Did you know there were typewriters that used ball point pens to draw not just text but also graphics? I’ve collected several of these over the years. Read on to discover a world that you didn’t know existed.
Typewriter plotters could act as a normal typewriter in that you could type on the keys and have the text printed on the page. The difference is it would use a tiny ball point pen to “draw” the text, character by character, onto the page. It’s mesmerizing to watch! Many also included the ability to print graphs and bar charts, although in practice is was likely cumbersome. In addition, some models had the ability to connect to a computer to print text or even custom graphics.
Panasonic RK-P400C Penwriter
Panasonic made three models. The top shelf was the RK-P400C Penwriter which included the RS-232 port built in for computer control. They also came with a white pen for error correcting.
Here’s a video of the Panasonic RK-P400C Penwriter typewritter plotter drawing a design under computer control via RS-232. The manual is available from Archive.org.
Mona Triangles on a Panasonic RK-P400C typewriter plotter.
Panasonic RK-P440 Penwriter
A lower end model was the Panasonic RK-P440 Penwriter. It had a computer input but required the K100 external interface. Otherwise functionally the same: draws texts as well as business graphics with 4 color ballpoint pens. Portable using 6 C batteries.
The Panasonic K-100 interface box connected to the typewriter via a DE-9 port on the side and connected to your computer via either DB-25 RS-232 or Centronics parallel.
Here’s a video of the Panasonic RK-P400 Penwriter plotting the demo page using four ballpoint pens.
Panasonic RK-P200C Penwriter
Panasonic also had the basic RK-P200C Penwriter which removed any computer control but kept the ability to do standalone business graphics. Pic from eBay.
Silver Reed EB50
There were other ballpoint pen based typewriters, such as this Silver Reed EB50. It draws text and business graphics too but this one has a parallel port to act as a plotter. I added support for it to my workflow and it’s a very good.
Here’s a video of the Silver Reed Colour PenGraph EB50 plotting Schotter. I’ll admit it’s strange seeing this on something with a keyboard.
Smith Corona Graphtext 90
Smith Corona sold the Graphtext 90. No computer control. Same pens and also ran on batteries.
Brother Type-a-Graph BP-30
Not to be left out, Brother offered the Type-a-Graph BP-30. Pics from eBay— there’s usually a lot of these for sale.
Sears LXI Type-O-Graph
Even Sears got into the game with the LXI Type-O-Graph (by likely rebranding the Brother Type-a-Graph, they look the same). Mine has a flaw in the print head mechanism.
Sharp EL-7050 Calculator
There was even a calculator that had a smaller pen plotter mechanism built into them. This is the Sharp EL-7050 calculator with a built in plotter printer. It could act as a usual printing calculator but it could also draw graphs and pie charts of data sets.
Here’s a video of the Sharp EL-7050 calculator printing the powers of 2.
And here’s the Sharp EL-7050 calculator plotting the graph.
Built In Plotters
Many small computers in the 1980s also had plotters available like the Commodore 1520 and the Atari 1020. They used 4” wide paper and the same pens.
Some “slabtops” had built in pen plotters like the Casio PB-700, Radio Shack Tandy PC-2, and Sharp PC-2500.
All of the typewriter models used the same ball point pens in four colors (black, red, green, blue) and were portable with a built-in handle and could run on batteries. They also likely all used the same plotter mechanisms made by Alps.
The pens are rather scarce now, mostly all that remains are NOS (new old stock) with some exceptions for a couple of German companies that make replacements for medical equipment that fit.
These pen typewriters were sold during the mid 1980s. In PC World magazine July 1985, the Panasonic RK-P400C retailed for $350.