Although they’re far from perfect in their modern incarnation, Maker Cameron Coward’s latest video shows us what smart assistants could have been like in the ‘70s, decades before voice recognition and even personal computers, when an electric typewriter would have been the only way to interact with them. We’re suddenly a lot more appreciative of Siri now.
The typewriter used here is a Texas Instruments Silent 700 Terminal, which served two purposes. It could be used as a regular typewriter, albeit one that was a lot quieter than its predecessors through the use of a dot-matrix print head that used a heating element and thermal paper to write instead of ink-soaked ribbons. Its other use, as the “Terminal” in its name implies, was as a way to remotely connect to and use computers through a built-in modem and acoustic coupler. This came at a time when the idea of everyone having their own computer was laughable, so in a weird way, it was almost like an early version of ‘the cloud’ we all heavily rely on now.
The typewriter’s ability to both send and receive messages and commands through telephony is what Coward used to turn the Silent 700 into a retro smart assistant. This build is actually an update of an older attempt to make this typewriter smart, which used a script running on a Raspberry Pi Zero W to send questions to the Wolfram Alpha “answer engine.” But that approach suffered from a handful of complications, including long boot times, an unavoidable login to a Linux terminal, and requiring very specific formatting for the questions.
This time around, as Cameron has thoroughly documented on Instructables, a cheaper and more streamlined ESP32 was used, which communicates with Wolfram Alpha over wifi, but interfaces with the Silent 700 typewriter through its serial port (think of it as the USB port’s great-great-grandparent) instead of the acoustic coupler (which would send beeps and boops over a phone line). The new and improved version of this smart typewriter boots up in seconds and can answer questions without the need for special commands or phrasing, just like today’s modern smart assistants.