The computer printer we know and use today has a fascinating history. It has taken over a hundred years to refine its printing technology to become what we see today, taking the effort of many different scientists along the way.
The first ever design for a computer printer is thought to have been made by Charles Babbage in the 1800s, but which remained just a design until years later. Still, in the 1800s, Lord Kelvin invented the telegraph machine, which can be said to be a predecessor to the modern computer printer. The machine used telegraph signals to draw a line, with each letter in the signal making a shape interpretable by the person operating the machine.
When electric computers first came into operation decades later (in the 1940s), the printers they used were electronic typewriters, and similar machines called line printers. Electronic typewriters and line printers applied the same principle to print. They consisted of a raised type, a ribbon of ink, and the paper to be printed. A cylinder spun to place the required character in place and just in time for it to be struck by a hammer. The result was that the outline of the struck character appeared on the paper.
Next came the dot matrix printer. While the method of operation was similar to that of line printers, the dot matrix was different in some ways. Instead of using a hammer to strike characters onto paper, the printer used small and blunt pins over a ribbon of ink. There was no need for raised type with dot matrix printers. Because of this, these new printers were a bit faster than the line printers and could print any font type as well as print images. The text dot matrix printers produced was also cleaner.
A revolution in the printing industry was to come in the 1970s when non-impact printers were developed. They were the inkjet and laser printers. Inkjet printers worked by using minute jets of ink to print on paper. The first ink jet printer landed on the market in 1998, and cost a hefty amount of $100, which was quite a fortune at that time.
The most sophisticated printer of them all was the laser printer. The first printing machine of this type was made by Gary Starkweather, in the year 1971. Laser printers work by directing a laser beam onto a cylinder. The cylinder is light-sensitive and captures the outline of the image or characters to be printed. A paper is then passed underneath, with the rotating cylinder releasing toner onto the sliding paper. The result is that the image outlined on the light-sensitive cylinder is transferred to the paper.
Laser printers, though costly, have the advantage that they are way faster, and the quality of the prints they produce higher. They’re also preferable when large prints are required, such as the ones used on billboards.
Today, most large businesses use laser printers, while the inkjet printer found its home in small businesses which do not need to print on a large scale or frequently. Inkjet printers are also found in many homes for their relatively low purchase prices. Dot matrix printers are still to be found in some gadgets such as the old version of the cash register. They can also be found in businesses that require carbon copies of documents.
The computer printer has evolved tremendously to attain levels of sophistication we never thought were possible. They continue to improve in terms of speed and print quality. Their prices are also going down, as evidenced by their availability in almost every office or business, and by the large number of people who have them in their houses for personal use.