Over the past few years I've seen a lot of computer mods in the Steampunk style – mostly keyboards, cases and monitor mounts. There have been a few mouses, but mostly they seem to involve sticking things onto the mouse's body to give a vague sort of Steampunk feel. Not to disparage some truly beautiful case mods and builds such as those by Horatius Steam and others, but the obvious clicky, technological thing in Victorian times I have not seen. So I decided to cobble together a demonstration of this project, Emblik's No 1 Locusograph, or Electric Positional Elucidator.
I got this idea from looking across at my uncle's old J-38 telegraph key sitting on the shelf. These are actually pretty common, but as it was my uncle's, I didn't really want to risk messing it up. So I got a different key cheap.
These instructions may be less detailed than desired, but by necessity many of the specifics will depend on the key used, and the donor mouse used. There are also a number of approaches to take, and that will make it more or less complicated. I'll detail the steps I took, and mention other ideas of how to go about this.
I've added a few clearer pictures here and at the end of the Instructable, and a video.
Of course I take no responsibility for any damage done to your mouse, your telegraph key, your computer (since you're plugging this into it) or any solder burns you inflict upon yourself. Possibly someone will respond with an explanation as to why wiring the contact in the manner I did is a Bad Idea. Perhaps they will also propose an alternative solution.
Step 1: Plan
Figure out a design. Unless you're using the same key and mouse as I did, you'll have to innovate a little. Even if you are using the same ones, I wouldn't recommend duplicating what I did. I worked kind of on the fly, and the results are far from perfect. I used the key available from American Science and Surplus (www.sciplus.com) because the store was right there. And I used an old Kingston mouse. (With a bad cable, which I fixed first.)
Telegraph key. Find one or construct your own. I got this one from American Science and Surplus (www.sciplus.com) for about 5 dollars.
Mouse. Preferably an old one that you don't like much. I had to fix the cable on this one.
Soldering iron and solder. Probably can't get around this one.
Screw driver. Probably.
Enclosure. This is where it gets complicated. In my case I ended up building a box. Thus:
Hobby/craft knife, saw, drill, etc... (Light woodworking tools.)
Wood stock. Unnecessary if you re-purpose another enclosure. In my case I used 4 tongue depressors and a few scraps of 1/32” plywood and 1/8” plywood. The bottom will generally need to be very thin for all but the most sensitive optical mouses. (For the enclosure.)
Step 2: Dismantle the Mouse
If you're lucky, there are screws, and you can take it apart easily. Discard any non-essential parts that you won't use. I threw out the scroll touchpad, mainly because it would have complicated the design and no longer worked well anyway. I realize that I could have mounted it on the base somewhere, and in fact it would probably have been pretty easy. Do not discard the little plastic optic piece. Best if you don't discard the base of the mouse itself yet either; this may be used (as I did) depending on your ultimate design.
Step 3: Make a Base
Unless you're lucky and the base of your telegraph key comfortably houses the mouse guts, you'll need to have some kind of housing or extension to the key base below the key. In my case, I had hoped that the mouse would have fit into the key's base, but the plastic base was far too small. I nearly used an audio cassette case, but it was just a little too small too. So I decided to build a simple wooden base.
It is merely a small wooden box. I rummaged around, and found some tongue depressors in the first aid kit. (My fault if any of our tongues get too cheerful before we replace them.) I cut them to lengths a couple centimeters longer and wider than the original base of the mouse. Then I glued them together into a rectangle.
I hunted up a couple small sheets of thin plywood. (I think they were one-eighth and one-thirty-second inch. Sorry, no 'before' pictures.) I measured and cut them into rectangles to fit the top and bottom. The bottom should be as thin as possible so that the mouse can 'see' through the hole cut for it. Too thick, and the optic may be too high above the table top to detect motion. It depends on how lousy your donor mouse was. Use a set square, triangle, etc... when cutting them.
I glued on the top of the box. This was probably a mistake, and I should probably have taken care of the bottom first. Also it was at this point that it occurred to me that tongue depressors aren't exactly the most precisely made things, and the they warped a little. Also they aren't all exactly the same width. Luckily the ones I'd used for the front and back were the slightly narrower ones, and so it didn't work out too badly. Also, gluing the sides to the top (or bottom) corrected most of the warping of the crumby wood the sides are made from.
Fit the mouse inside. In my case I decided to fit the entire base of the mouse inside the base. This is convenient, as it contained a small depression that the optic fits into. Otherwise you have to be even more careful of the alignment of the mouse optics. After ensuring everything fit inside, I cut a hole shaped like the one in the base of the mouse to line up with where this hole would rest on the bottom piece. Then I glued the mouse base to the bottom piece.
In actuality there was one capacitor that turned out to be slightly too tall to fit in the base I'd built. I didn't really want to desolder it and find a replacement with leads long enough to let me bend it over. I dusted the top of it with a tiny amount of graphite dust and fit the top of the base over it. This marked a spot on the top of the base. I drilled a hole there. As this will fit under the telegraph key's built-in base, the capacitor will simply stick up at this point, and be hidden under the key.
