Tuesday, May 28, 2013

USB Typewriter: The Final Chapter

After what seems like weeks of false starts and broken deadlines I can say:


Can't you feel the full promise of the digital revolution?


It has been difficult reconciling my excitement over working on this project and the vague shadow of apprehension that haunted me at various points along the line. The apprehension did not come from a fear of knowledge. I knew what I was doing and I had confidence in my ability as a maker. I was worried for something else. Perhaps I was worried about the typewriter's soul. Perhaps I was worried for my own. Regardless I decided that converting this typewriter wasn't a good thing to do.


The promises I made earlier did not come to pass. I said that this USB typewriter would be in the beautiful Underwood that I have been showing off for weeks. No Underwood. The plan that I made for my version of the USB typewriter was far too complex and diverged from Jack's well thought out plan too much. I didn't heed the advice of minds more experienced as my own. The mounting bar was a beautiful execution, but it altered the feel of the typewriter so fundamentally that it couldn't stay. And from there I didn't have the heart to subject that poor little portable to any more humiliation. That is what the Triumph is for.


It was languishing on the shelf. The H is still missing from the ribbon cover and I thought making some room for another typewriter would be a good idea. The sensor bar was a good fit and I was able to transfer all the parts and components to the Triumph. It ended up coming together in a few hours. 

I had to foreshorten a spring so that the sensor bar's added weight would allow the ribbon vibrator to return to its normal position. Apart from that, there was little to do to get it into a working state.

There are still things that need to be done on this USB Typewriter; the carriage return, the backspacer, and the tabulator all need to be arranged. I will, however, not do them. I have lost the taste for digital-enabled typewriters. The whole enterprise felt cheap and tawdry to me. I was grafting a computer onto a manual typewriter by hook or by crook. By doing this I subtly supported the idea that a device is not a device unless it is accompanied by a computer. That did not sit well with me. 

Now, my newly-found distaste for typewriter-cum-computer hybrids does not reflect on Jack Zylkin's design or execution. The kit was top-notch. I enjoyed putting it together. The concept is mature and works well. As I mentioned earlier, my apprehension was over the larger question of should this be done? And the larger question: To what ends?

For me, I like to keep my analog free of digital influences.

15 comments:

  1. Nice work.

    As much as I have been fooling with electricity and electronics since childhood and I have been employed in such for nearly 50 years I have yet to have the desire to make a USB typewriter. I have always liked most of the new things, but somehow with a typewriter, the typewriter must stay as such.

    Thank you for the nice post. You have added to my 'no usb typewriter' philosophy.

    I'm sure there are folks out there who love the adaptation of a manual typewriter to a computer, but I am not one of them.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Now you can add this conversion to your personal lists of "been there, done that, don't like, won't use".

    I agree completely that a manual typewriter's main charm is precisely its lack of any digital connections; but on the other hand, it's very interesting, to the technologically minded, to see that it is actually possible to create a working interface between a mechanical device and an electronic computer.

    In the beginning, computer terminals did have mechanical keyboards; and perhaps the very first examples of analog-to-digital conversion of typewriters came in the 1960s, when someone decided the IBM Selectric could work as a terminal for one of those newfangled contraptions called "computers". As a matter of fact, apparently there was actually talk during the design process of the Selectric that it should be capable of printing the full ASCII character set, but (fortunately) it didn't come to pass.

    Now, fifty years later, with more advanced electronics, we are able to fit a sensor bar to most every manual typewriter and make it talk to a computer, and that's very interesting to see, particularly when you consider that most of the newest computing devices have lost their physical keyboards altogether. With this invention, the old and beloved typewriter comes a full circle.

    Who knows? Maybe the version 2.0 of the USB typewriter design will have provissions to hook up the machine to an iPad. It would be interesting having the thing tethered on the typewriter's carriage, held in place against the paper table, and actually use a font the right size as to fit just enough characters per line as the typewriter. No automatic parsing, of course; carriage return and new line advance functions performed by the actual use of the carriage return lever. That would give users a more closer feel of what it was like to work in the pre-digital world.

    ... Not that I would do that to any of my typewriters, though...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I love Selectrics for an entirely different reason. Even though it looks like they are harbingers of the forthcoming digital revolution, they are secretly mechanical.

      I am sure that future iterations might be better, but I am content to let the mechanical be just that; mechanical.

      Delete
  3. As much as I can appreciate the thought and the work that went behind this idea of converting keystrokes from manual typewriters into something that can functions as a computer keyboard, I find it's like getting the worst of both worlds.

    On the computer, I like to input and "remix" text as quickly as I can and with a typewriter, I like to do my actual writing by writing s-l-o-w-l-y without the distraction of that flickering screen that wreaks havoc on my attention-span... and that's on top of that great seductress, the Internet. But, of course, power to everyone for whom this works, I'm not one of them.

    When it comes time to interface with the 21st century, I use OCR software. The corrections I need to make to typewritten texts are usually mine (typos, bad spelling, etc.) and beyond the nuts and bolts of converting the words into something resembling English language, it affords the opportunity for revision.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The OCR is a good middle-gound for those who want some level of control over their digital workflow. I used it extensively during the last NaNoWriMo. It was invaluable.

      Delete
  4. Congrats again on getting your kit working on a machine. I find the Zack's USB kit to be ingenious as a proof of concept and invaluable for the reason it gives some people to rediscover mechanical typewriters, but I agree with you that it just seems somehow wrong or pointless to turn a mechanical typewriter into a semi-functional 88 character computer keyboard (at least for me as a personal decision - I would become frustrated very quickly with a keyboard that lacked characters I need for coding). I note that those Typospherians who have converted a machine in their collection only seem to use them for a single post then rarely seem to use that machine again.

    I'm not at all against the conversion, but I doubt I'd do one myself. Still, USB typewriters are impressive to non-typewriter users, and I suspect if you use it as a prostelyzation tool, it would work well and garner appreciative audiences. (:

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Maybe I can pull it out for the next Type-In. That would be a grand idea.

      Delete
  5. The videos are a very clever way of presenting the results of your conversion. Thanks for sharing your experience. I think the Triumph looks really good as a USB typewriter, but does the conversion make sense? I share your reservations but will probably do this myself someday, just to say that I've done it and have some personal experience.

    Miguel, the USB Typewriter does already hook up to an iPad, and Jack Zylkin likes to demonstrate it that way. Check the photos at usbtypewriter.com.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Ryan, thanks for your astute analysis! It's good to see that you tried it instead of just rejecting the idea out of hand and that you decided based on aesthetics and philosophy rather than a grumpy Luddism. Too often people seem to confuse actual progress with "because we can" and it doesn't occur to them to ask "to what end?".

    That said, though, I see a value in replacing carbon paper and storage of the copies so that I can keep track of what I wrote to whom when. How many of you keep carbon copies of correspondence?

    == MIchael Höhne

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I just made a carbon copy of a letter today! (But I have to admit it was the first in about a year. Usually if I want to copy a typescript, I run it through the high-speed scanner.)

      Delete
    2. Thanks for the compliment. I wanted really to be excited about this project. In fact, I was excited about this project. Soldering and making things is fun; even if it is a kit. For me it was more fun to make it than use it.

      I think that digital carbon copies would be the ultimate melding of the digital and mechanical. With some work you could adapt the shift-register technique and set it up as a keystroke logger. That is a project for another intrepid typewriter.

      Delete
  7. Look at it this way, it is out of your system. Take a shower and return to the fold... like it was all a dream. For the viewer, at least, there's a lot of humour in the videos, backspaces and all. I can hear you thinking in the silences between the clacks.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I hope that the silences were not too deafening.

      Delete