Jack Zylkin, 31, of USB Typewriter, which turns typewriters into functional computer keyboards for retro-tech enthusiasts and nostalgic pragmatists. He has sold more than 2,000 DIY kits and adapted typewriters via his site: usbtypewriter.com.
Zylkin was working as an engineer and messing around on nights and weekends at Hive 76, a hacker collective in Philadelphia's Callowhill neighborhood, where people tinkered with personal projects, sharing tools, expertise, and enthusiasm.
"We made all kinds of wacky things: We had a life-size version of Operation. Someone was turning old suitcases into boom boxes. A member took an old RCA radio from the '30s and turned it into a karaoke machine. And one of the things we had lying around the shop was an old typewriter," he said. "I was fascinated by the mechanism. . . . I thought, if this was a keyboard, I could have it on my desk and bring the beauty and joy of this typewriter into my otherwise sterile computer environment."
He posted instructions for his project online, but got queries from customers who wanted a kit ready to go. So, in 2010, he began making kits people could buy and solder onto their old typewriter to convert them into computer-compatible devices. Customers tell him they like turning off the distraction of the computer screen, and returning to the aesthetic of typing directly to paper - while simultaneously creating a digital version that you could edit, e-mail, or spell-check.
Each kit is made by hand by Zylkin, who now has a workshop in a farmhouse in Orefield, Lehigh County. He has made versions for different models of typewriters, created a no-soldering-required kit, and is now working on making his devices compatible with Bluetooth and SD cards. Those updates will be out next month.
But Zylkin said that making each kit only took a few hours; the biggest chore was restoring old typewriters and getting them back into working order.
One thing Zylkin isn't short on is typewriters. "Every time I meet someone and tell them what I do, everyone has someone they know who has a few typewriters in their attic," he said. When that fails, he hits the Adamstown antiques dealers.
Zylkin said typewriters have become a full-time gig. But he has a few other ideas up his sleeve: "I'm inventing a new kind of dice for board games," he said. "And I'm working on a kind of camera that captures people's auras."