Ministry of Prose: making words work for your business

One in a semi-regular series of ponderings, musings and contemplations on the interaction of words and psychology in business.

Alex Cruickshank's writing machines: Juki Sierra 3200

October 2014

This electric/electronic daisy-wheel typewriter appeared on an auction website last year, for peanuts. I bought it because a friend had bought an old typewriter for his children and they enjoyed using it. Mine enjoyed using this one too... for a while.

Juki Sierra 3200

It has a nice keyboard: perhaps a bit too light to be perfect but it's not bad at all. Because it has quite a large buffer memory (probably 2KB?), it exhibits some strange behaviour: when you type a line of text it takes a while to catch up, then finishes after you've finished, though usually not long after. As someone used to immediate feedback this can be a little disconcerting, though it's something I've got used to.

The original ribbon was faded but the print quality was still good enough to convert to digital text using OCR software on my PC. With a replacement ribbon the print quality is excellent. The scan below doesn't really do it justice.

Juki Sierra 3200 print sample

We wrote a few stories together, my daughters and I, mainly about their trips in rockets to the moon. Then their attention wandered off elsewhere, especially to Lego. So the Juki lay gathering dust for a while, until I noticed a little panel on the side that looked like it was removable. It was, and underneath was a Centronics parallel port.

This opened up a whole new world of possibilities. One cheap USB-parallel adapter later, I had it connected to my PC. Connected, but not actually doing anything. A review in a computer magazine from 1985 of a Juki 2200 pointed me in the right direction: I had to press the CODE-PRINT keys to enable the interface. The review also helped me map the character set, which has some oddities: for example, to print the £ sign you have to send }.

On my first printing attempt, out popped a load of Postscript gibberish. I use Linux on my main computer and the CUPS printing system required some tweaking to get it to send raw text output to the printer. Even then, most applications insist on sending text print data as PS or PDF, so after a while I took a different approach, writing my own printer driver script.

This script will take a text file and print it, pausing and prompting the user to change paper when required. There are options for letterheads, automatic date insertion, margin widths, page lengths and even envelope printing. It's about 300 lines of code, a small sample of which is below. Yes, I am a nerd.

Daisy printer control script segment

So now I have a typewriter that the children or I can use, which at the press of two keys turns into a printer. Why? Because it was there. Oh all right, there is a good reason. Printing text documents on an old typewriter is a relaxing and retro experience, not to mention costing far less than it would on a modern inkjet. It also takes about three minutes per page, which gives me time to think. And reading the printed draft in Courier 10 font is a good way to shift my mind away from the appearance of the text to its actual content, which makes spotting mistakes or sub-optimal grammar considerably easier.

Try as I might, I can't find detailed technical information about this particular Juki model. I'm guessing it's from about 1986 and it seems to be based on an Olivetti Praxis 30/35/40 engine. That's enabled me to buy replacement ribbons quite easily, and I've also discovered that its daisy-wheels are interchangeable with those of a Triumph-Adler Gabriele 8008. That's lucky because I have one of those too, which will be the subject of a future blog post.

Alex Cruickshank has been a professional writer since 1994 and loves the sound of typing in the morning.

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