a gift to [Marek]’s workplace, the museum of Urban Engineering in Cracow, and this project is effectively an experiment to investigate the possibility of running this teletype as an interactive exhibit rather than an artefact from the age of current loops and phone systems.

The current loop is, or was, the standard way of connecting a teletype to anything, so all [Marek] had to do was construct a box that translated the signals from a GSM modem to this current loop. For the prototype, the microcontroller in question is an old AT89C2051 (as that’s what was sitting in the parts drawer). This was moved over to a PIC32 microcontroller and a SIM800 GSM module. This is housed in a two-part enclosure, with the GSM interfaced housed in one half, with the current loop generator consisting of a simple DC power supply housed int the other half.

This interface is capable of receiving and sending messages from the keyboard to a GSM network, so it is theoretically possible you could text your friends using an old-school teletype. This functionality hasn’t been implemented yet, but it is just about the coolest thing you could possibly imagine. You can check out a video of the teletype in action below. Continue reading “Texting With A Teletype”