Step 4: Add Decoration
I decided to stain the base. And partly because the glue joints aren't the prettiest, and partly because I could, I cut some strips of copper from some copper sheet. I bent them to make little corner pieces for the base. Then I plated them with zinc and heated them to make them brass. (See any instructable about 'gold pennies' or the like. I didn't have any brass sheet.)
I glued these onto the corners.
Step 5: Wire Up the Button
This mouse is one button, partly because the key is simple, and partly because it's just a demonstration model. Classic Mac users may like this.
There are a couple ways to handle the button. You could desolder the left click microswitch, and add wire leads, and then position the button under the lever arm of the key. This would definitely preserve the electronic integrity of the mouse, but it would be visible, and I preferred to have the key actually actuate the mouse click; clicking is sort of what a telegraph key does anyway. So I pulled out the multimeter and tested the switch.
The 'top' contact in the picture, and the 'middle' one are normally open, but pressing the button closes these two contacts. The 'top' and 'bottom' are normally closed, but clicking the button opens these. With this key there isn't really any way to duplicate this second set of contacts, but emulating the first pair is simple. I soldered leads to the 'top' and 'middle' contacts. (Make sure you use more wire than needed for the leads – you can always cut it to length later.) Then I tested the mouse.
With the base in place on the bottom board, optic piece in place, I could move the mouse pointer. Touching the two leads did produce a left mouse click. I don't know if the debouncing is done in the switch itself, or by something else on the mouse board, but it seemed to be working just fine, so I left the original switch in place.
Eventually I wired these two leads to the key's posts. One could wire these to the underside of the key's base, for safety's sake. (The mouse's safety, not yours; the voltages aren't a dangerous level.) But I kind of wanted to use the posts. If you seal up your base when you're done, and your leads get broken or disconnected (they just dangle there) then it would be really difficult to reconnect them. If you wire the leads up internally to the key, be sure to string some kind of mock-up leads to the posts – it'd be a shame not to have something connected to them.
Step 6: Put the Board in the Enclosure
Cut a hole for the mouse cable and run it through. I picked what turned out to be the most difficult place to force the cable through. Remember to take into account where the cable will most easily go and where you want it to be, visually.
Fix the mouse board down to the base (or bottom of the enclosure, if not using the mouse base) and close up the enclosure. Make sure all the wires and cables are trailing out to where they need to be, and that the mouse guts, and base of the mouse if you used it, are properly mounted. I glued the bottom piece in place. If you're smart, you'll leave yourself some way to get back in if you have a problem. Some kind of clasp or something, on the top or bottom piece. I didn't, but I was in a hurry, and about half the time I did before I really considered.
Step 7: Mount and Hook Up the Key
Mount the key on top. Again, I wouldn't recommend anything permanent, unless you're sure you don't want to remove the key at a later date. I don't really approve of ruining perfectly good things, especially antiques, and this is largely why I didn't use my uncle's old key. That being said, I just glued the one I did use on top. I thought about making some kind of pattern of cross pieces that the key would sit over, but I got tired. The key was cheap, and so I just stuck it on there. Many of these things have holes for mounting screws (as my old one does) and this gives a good way of mounting these without altering them at all.
Wire the leads sticking out of the base to the key's terminals, and you're done. Again, it might be a good idea if the key has contacts under the base (as this one does) to connect the leads there as well or instead.
Step 8: Cautions, Suggestions, Elaborations, Etc...
At this point I would probably put something reminiscent of fabric insulation around the cord and apply something, perhaps pool table felt, to the bottom. I haven't done these things at this point, and probably won't get around to it with this one.
My prototype does NOT duplicate the effects of the mouse switch (which is sealed up, intact, inside the base.) It works anyway. If I had used the other, older key, I could actually have duplicated the other two set of contacts ('top' and 'bottom') on the left button switch. When that key is at rest, it closes a pair of contacts. This second 'rest' contact could be wired up to the third switch contact. Another possibility with a key like my older one is a two button mouse. (You could also always hide a second button somewhere on any key, but where's the fun in that?) This kind of key has two modes of operation. The pad, the 'tap' kind, and a side to side lever 'paddle'. Now the way this one works is that one has to be close to use the other. To use the lever, you screw the pad down, and to use the pad, you lock the lever into its clip. It would take some modification, but it should be possible to make these two separate contacts. It would probably take adding some metal pieces for the side to side lever to contact instead of its clip. If using the method of removing the mouse's microswitches and mounting them inside the mechanism, then this is easier.
One could easily (possibly more easily) use a wireless mouse for this, but I'd probably attach a cord to it anyhow. Or at least call it an 'aetheric' electric position elucidator. You could of course (taking into account the requirements of such) use an older ball mouse. Definitely a good thing to do with such a thing.
Is this mouse particularly nice to use, comfortable or practical? No, of course not. That isn't really the point. It would be possible to get or build a key that is somewhat more conducive to being used as a mouse. Those would mostly be of later (mid 20th century) design, but then this one is a thoroughly modern (and very cheap) key, only reminiscent of older types anyway.
It is my hope that people use the idea, but make these things their own way. I like seeing people get creative with their Steampunk computer mods. Perhaps trackballs, red laptop nub thingies, or even joysticks.
Step 9: Addendum
A few clearer pictures of the finished project, and also of the J-38. I hope this might make the suggestions about such a key easier to follow.