USB Typewriter "Easy Install" Kit

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Picture of USB Typewriter
A while ago, I designed a DIY kit that let folks dig up their old typewriters and put them to use as USB computer keyboards or as iPad docks. Even though that kit worked great, the hardest part by far was the soldering. Many people wanted to know if there was a way to put together the kit without doing any soldering at all.

So this summer I designed an "Easy Install" version of the USB Typewriter kit, which now involves absolutely no soldering or special tools and is just plain easier to install all around. This guide explains the installation process for my new kit, which is now available for sale at . I'm interested in making this kit as easy as possible to install, and making the instructions extremely clear, so if you see room for improvement please leave your comments and suggestions below. 

I have designed different versions of the kit to fit each of the major brands of manual typewriters, dating from the early 1920s through the late 1960s. I have made kits and instruction manuals available for each of the following brands of typewriter:

For a pictorial guide to which typewriters are and are not compatible, consult this handy compatibility chart.
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Step 1: Tools and Materials

This kit was designed to require very few tools to install. Here is what you will need:
  • A fine tool for scraping/sanding, such as a metal file, 80 or 100 grit sandpaper, a nail file, or a Dremel tool with a wire brush attachment.
  • A small flat-head screwdriver
  • A pair of pliers
  • A pair of small scissors (like nail-cutting scissors)
  • A hot glue gun
  • Wire Strippers (optional but highly recommended)
You will also need the Easy Install Conversion Kit from, which includes:
  • 1 small roll of cloth tape
  • 1 control panel that fits on the side of the typewriter
  • 1 sensor panel which fits underneath the typewriter
  • 4 magnetic switches for detecting Shift, Space, Backspace, and Enter
  • An assortment of magnets
The project is open-source, so if you want to take a look at the design files that go into making these components, download them HERE.

Step 2: Identify the Crossbar

Picture of Identify the Crossbar
Under the hood of almost every manual typewriter is a spring-loaded crossbar that runs underneath all the keys. Whenever a key is struck, part of that key pushes on the crossbar, and this causes the carriage to advance, the ink spools to turn, and so on. We are going to repurpose this crossbar as a place to mount our Sensor Panel.  This way, when a keys is pressed, it will not only make contact with the crossbar, but also with one of our sensors.

Take the time now to identify where the crossbar is on your typewriter -- just look for a bar underneath that swings up and down when you press a key. I included a few pictures above, showing where the crossbar is on a few different typewriter models, just so you get the idea.

Step 3: Prepare to Install the Sensor Panel

Because they are all designed a little differently, each brand of typewriter requires its own special preparation step before you can install the Sensor Panel.  Before continuing, please read the special notes on preparing your particular brand of typewriter:

Step 4: Sand the Keys Under the Crossbar

For reasons that will become obvious soon, we have to remove the paint on the keys in the area around where they strike crossbar.  There are lots of tools that will work for this task -- the edge of an exacto blade, a metal file, some sandpaper, or an emory board.  But I find the easiest way to scratch up the paint is to use a Dremel with the standard cut-off wheel attachment.

Step 1: Use a wad of paper to prop the crossbar back, giving you some room to work.
Step 2: Use your tool of choice to remove the paint on each key in the general area of the crossbar.

NOTE: If using a Dremel tool to abrade the keys, be very careful not to accidentally cut any nearby springs -- they are very fragile and hard to replace.  If there are springs near where you are trying to sand, it may be wise to switch over to manually using a metal file, exacto blade, etc.

Step 5: Wrap the Crossbar in Tape

Picture of Wrap the Crossbar in Tape
In this step, we need to insulate the crossbar using the cloth tape provided, so that the no bare metal is exposed and so it won't touch the circuitry we are about to install.  Sometimes the crossbar will have springs, supports, or other obstructions that divide the crossbar into two or three parts.  If so, that's ok -- just attack the crossbar in sections, using multiple pieces of tape, overlapping them if possible.

If you find the tape is not sticking, clean the crossbar with a degreaser (like Simple Green or Formula 409) or with rubbing alcohol.  Optionally, you can also use small dabs of superglue to secure the tape -- a little goes a long way!

In the pictures above I've given examples of taping the crossbar on an Underwood, a Royal, and a Corona.

Step 6: Attach Sensor Panel

Picture of Attach Sensor Panel
In this step, we will be sliding the sensor panel into place, so that our metal contacts are positioned between the keys and the crossbar. This way, each time a key is pressed, it will come down and land squarely on one of the metal contacts, allowing the circuitry to detect it.

When attaching the Sensor Panel, make sure the dangling grey cable sticks out towards the LEFT side of the typewriter (ie the "QWERT" side, not the "YUIOP" side.)  This is the side you will be attaching the control panel to later.

(NOTE: Your typewriter's crossbar may consist of more than one continuous section (for example, in the photos above there is a metal protrusion near the left hand side of the crossbar). Therefore you may find it necessary to cut the metal contact array into corresponding sections first.)

Step 7: Cut and Fold the Contacts.

