Interview with a Maker: Jack Zylkin, USB Typewriter Guy

Jack Zylkin created the USB Typewriter. I interviewed him about his creation, the response he's received, and why people are so interested in "the muggle magic of gears and pulleys and solenoids."

Avi Solomon

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

Jack Zylkin

Originally I wanted to be a jazz musician, but an arm injury my Freshman year of music school left me unable to play guitar, so I started studying engineering instead. I had always enjoyed making my own effects pedals, so I thought maybe an EE degree would help my music career, like it did for fellow electrical engineers Herbie Hancock and Grandmaster Flash. I mean, engineering can be a rigid and dry thing to study, but if you look at it right it can also be very creative and artistically liberating. Drexel has its own sort of miniature version of MIT's media lab, where they would take apart Wii remotes and make DIY touchscreen computers and so forth, and I was really into the hacker mentality they had there.

I also got really into Make Magazine, and in fact Philadelphia used to have its own local chapter of Make readers, called Make:Philly. Even though Make:Philly had great people and sponsored really fun events, there was still no actual hackerspace in town, and meanwhile I was filling up my apartment with power tools (I had a drill press next to my sink, a power-washer attached to my shower head, and a 4-color screen printing press in my bedroom) -- it got pretty out of control. So three years ago a few folks from Make:Philly and I started Hive76, Philly's first and only hackerspace. All the work I have done and inventions I have come up since then with have been Hive76 projects.

Avi

How did you come up with the USB Typewriter idea?

Jack

Typewriters are just really beautiful and elegant machines, and it struck me as sad that they have been forgotten and neglected, especially since most computer technology today is so disposable and utilitarian. People love typewriters, and lots of people have them on their mantle or in their attic, but there is just no place for them on a modern computer desk. So, with the USB Typewriter project I am trying to rescue typewriters from garages and attics and put them to use again.

Avi

How did you go about making it a reality? Did your involvement with a Hackerspace help?

Jack

Almost everything I have made in the last 3 years has been at Hive76. Belonging to a hackerspace not only gave me the tools and space I needed to make my crazy gadgets, but it also gave me a community of other great makers to encourage and inspire me. For example, the idea to use the USB Typewriter with an iPad came from another Hive member. Also, Hive76 let me hold classes on electronics and soldering, and originally I conceived the USB Typewriter as a kit to teach basic electronics.

Avi

What has been the response so far?

Jack

The response has been great. The USB Typewriter got "BoingBoinged" about a year ago, literally the day after I posted my first "hey look what I did" youtube video, and since then I have been racing to keep up with all the people excited about my invention. The folks who bought USB Typewriter kits early on had great ideas for improving it, and its been a blast seeing other projects that people have spun off of mine. For example, one guy sent me photos of an entirely typewriter-based game of Zork he made using my circuitry. Of course, the best part so far has been going to Maker Faire -- it was so fun to have a booth there and share my crazy ideas with other mad scientists.

Avi

Does the USB Typewriter help people "single-task" and focus their attention?

Jack

Definitely. The best part of the USB Typewriter is that you can turn off your monitor, so the text is still being saved to your computer, but the paper itself is your "monitor". So, the USB Typewriter allows you to step back from the fast pace of your twitterbooks and your facefeeds and treat writing as the intimate experience it is supposed to be. Furthermore, I hope that once you have a typewriter as a permanent fixture on your desk, instead of a computer keyboard, it wont be so hard to just turn off your computer altogether and write an old fashioned letter every now and again.

Avi

Why is the combination of the mechanical ("past") and the digital ("future") so fascinating to people?

Jack

I think companies today make their technology homogenized and miniaturized to the point of being invisible to customers -- they don't want you thinking too hard about what goes into making your consumables. Take apart a cell phone (if you can) and inside it basically looks exactly like the inside of a radio or a TV or a watch any other kind of gizmo, which is to say it just looks like a bunch of computer chips. People miss the days when things were made of real stuff, because the muggle magic of gears and pulleys and solenoids fitting together in perfect harmony is in a lot of ways more magical than the flea circus that goes on inside computer chips.

The other thing is that technology today is so disposable! For example, no one thinks about passing down their iPhone3 as a family heirloom (they probably are selling them to buy iPhone4s) but the typewriters I work on have been around for about 100 years and still look and work great!

Lastly, there is also real nostalgia for the olden days of communication, where you could look forward to receiving a letter or an invitation in the mail (as opposed to a twitter or an evite). Hopefully the USB Typewriter will help reclaim some of the intimacy and specialness of the art of letter writing.

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  1. I have visions of slapping the carriage return and sending the iPad flying across the room. ouch.
     
    OTOH, I love the idea.

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