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Classic Keys for the Modern Memorandum: Jack Zylkin’s USB Typewriter

When I was a kid, my mom had a beautiful old typewriter. I remember carefully inserting bright white sheets of paper, punching those big, round keys, hearing that delightful ding and the unmistakable sound emitted when I pulled back the lever, and the smell of a fresh, inky ribbon.

Although it may not always be practical to type hard copies these days, with liquid paper being more work than hitting backspace and all, just looking at a typewriter does bring happy thoughts to many who have used one, and some who haven’t–but see them in old movies, in antique stores, and on our some of our favorite period TV shows.

Balancing that need to keep an electronic record of our documents with the desire to capture moments in the creative process from a simpler time, inventor Jack Zylkin developed a product that celebrates the best of both worlds–the USB Typewriter.

Delighted by this innovative combination of past and present, I was excited to learn more about what drives Jack’s designs. He happily shared about his inspirations, collaborators, and what’s to come.

Q.) You said that you invented the USB Typewriter as a ‘statement about the disposable nature of modern communication and modern communication devices’. What is it about the typewriter, specifically, that you find so intriguing?

Many people have found that the overstimulation brought on by computers and electronic gadgets, whether it be emails, tweets, viral videos, or other distractions, interferes with the creative process. People dread the boredom associated with being “uplugged”, but without boredom there would be no daydreaming!

While computers and cell phones are increasingly used for consuming media, on a typewriter, there is absolutely nothing you can do except create — it forces you to hone all of your focus and heart onto a single, blank page. Still, the convenience of saving and editing your work on a computer, as well as being able to share ideas and inspiration online, is also an indispensible part of being creative.

With my USB Typewriter invention, I hoped to have the best of both worlds — while writing, you can turn your computer screen off and enjoy a sublime writing experience, directly connecting with a printed page and nothing else. Then, when your draft is finished, you can save it to a computer, edit it, email it, and so on. Even after your work has been polished and spell-checked, you will still have the original hardcopy you typed, to keep as an artifact of your first draft, or to mail to a friend. Hopefully, having a beautiful typewriter permanently on your desk –instead of a computer keyboard — will encourage you to turn the computer off altogether now and then, too!

Q.) You helped found Hive76 in 2008 and designed the USB Typewriter in 2010. How did working with a collective of artists, engineers, designers, and other creative folks influence your invention of this product?

I would never have been able to make the USB Typewriter without Hive76. They not only provided the tools, the parts, and the workspace, but also a group of enthusiastic hackers to encourage me and offer advice. For example, I’m a bit of a luddite when it comes to cell phones and such, so I never would have had the idea to use an iPad with the USB Typewriter — that was actually fellow Hive member Chris Thompson’s idea. And the idea to print my own circuit boards came from a class we taught at Hive76 on making your own guitar effects. Ultimately, its just a really fun place to hang out, which gave me that extra encouragement I needed to come there after my day job night after night.

Q.) This invention takes an old standard and connects it with a “newfangled contraption”, creating something beautiful and functional. Are you working on any similar concepts, or is there another modern marvel with an old-school throwback you’d love to see materialize?

I have a lot of balls in the air right now. I try to just sort of make whatever idea pops into my head, so there is no recurring theme to my inventions. For example, I am very close to finishing work on a futuristic new board game with a very cool electronic twist, which I just filed a patent for…but right now I am working on a cheap word-processor that has an e-ink screen. E-ink would be so beautiful to type on — the next best thing to actual paper!

Q.) If you were to write a novel using the USB Typewriter, what would your first line read?

“Blank pages are the best kind. Write your own story. The end.”

Now that’s a statement we can stand behind! How about you, readers? We’d love to see the first lines of your novels. How does your story begin?

Written by Cassie

Cassie spends most of her time at work writing things. She loves books (including comics), sketch comedy, and sci-fi. She's inspired by art and science. As a former Minnesotan, she longs for an afternoon on a lake, Grain Belt in hand. The New Yorker in her is happy spending that afternoon at the American Museum of Natural History instead.

8 Comments

  1. Scott in Atlanta

    You should consider making a Bluetooth version. It would work with iPads & tablets automatically and Macs & PCs with a small USB adapter. Then you’d avoid the ugly cord. Still, a very cool idea.

  2. Brenda Owensby

    I want to purchase your iPad Typewriter for my daughter who loves to use an old typewriter rather than an iPad for writing. The camera kit for the iPad seems to have been creating some trouble for folks. My daughter is not technically oriented and like her father does not read directions. I am concerned that if I purchase and send to her, she will have great difficulty setting it up so that it will work with her iPad. (She lives in NYC.) Can you offer any suggestions. She has an old typewriter she purchased, but we were never able to get the ribbons to fit it correctly. Eight hundred dollars is a lot of money for me to invest in this if she can’t get it to work. Thanks. PS I agree with Scott from Atlanta. A blue tooth version would be awesome.

  3. cassie

    Hi, Brenda!

    Thanks for reaching out! We’re glad you think the USB Typewriter would make a great gift for your daughter. We contacted the inventor, Jack Zylkin, to get a little more info on how to attach the iPad. He said that while the camera kit can be tricky with some devices, including many keyboards, it isn’t a problem with the USB Typewriter, because the piece was design to work with the kit. The USB Typewriter is fully compatible with the kit and all existing iPad models, including the iPad Mini. Jack does include an extra ribbon with each typewriter, but he said he’d be happy to include some extra ribbons and the connector kit with your order for you. Just make sure to let the representative you speak with when you place your order know that you’re the customer who contacted us via the blog.

    Jack is also happy to help troubleshoot if you or your daughter have any problems with setup. And, if you do decide to make the purchase and end up being unsatisfied for any reason, we can help you with a return or exchange.

    Cassie, UncommonGoods

  4. Rhea

    I’m so inexperienced with this type of thing that I have to ask what is probably obvious to everyone else:
    ~ Will this typewriter work with a Nexus 7 or 10 tablet?
    ~ Can one use paper in it? This kind of implies you can: “while writing, you can turn your computer screen off and enjoy a sublime writing experience, directly connecting with a printed page and nothing else,” but it’s best to ask than to be disappointed.
    Thank you. :)

  5. Arthur

    Yes, I agree with the bluetooth. I am not a handyman. Putting these together appears to be a surmountable task. Yes, its a hefty price plus you still have to buy other accessories to make it work. Is Jack selling them already pre-installed?

  6. Cassie

    Thanks for the feedback, Arthur. We’ll pass the bluetooth suggestion along to our desktop buyer, who works with Jack. The current version isn’t available with the Camera Kit pre-installed, but the kit does come with instructions, and hooking it up only takes a moment. You can also use it with a computer monitor without having to purchase the additional attachment.

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