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Bridging the Gap Between Typewriters and Mechanical Keyboards

Written by on Thursday, April 6th, 2017. Filed Under: DesignTechnology

Three years ago I purchased my first typewriter, A Royal Quiet Deluxe, from eBay at a great price. It was in decent condition but needed a little refurbishing and cleaning. I managed to restore it to near perfect condition using various gun-cleaning tools, chemicals, and a lot of patience. Ever since, I have been on a quest to have an authentic typing experience that allowed me to type directly to a digital file. The inconsistency of the key strikes meant that scanning and converting typed pages was going to be more trouble than it was worth. Don’t get me wrong, I still type using the Royal, or the more recently obtained Smith Corona Galaxie 12, which I might have stolen from Inspire the Muse editor Charles Muir (Don’t tell him; this can be our little secret). In this digital world, however, wouldn’t it be nice if I could magically get the letters off of the platen and onto the screen?

I don’t recall, exactly, how I stumbled upon my first solution, but I discovered, and eventually purchased, a USB Typewriter conversion kit by inventor Jack Zylkin. The solution was to add contacts to the type bar undercarriage of a typewriter, in order to trigger a signal through a chip that converted it into a key press that functioned exactly like a USB keyboard. Almost. After installing the bar and setting up magnet switches for all of the function keys, I was able to type to a screen with about 95% accuracy. And unfortunately, that just wasn’t good enough. I don’t blame it all on the device, some of it was the age and condition of my typewriter. Yet, something I didn’t account for, the feel of striking the keys was off. The action just felt wrong. I ultimately tore the thing out and re-restored the typewriter back to its original glory.

USB Typewriter

© Jack Zylkin

I turned my eye toward an all-in-one total solution to my problem. I now wanted a singular device that output a digital signal, while maintaining the feel of a typewriter. The obvious choice was to look into the realm of mechanical keyboards, an often expensive endeavor. It was apparent that I was not the only person looking into the newly emergent market of the mechanical keyboard renaissance. Kickstarters exploded with new devices for the techo-advantaged writer. The first device that caught my eye was the Freewrite, previously called the Hemingwrite. This combined a mechanical keyboard with an e-ink display. It was a great idea, but one that fell apart in the design aspect, and had an egregious price point. In fact, most of these mechanical keyboards popping up were absurdly priced. Even if the price wasn’t so high, the Freewrite was not the device I was ultimately looking for. I wanted something that had a classic typewriter feel.

Freewrite

© Astrohaus

I will bring up, briefly, the Qwerkywriter. It was very close to hitting the mark for what I wanted. It had mechanical key action, and certainly looked like it had chrome keycaps, although they were plastic. The frame was also very minimalist, which would have been okay, had the price not been on the same level as a full featured mechanical keyboard. Again, it was the price holding me back. I wondered if I could come up with my own, cheaper solution. I dreamed of 3D printing a case that looked a bit nicer, and was more functional. How expensive could a bunch of Cherry switches be, anyways?

Qwerkywrite

© Qwerkytoys, INC

Apparently Google had been noticing my typewriter obsession, and delivered me an article about a new Kickstarter for the PENNA Wireless Bluetooth Keyboard. I’ll make it clear here, I have not been contacted by anyone in any way to promote this, but full disclosure, I have put down money for one of them. This mechanical keyboard comes with many different options, and has the basic bells and whistles that the above Qwerkywriter had, in a better form factor. I don’t plan on using this with a tablet necessarily, but it is nice to have. And of course, the prices are much more reasonable than most of the above solutions. I probably won’t know for months, maybe years, how the keyboard will feel, but I am certainly excited at the prospect. Worst case scenario: I learn what the PENNA does right, and where it misses the mark, and I come up with my own unique personalized solution.

PENNA

© ElRetron INC