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The Optomist Tries To Fix An Electronic Typewriter

Published May 18th, 2021 by Emily

If you found this post because you have an electronic typewriter and you can't get it working, let me start by saying: don't do this. Don't try to repair it. It's probably not worth it.

I had one laying around my house and when I turned it on it would beep at me incessantly, returning the carriage to the beginning of the line whenever it felt like it, sometimes throwing a fit and refusing to type anything at all. I googled and I couldn't find anything but eBay listings for this particular model. The front says "Royal" and "Alpha 2001" is also printed on it. Were electronic typewriters still being manufactured in 2001? I went into this project with basically no knowledge of how work was done before Microsoft Word.

First things first, not being able to find any information readily available online I decided to throw money at the problem. I called the typewriter shop within walking distance of my house (yes, that exists. They even just move to a more expensive storefront in the year of our lord 2021) and they said that they don't work on electronic typewriters. I called a second shop that's a little further away, and they told me that my typewriter was crap and probably not worth fixing. They wouldn't repair it, however, would I be interested in buying a new typewriter for $150-300?

So I went back to Google. I found two Reddit threads where people were discussing my model of typewriter. Neither went anywhere or gave me much more information, but I sent DMs to everyone involved anyway, hoping they could get me a manual. The first comment on one of the posts was about how electronic typewriters are crap and not worth repairing but I closed out of that tab and pretended that the total number of people who told me not to bother with this project wasn't now up to three.

I went deeper on Google. I went to the second page of the search results. I researched the Royal company. I found out some information:

At one point, I moved my typewriter to the side and caught a glimpse of a piece of paper underneath the machine. I had a manual the whole time! It was in a slot underneath the machine. I was very impressed by the design of the manual: concise, clear, and beautiful from the perspective of someone who looks at a lot of product manuals in 2021. Here's a more permanent link to the full-res image. It told me how to use my typewriter, but not what to do if it didn't work. This was an instruction manual, not a service manual.

In fact, I couldn't find any service manuals online. I expanded my research to include literally any make or model of electronic typewriter, because how do these things work? I found a couple of YouTube videos explaining the basic internals, and then I decided to crack open my typewriter and take a closer look.

I was having two main problems:

For the ribbon issue, I noticed that the piece that holds the ribbon cartridge in place was broken. One of the teeth that keeps it in its spot was missing. I spent a full day modelling the piece in CAD and 3D printing it. It took so long because I had to make three different versions, each better than the last before I found one that fit and didn't break immediately. My final version still isn't great, and has to be held up by the wire if it's printed with PLA.

So I had solved the problem of the broken piece, but I hadn't actually solved the problem of the ink ribbon slipping out of place. It seems that, even with the broken piece, the ribbon cartridge was being held in just fine. I also found out later I could have just used a rubber band to hold the cartridge in, but it's fine. I had fun doing it, I guess.

I ended up ordering a new ink ribbon cartridge and crossing my fingers that my issue would be solved with that.

The other problem is not as straight forward. I found this great video by Nick Drudge where he demonstrates a working TA Satellite III (a little newer and/or fancier than my Satellite II) and learned that my typewriter has a built-in feature to sense the end of the page. When the type position indicator (the typewriter's cursor) gets within eight characters of the end of the line, the typewriter beeps to indicate you should finish your word and hit the carriage return to go to the end of the line. When those eight characters are up, the typewriter won't continue on and you have to hit carriage return.

The typewriter's user manual explains how the user can set the margins themselves. (It should be noted that I thought for a while that the clear plastic sliders on the front of the machine under the "Royal" logo somehow set the margins, but they are useless. You can move them to remind you where you've set the margins, but they don't themselves set the margins. I was looking for some type of optical sensor to read those sliders for quite a while. I mention this because I saw another Reddit user who thought the same thing.)

I had a few working theories: I thought that the margins might be set by the previous user and tried to clear them, but I learned that typewriters reset themselves when they turn off so that's not possible. I then thought that maybe whatever mechanism the typewriter used to detect where the carriage is located along the rail might be malfunctioning. I still haven't ruled that one out, but I really don't know how that part works so I am going to put that one away for now. If you know how that works, please comment below or send me an email using the "contact me" link in the navigation bar.

Finally, finally, one of the many DMs and comment replies I sent to users on various platforms got a response. I had explained my issue to someone named Phoenix Typewriters and they suggested that the rail my typewriter slides along might not be slick enough. As I watched the video they linked me to, it dawned on me that the carriage on my typewriter was so stuck that I didn't even realize it could slide it back and forth manually. I ordered a lubricant that was recommended (gun oil) and waited for it to arrive in the mail.

And that's where we stand today- the lubricant is arriving Friday. If I don't update this post, it wasn't the rail, it was something else and I never figured it out. Wish me luck and comment below if you've got ideas.