Telegram printer

This lovely information appliance from another age (in all senses of the phrase) prints blocky, inky characters onto a long, thin strip of paper, a behind-the-scenes mechanism that probably told the world about a thousand babies, a thousand deaths and business deals -- a printer of telegrams for Western Union.

If I can find a picture of one I'll put it here -- Western Union telegrams in the era of this machine -- 1920's probably through 1940's -- were actually printed by machine on skinny strips of paper manually glued onto a printed form (the fancy Western Union logo on top) before it was rushed out the door (if the sender paid the fee) or held for pickup in the local telegram office.

This particular machine was owned by a radio amateur who pack-ratted it away, but he died before he got around to using it (a warning to us all).

Mechanically, this is an early Teletype Corp design, using type bails to print, familiar to anyone who's used a typewriter of the non-Selectric type. It is very, very simple in design, and has a very pleasing set of design characteristics; there are only a few different fastener types, and only one screwdriver and two wrench sizes are needed to disassemble the whole thing. The rather substantial motor swings out -- while running -- for access to the rear innards.

This particular issue was in good shape, it probably saw little service (or I yet underestimate the ruggedness...), the biggest problem being the print anvil, a rubber wheel that also advanced the paper, was rotten. I made another on my mill (ever tried to engine-turn rubber?!), disassembled the code bar assembly (gummed lubricant the main problem), un-bent a few decoder bars, painted the cabinet (wrinkle paint, of course), and added the usual electronics and loop supply and dolled it up with some lamps inside the print mechanism.

(The metal cover, brown in the photos, is itself a lesson in technical culture; it is made out of sixteenth-inch (3mm) steel, weighs no less than 10 pounds [it was meant to last a long time] and was fastened only by gravity, [it was removed and restored many times during operation]. It has simple holes in the right places so that it balances on your fingers when you pick it up.)

One not-so-minor problem with these strip printers is that they require a paper supply that simply isn't available -- rolls of 5/16-inch (about7.5mm) wide paper. I had to make my own, a project unto itself. I made a little machine to do the job, and learned a lot about paper handling (comma, how not to do). My paper is excreble. I slit up standard (sic) 1-inch paper tape into four strips (one is scrap) which must be re-wound with a 2-inch center into which I insert a wooden hub for the printer. Unlike commecial paper, my rolls are loose and sloppy, and must be supported at all times, lest they fall into chaos and waste a few hours work. It is a process I need to work out... luckily these things print slowly.

Of course the little computer inside is compatible with the Story Teller communication system and handles motor start and stop and other modern niceties. It prints at 60 wpm, about 45 baud.

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