Posts Tagged ‘steampunk’

Typewriters are complex things

Thursday, September 25th, 2008

Last week I took collection of a pair of broken typewriters via Ebay. Getting them back to the workshop on public transport was a bit of an adventure, with each weighing over 15Kg. That and I’ve caused a security alert on the London Underground before now for taking a folding bicycle with me. Goodness knows what they’d do if they found me carrying two bags full of heavy mechanical things! But if they will insist on not having signs up and opening the luggage barriers for them, then what do they expect? But that’s a rant for another time.

The typewriter wasn’t much of a choice. Unidentified, largely undescribed, but fairly cheap and fairly close by. Postage on these sort of things is a killer, so it was the best compromise between price and collection in person.

If I hadn’t collected in in person though, I’d never have gotten to see the sellers classically tumbledown antique “music” shop. He sells gramophones, all manner of valve radio sets, vintage records. If you’re ever near Hendon Central, I’d recommend a peek in the window. Turn right out of the station, it’s about 10 shops up on your left, past the bus-stop.

Back to topic. The typewriter I’d won was a very sorry looking “Hurley”. It not only looked like something that could have written the Necronomicon, it looks like Elder Gods had been using it. Every bit of the mechanism was coated in staggering amounts of grease and fluff. If it had been a sandwich toaster, I’d say it’d been on that top shelf above the cooker for a good couple of decades.

So after bagging it up in the reliable old wheelie luggage (which never gets a second glance on public transport, yet can carry many times more than a students backpack or a folding bicycle. Where’s the logic in that?), I handed the money over. Then the proprietor noted he had another one he was going to put up on ebay shortly, and asked if I’d be interested in that as well.

Following the Contact reasoning of “Why have one, when you can have two for twice the price?”, I agreed and got myself a slightly better condition Underwood as well.

It’s a good thing too as it turned out.

As with many a steampunk, I’m after the keys. There’s quite a shortage of them it seems, particularly in the UK. I’ve seen batches from craft-suppliers in the USA going for absolutely silly money. And the Hurley has keys that are some sort of single brass pressing formed around the steel key lever itself! Even if they were cut off, there’s no way to change the markings without utterly destroying them.

Probably because it’s from the USA, the Underwood’s keys are as I hoped the Hurleys would have been. Metal cups, some padding and chromed brass pressings. Keys that can be modified.

But there’s not enough of them just yet for anything, so they’ve been set to one side. Apart from them though, the typewriters have a lot of useful bevel gears, adjustable return springs, ratchets, escapements and power regulators (an interesting item on the Hurley; a sealed pot containing a rotor and 1/16th lead balls).

Some folk know I hate the idea of steampunks breaking up perfectly good clocks and watches only to glue their component parts onto items decoratively. It offends my engineers heart to see the height of hand-engineering ruined in unskilled hands, defiled by things like glue and plastic. Incompatible gears pressed together uselessly in mechanically impossible arrangements, never to move again. Defying their very essence.

I fear I may be rather more the Steam than the Punk.

But neither of these typewriters are apparently anything special. Neither seems to be valuable, functional, or even complete. A few empty tapped holes for items previously removed. Staggeringly unlikely that even if I wished to I would never be able to get them working again. These were scrap through and through.

The Underwood came apart without much issue, except at the final stages. It’s carcass too small and fiddly for any other use, it was ended with an angle grinder to remove a few last pieces of the mechanism. But there’s few other fates when parts are irreversibly pinned in place.

The Hurley though was more of a challenge. The original listing was from above and never gave a sense of the things size. With the guts removed, it would leave a huge cubic space in the middle of it’s strong cast-iron frame. Perfect for modification and re-use!

Most screws shifted in time, but a few forced me to resort to my screw extractor set. If you ever buy a set yourself, HSS every time. You’ll save in the long run.

But what will I do with this? What would fit in the middle of a typewriter? Well for one thing, a mini-ATX motherboard would. Possibly even a smaller full-ATX. It is quite large, and the space is tall enough for expansion cards.

It’s going to require a little more research. The key area is fractionally too small for the smallest keyboard I can find for sale online, even with it’s housings removed. Currently I see my only option here as recreating a matrix from momentary-contact switches and wiring them to a standard keyboards controller. Power isn’t too much of an issue if I were to use the PSU from a Shuttle PC or 1U rack-mount server, as both would fit in the base where I presume a HDD would fit quite easily as well. The PSU would mean cutting an access hole in the cast iron though.

I’m currently thinking a monitor capable of operating in portrait mode would work quite well.

Mouse and optical drive are both outstanding issues, though I’m sure something will come to me in time.

It should mesh together fairly well. The Hurley has ten extra buttons above the keyboard, I think for adjusting the margin spacing on the carriage return. But there are bits missing, so I can’t be sure. However above the buttons is a damaged display panel showing orders of magnitude. This seems an ideal location for system lights, and with a momentary-contact rotary switch, the Red-Black selector dial can be repurposed as power.

Stay tuned, this should be an interesting project. I’ll keep entries in the work-blog relating to it tagged as Project-003.