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Make Cool Stuff: USB Typewriter Edition

When was the last time you used a typewriter? For me the year was 1994, in 9th grade keyboarding class. In addition to the bank of IBM computers running Word Perfect 6.0, we had word processors, electronic typewriters that allowed us to queue up a certain amount of text on a small screen before printing it onto the page. I haven’t seen one in serious use since my first year of college – 1998 – when my best friend, frustrated with the computer lab’s virus-ridden computers, picked up a used typewriter at a garage sale.

In design magazine photos – apartments always too empty of clutter to be real – there’s often a pristine typewriter sitting on a shelf. It’s easy to celebrate the beauty of a typewriter. MOMA has several in their collection, including the gorgeous Valentine Portable. In a wave of nostalgia, it’s also easy to forget what made them so annoying: type too fast and the letters jam, always needing a bottle of Wite-Out for the inevitable mistakes, black smudged fingers every time the ribbon needs changing.

That’s where the USB Typewriter comes in. Maybe you’ve seen this floating around the internet in the last couple of months:

How cool is that? The typewriter hooks into your computer or tablet via USB and acts as a keyboard. When you need the enter key, move the carriage return. You can live out your tortured artist fantasies without the pain of retyping every draft of your 800 page novel.

The idea for the USB Typewriter came when the inventor, Jack Zylkin saw an old typewriter sitting on a friend’s mantle. “It seemed like a shame that such a beautiful machine wasn’t getting used.” Jack is the kind of guy with lots of “wouldn’t it be cool if…” ideas running through his head, but unlike a lot of us, he puts those ideas into action. He got his hands on a beautiful old typewriter and set out to make it relevant again. To get into the details of how it works, check out the tutorial at Instructables.

The results were novel enough that he now makes his living resurrecting typewriters. “I started taking a vacation day from my job here and a sick day there until finally it was like ‘I bet you’ve been wondering where I’ve been for the last week.’ It wasn’t until I was on the Martha Stewart show that people were said, ‘oh, I get this. This is big.’ So I quit my job and now I work on typewriters all day.”

He spends about half of his time modifying typewriters and half of the time on the miscellaneous keep-the-business running work. While he’s in the process of patenting other inventions, the USB Typewriter remains open via a Creative Commons license, and you can make your own using one of the modification kits he has for sale on his website. “I feel that if you know how to solder, you should be rewarded with the opportunity to make cool stuff.”

Agreed. And if you don’t know how to solder, look up the nearest hacker space in your area to take a class. Then make yourself some cool stuff.


  1. There was a good article in the New York Times this week about hacker spaces in New York and a nifty tool called the MakerBot:

  2. Lee says:

    Brilliant! I’ve actually been looking into using Arduino to build a MIDI control surface for DJing, so this could ultimately prove to be an extremely valuable resource for me.

    Even more thanks.

  3. Hacker spaces are a great! The name puts some people off, so think of them as maker spaces. People work on their projects together to share tools and knowledge. A lot of them run classes including basic skills (how to solder) and programming (intro to the Arduino). Don’t be afraid to check one out, even if you don’t have a lot of technical skill. It’s a great way to meet interesting people.

  4. Lee says:

    Wow! I had no idea that such a thing as a hacker space even existed. Lo and behold, there’s one in my city that I will be having a look at sometime soon.

    Thank you, Mindy, for enabling my nerdiness.

  5. Joe Rosario says:

    I have a Mac….. DO WANT! hahaha