Using some wire clippers or small nail scissors, cut the contacts down to a manageable size, pull them taught with pliers, and then fold them neatly over the crossbar.  Bending them like this will temporarily hold the Sensor Panel onto to the crossbar. (Later we will come back and secure everything with hot glue.)

For consistent operation of your USB Typewriter, it is important that the contacts don't come in contact with any other pieces of metal other than the keys themselves -- that includes keeping each contact away from the circuit board and away from other contacts nearby, as well.

UNDERWOOD USERS ONLY: Underwood typewriters frequently have annoying protrusions like springs and linkages on the crossbar. (see 2nd photo above). For situations like this, try to bend the contacts away from the protrusions so they won't touch any exposed metal.  Because you moved the contacts, you may also have to bend the corresponding keys a little bit too so the keys and contacts are still aligned.

Step 8: Attach Control Panel

Picture of Attach Control Panel
The control panel should be affixed to the left side of the typewriter towards the back.  I recommend you use a moderate amount of hot-glue to attach the sensor board, but you may instead use double-sided foam tape if you want a less-permanent bond.

Step 9: Connect Ribbon Cable

Picture of Connect Ribbon Cable
The grey connector on your ribbon cable plugs into to the four pins sticking up from the control panel, as shown.  If there is too much slack, introduce folds and bends into the cable to make it more manageable (see second picture above). 

Step 10: Connect Chassis Lug Wire

Picture of Connect Chassis Lug Wire
In this step, we need to create a solid electrical connection between the control panel and the metal chassis of the typewriter. 

First, find a screw or bolt on the typewriter that is easily accessible. Next, remove this screw and strip away the paint underneath it with sandpaper, exacto blade, metal file, or Dremel.  Finally, use the screw to securely fasten the chassis lug to the exposed metal of the chassis -- the picture above sums it up nicely.

Now, strip the other end of this wire and insert it into the hole on the Control Panel marked "C" for Chassis. Turn the tiny screw clockwise to clamp the wire securely in place. (see second picture above)

Step 11: Fun with Magnetic Switches

In this step, we will attach the magnetic sensors that detect Shift, Space, and Backspace.

To connect your first magnetic switch, strip the two wires attached to it and insert them into any of the four remaining pairs of holes on the control panel (marked "1", "2", "3", and "SHIFT").  NOTE: Before inserting the wires, you may have to twist the tiny screws counterclockwise first to open the hole up wider -- after inserting the wires you should tighten these screws again to clamp the wire in place.

Next, while holding down the CMD key (the third button down on the control panel), plug the control panel into your computer with a USB cable.  The control panel is now in TEST mode, and so it will emit an audible beep.  Now, here is the magic part: take a magnet and move it close to the switch -- whenever it gets close enough, the beep changes pitch!  Try it and see!

The magnetic switch has the amazing ability to sense whether a magnet is nearby or not, and we are going to use this ability to detect the space bar, backspace key, and shift key. The idea is simple -- we will attach a magnet to the key we wish to sense, then glue a magnetic switch nearby.  Whenever the key is pressed, the magnet will move towards the switch, triggering it.

Your goal is to select an appropriately sized magnet (the greater the distance, the bigger the magnet), place it somewhere on the key you wish to sense, then find the best possible place on the typewriter's frame to attach the magnetic switch.  You will know you have found the right place when pressing the key causes the beep to change pitch, and releasing it causes the beep to change back. 

Once you have found the right place for your magnetic switch, glue it down with a very modest amount of super-glue or super-glue gel. Repeat this process for all the reed switches you plan to use.  At the bare minimum, you should use a magnetic switch on the Shift key and Spacebar, and, optionally, Backspace as well. (Note that the Shift key MUST go in the holes marked "SHIFT").

Using the one remaining set of connections on the Control Panel, you can add an additional magnetic switch to the Return Carriage lever so it acts as an "Enter" key -- however, this is much more difficult to do. Therefore I recommend that you isntead assign "Enter" to an unused key on the main keyboard (like the otherwise useless "½ / ¼" key) -- this re-assignment is done in the next step.

Step 12: Calibrate

Picture of Calibrate
When you first plug in the USB Typewriter, it has no idea which contacts on the Sensor Panel correspond to which typewriter keys. Luckily, the USB Typewriter has a "Calibration Mode", which sorts this out for you automatically.

To access Calibration Mode:
1) With the USB cable unplugged, open up Notepad (on Windows) or TextEdit (on Mac).
2) Next, hold down button #1 (the top button) while plugging the USB cable in.

A message should appear on your computer screen (See photo above).

You will then be prompted to type each letter of the alphabet, all the numerals, punctuation marks, and a few other keys. Just type the corresponding key on the USB Typewriter. 

You can also hold down Button #2 while typing a key (the middle button) to assign a secondary function to a key.  Example: you may want to assign Button #2+Backspace to be Escape, or Button#2+Space to be Tab.

IMPORTANT:  If you come across a character that you don't wish to assign to any of your USB Typewriter keys,  press space-bar to skip.

Step 13: Finishing Touches

Picture of Finishing Touches
Your typewriter is now completely done and ready for a test drive!

Once you are sure everything is working properly, there are one or two things you could do at this point to lock everything down and keep it from falling out of alignment. 

