Aside from nostalgia, or maybe loaning it out to filmmakers as a prop for period pieces, there are not many practical uses for a 90-year-old Remington portable typewriter anymore. Against all odds, William Sun Petrus did manage to find one novel use for the hardware; he turned it into a makeshift drum machine that rewards his touch-typing skills with some genuinely catchy tunes.
The video doesn’t go into a lot of detail about how this hack came together, aside from some brief clips of Petrus soldering a fairly elaborate bundle of wires together. But in the video’s description he writes that when the typewriter’s individual letter hammers make contact with the “live plate” (the part that looks like a shiny metal bell) a connected Arduino recognises which hammer was pressed and sends a MIDI signal to a piece of software called Ableton running on a PC. The software in turn triggers one of 17 different sounds, allowing the typewriter to be played like a drum machine/piano hybrid.
If you’ve ever found yourself typing along to the beat of a song you’re listening to, you’ll understand the appeal of an unorthodox instrument like this.
How the “live plate” he engineered works isn’t entirely known. It could rely on a gyroscope inside that determines which hammer made contact with it based on the movements the sensor makes after impact, given the letter hammers all come in from different angles. More likely, however, is that each hammer is just completing a circuit when it hits the plate, based on all the added wires you can see inside the typewriter itself.
There’s an unedited version of this video as well that better demonstrates how it works, but the results are far more satisfying when all you can hear are the samples and tunes that Ableton is producing.