Computing Profession

Turning Back the Techno Clock

A software-based simulation of the Enigma cipher engine used during World War II, from    b
"There are two aspects to emulation," says Ben Wheeler, creator of the OverType typewriter emulator site: "appearance and behavior."

There is something magical about putting your thoughts on paper with a manual typewriter: the feel of the keys as you press them, the clack of the type hammers as they hit the paper, the evocative aroma of the ribbon ink squished into the air by the impact, and finally, your words, in a slightly chipped font and, it has to be said, in slightly wonky lines too, appearing on the paper.

To those of us who grew up with typewriters, computers cannot come anywhere close to offering that tangible, visceral connection between your fingertips and your thoughts; except, that is, in the curious and engrossing world of online vintage technology emulators. During London's lockdowns, one of my respites from my same old remote-working day involved frequent (time) travel to Websites where dedicated tech aficionados have programmed simulators that let us try out a decent version of a long-dead gadget.

Easily the finest such site I came across was OverType, a hyper-accurate, three-font typewriter emulator whose popularity has astonished its creator,  and which even has novelists asking him for extra features like plain-text export and the ability to work offline.

It doesn't end there.

Encryption fans can try out encoding and decoding on an online Enigma machine simulator, turning those dastardly rotors whose settings Alan Turing and Gordon Welchman's electromechanical computer, the Bombe, cracked code at Bletchley Park in World War 2.

Meanwhile, would-be telegraph-tapping Thomas Edison wannabes (he was a blisteringly fast telegraphist before he found fame as an inventor) can have a go on a Morse key, while an on-screen rotary phone dialer, a cassette tape player, and a vinyl record player emulator add to the simulated vintage tech roster.

Of them all, OverType had me coming back for more most frequently: it took me right back to the 1980s and typing up my final-year electronics engineering project on a typewriter in the attic of my London student house, and then typing in a tech magazine newsroom on another typewriter, just before PCs came in.

With these romantic notions of typing to the fore, I'd choose a font on OverType, and begin eagerly keying in some doggerel. The clacking of the keys was immediately evocative of times past, but unfortunately, so was something else: I have gotten so used to having the 'delete' and 'backspace' correction keys on a PC that I could not typewrite a single sentence without errors. It was a mess.

No matter: handily, OverType lets you load correction paper, just one of the very many nice touches its creator Ben Wheeler, director of Uniq Code, a full-stack Web development and e-commerce operation based in Southampton, Hampshire in the U.K., has included to make the user experience as faithful to the original as possible.

"I wasn't really prepared for how popular it would be," Wheeler says of OverType, which he launched in 2014. "It mainly seems to appeal to those who used typewriters in the distant past, but it's not really meant as a nostalgia trip. There's so much about a typewriter that just can't be reproduced on a computer: the feel of the action, the smell of the ink and so on, not to mention the fact that at the time I was writing OverType, I hadn't touched a typewriter for decades."

Wheeler says he aimed for an exaggerated "over-the-top" implementation, rather than an accurate one. "OverType was intended as a bit of fun, a quaint amusement, good for a few minutes of play and certainly not to be taken seriously. So what really surprised me was the number of people — novelists, mostly — who sent feature requests to help them use it as a serious tool for writing."

What makes a good vintage tech emulator? "There are two aspects to emulation: appearance and behavior," Wheeler says.

"The spur to writing OverType was that all the online typewriter sims I could find had carefully replicated the visual appearance of a typewriter, but got its behavior completely wrong. So I focused on the behavior, and the appearance of the text on the page, rather than of the typewriter itself, and I think that's why it carved out a niche for itself."

That behavior is compelling, and I was so taken with OverType that I felt I had to do something slightly useful with it. When the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Ingenuity Mars Helicopter made the first aerodynamic flight on another world on April 19, I mocked up a Martian version of the Wright brothers' famous Kitty Hawk typewritten telegram using it. You can see it here on my Twitter feed (the Wrights' original is down-thread).

Wheeler says the balance of how much developers focus on appearance vs. behavior depends on the type of tech being emulated. At British educational tech site 101 Computing, the aforementioned three-rotor naval Enigma machine simulator looks a lot like the real thing, because it is such a curious machine that to do otherwise would leave the user a little lost.

"For something like the Enigma emulator, which I really like, emulating both appearance and behavior is important, as it's sort of a museum piece, part of the historical record," Wheeler says. "Most people will never get to use a real Enigma machine. But if you want the experience of a real typewriter or cassette player, you can easily obtain one at little-to-no cost, so it's not so important for an emulator to be faithful."

More faithful emulators could have significant educational roles, however; the media often has reveled in covering stories of young people who are absolutely baffled by using a rotary phone dialer, for instance, as this Daily Mail video demonstrates. What's great about the cassette player sim's faithfulness to the original is that it reminds users that there were multiple facets to tape use that affected sound quality: you can adjust the quality of the tape formulation, the motor, and the magnetic playback head, for instance. On the vinyl record sim, you can similarly vary needle quality, record scratch rate, and amplifier noise.

It is such highly educational touches, says Christian Holz, a specialist in sensing, perception, and human-computer interaction (HCI) at ETH Zurich, that makes such sims valuable.

"I use such sites in class when teaching students about the origins of technology, why they were implemented that way, what they afforded, and how many of those ideas have lasted to this day. Plus, many are very well done, so they're fun to use and engaging, which is what you want in interactive experiences as well as in teaching," Holz says.

Holz was particularly impressed with the typing sim: "OverType is spectacular, simulating not just the experience super-well through visuals and audio, but also the mechanical implementation when it comes to fast typing or simultaneous button presses."

However, we shouldn't get too steeped in nostalgia, Wheeler cautions, because another purpose of such sims is to remind people just why technology has moved on. "I hope OverType helps people to remember that typewriters actually kind of sucked compared to word processors, and that's why we don't use them anymore."

Paul Marks is a technology journalist, writer, and editor based in London, U.K.

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