Firstly, you should secure all the magnets -- simply put a tiny drop of superglue right next to them and let the glue will wick itself under the magnet.  there is no need to lift the magnet up to get the glue underneath it, because the glue will work itself under there anyway.

Secondly, you may want to hot-glue the sensor panel and contacts in place (see picture). Run a bead of hot glue down the length of the Sensor Panel, so that it covers just the ends of the contacts.  This stops the contacts from wiggling out of alignment. Be sure to keep the glue away from where the contacts meet the keys, though.

Optionally, if you plan on using an iPad or other tablet with your kit, you can fashion a support to hold your iPad on top of the carriage by following these simple instructions.

Finally, you may find that you need to add some extra height to your typewriter to accommodate all the circuitry you put under there.  I don't include feet with the kit, but if you need them, you can get a variety of rubber feet from your hardware store or from West Florida Components.

Enjoy your awesome new (and old) USB Typewriter!
Check out my website to get more information about this mod, watch some nifty videos of it in action, or pick up a kit for your own typewriter hacking pleasure.
jolshefsky1 year ago
I was thinking, "okay, this is kind of neat, but I like my old typewriter to be a typewriter." I like to use it especially if I have writer's block because (although I installed a ribbon with correction tape instead of red) it's hard to go back, making it impossible to edit-while-writing. It also has no mytimewastebook or any such nonsense.

But then I realized that one use — for me at least — is that if I write something on the typewriter, I usually have to transcribe it manually since OCR has a tough time with the cloth-ribbon letters. With this, I can make an instant backup, at least getting all the text entered.

A Bluetooth version would be cool, but perhaps even better (more generic) is something to make a USB keyboard Bluetooth (a box with a rechargeable that acts as a Bluetooth keyboard but requires a USB keyboard to get its input.)
I would love a guide to make a bluetooth keyboard that could be linked up with the Galaxy S3 :-D please please please provide... ;-)

best regards
Elkongen (=the electrical king)
roddyaleixo5 months ago
How can I assign a magnetic switch to the return carriage? The instructables say it's much more difficult to do so, but are there any instructions to this at all? I'd rather try it than assign a dummy key to work as "Enter".
imrational6 months ago
Received my order from you, but I must have ordered incorrectly. I got Corona kits, and I have Smith Coronas Classic 12s. Will the Corona EZ kits work? I emailed you, but didn't see a response, so thought I'd try here.
jackzylkin (author)  imrational6 months ago
Yes, the Corona kits will work just the same on Smith Coronas. Thanks for asking, and enjoy your kit.
jackzylkin (author)  imrational6 months ago
Yes, the Corona kits will work just the same on Smith Coronas. Thanks for asking, and enjoy your kit.
gregp19621 year ago
What if I plug it in and there is no beep?
jackzylkin (author)  gregp19626 months ago

Was this problem resolved for you? I sent new circuit boards to a number of customers that had received a bad batch that did not beep.

sooty149 months ago
Yeah I am having the same problem. There is no beep. Is there a solution to this?!
rronald1 year ago
really impressive. Is it possible we can further convert it into a printer ? store file in USB typewriter module and print out on typewriter ?... raspberry pi can be used .
ChinaMike1 year ago
I thought about doing this years ago, it is nice to see someone else went to the trouble to do it. I had a secretary model--forgot the brand. It came in a slim case and from what I understood, it was used primarily by sports writers and journalists on the go. I loved using it, because I am old enough (52) that I started on a manual in 7th or 8th grade, then moved on to electric in high school.
The manual typewriters were/are more corporeal and I like the deeper finger movement; it just seems "righter for a writer".
I believe that this type of re-invention might find its way into the work place of people who do a lot of data entry and/or people who suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome. CTS never existed in the days of early electric typewriters because you still had to thunk the keys a bit.
I know my wrists/hands benefit more from a manual style typewriter. Maybe you re-invented the future!
poofrabbit1 year ago
Hey congratulations on being a finalist in the hack it contest! Good luck to you!
J-Five1 year ago
happy2bmom1 year ago
Cute as a novelty, but wouldn't work real good for everyday use as there are many essential keys missing.
jackzylkin (author)  happy2bmom1 year ago
Thanks for the feedback, but actually, the additional 3 buttons on the control panel allow you to access many additional functions, such as Ctrl, Alt, F1-F12, Arrow keys, and so on.
All of a sudden I like it even more than I already did! :)
Well done!
J-Ri1 year ago
Nice! Ever think about a USB typewriter that prints to paper as you type on a regular keyboard? You could type on a typewriter, have it go through a computer and typed on a different machine!
randofo1 year ago
Wow. Cool kit. I did this years ago with a lot of switches and patience. It was a royal pain in the neck.
"'Royal' pain in the neck" I see what you did there.
He's shifty that way.
srutkowski1 year ago
That looks a lot easier than the board I built back in 1980 to interface an IBM Selectric to a TRS-80. Sure beat paying $1300 for a Radio Scrap line printer and another $300 for an Expansion Interface.

I still have my original schematic.
WOW! Thats what I call technical extacy!

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