The complex digital printers of today were, in fact, invented over the course of thousands of years. Many different people, cultures and countries played a part in this significant technological advancement. How did the printing process develop from its initial primitive reproductions through to the highly sophisticated multitasking machines we see in today’s offices and homes? Find out all about the evolution of the printer and its cousin, the photocopier below.
Evolution Of Computer Printers
One of the oldest methods of printmaking in the early years used by the Chinese and Egyptians in particular, was using carved clay or wooden blocks to make prints onto rock or other such materials. These first prints were the beginnings of the print reproduction concept. They progressed further with the introduction of parchment made from animal skins and then again when paper making gained in popularity across the world by 1250 AD.
While the origins of printmaking were founded in very early Chinese and Egyptian cultures and date back as far as 3000BC, the modern concept of ‘mass printing’ stemmed from the more recent development of the Printing Press from Johannes Gutenberg in the mid 1400s.
Gutenberg successfully merged the significant inventions of others (paper being one) and the concept of making prints with movable blocks and ink. This paved ‘mass’ reproduction of text by the standards of the time.
The Printing Press worked by mechanically applying pressure to an inked surface (wood initially and later metal) to force the transfer of the ink onto another surface such as paper or parchment. Its invention was the foundation of the modern concept of printing. This invention came to be known as the Gutenberg Press.
The Xerographic Process
Skipping ahead here (not discounting other significant developments in the printing process throughout the previous years), the next major point in history for modern printers was in 1938, with Chester Carlson’s development of a dry printing method called electrophotography (later renamed the xerographic process).
This xerographic process was not only the foundation for laser printing as we know it today, but also primarily the driving technology behind the modern photocopier and scanner. While using similar technology, these two devices took slightly separate paths to get to the high-tech machines seen in today’s offices and homes around the world. Later we will explore where the xerographic process and photocopier technology come together in the form of Multi-Function Devices.
For now, we will continue with the development of the computer printer.
Dot Matrix Printers
Taking a side step from the Xerographic process at this point, as the use of computers in the office environment took off around the world, Dot Matrix Printers emerged as front runners for their ability to produce various text and images straight from the computer. Designed for high data producing industries such as the government and scientific and financial markets.
Not surprisingly, IBM set about releasing the first version of its soon-to-be popular dot matrix printer in 1957. Other companies such as OKI, Brother and Digital Equipment Corporation quickly followed suit throughout the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s.
The dot matrix printer was consistent with the technology of the time, where printers were virtually automated electronic typewriters and an advanced form of ‘impact printing’ technology. These printers worked by printing one line at a time. They pressed ink onto a piece a paper using a combination of an ink ribbon and a series of pins or ‘dots’ to form letters, text and images. This ‘pin’ based technology was significant as it allowed for the printing of different fonts and graphics previously unheard of at the time.
The dot matrix printers were an icon of the times, printing at speeds never before seen with reliability suited to extended periods of use. Most importantly, they were cheap to run. These printers were the first to be commonly sourced for personal use in the home by the 1990s, paving the way for the development of smaller, more economical printers designed specifically for the home user.
Limitations including low-resolution graphics, colour restrictions, special continuous-feed paper, print quality, and print speeds, along with increased demand for more personal consumer-driven printing needs eventually drove the market back towards the Xerographic printing process. 1969 saw the first official laser printer (EARS) developed from Carlson’s work with the xerographic process, with the addition of a laser scanning optics built by the Xerox Corporation team, namely Gary Starkweather.
The follow up to this original laser printer was not officially released to the broader market until 1977 and was known as the Xerox 9700 Electronic Printing System. This newer version came with added functionality, including “character generation electronics and page formatting software” (Xerox Corporation).
Not one to be left behind, IBM was quick to jump on-board the laser printing wagon entering the market in 1976 with their ‘IBM 3800 Printing System’. This printer was one of the fastest at the time, printing “more than 100 impressions-per-minute” (IBM).
Although laser printing was forging ahead in leaps and bounds, high print costs and large printer sizes limiting portability, were still insurmountable hurdles at this stage. Perhaps in response to this, the 1970s also saw the concept of the Inkjet Printer gain traction. Canon, Epson, and HP all produced their own versions, but it wasn’t until 1988 and thanks to the team at Hewlett Packard (HP) that their Deskjet inkjet printer to became a household item.
Inkjet printers work by spraying droplets of ink onto the page to form text and images. This process allowed for the natural use of different colours when printing and provided an alternative to the more expensive laser printing machines. However, ink became the primary cost driver for these types of printers, with ink cartridges often costing more than initial printer costs. Inkjet printers are still widely used both in corporate and home environments.
Laser And Inkjet Desktop Printers
As we touched on above, the 1990s saw the concept of the personal printer for home use or ‘desktop printers’ take off with Hewlett-Packard releasing the Deskjet inkjet printer in 1988 and the popular LaserJet 4 in 1992.
Other major players in the home computer printer market at the time were Canon, Fuji, Xerox, Apple, Toshiba, and Epson. These manufacturers all became the dominant force behind implementing the ‘printing from home’ concept, driven mainly by the continued growth of home computer use and the increasing need for recreational uses versus work based purposes.
Evolution of the Photocopier
So how did the previously mentioned xerographic technology and photocopier technology progress and merge to become the Multi-Function Devices we know (and love!) today.
The humble photocopier is a permanent fixture in today’s office environment, so much so that it would be difficult to imagine life without this vital piece of office equipment. Before the widespread use of computers, the photocopier was the only way to duplicate an already written document.
What is the basic technology behind the photocopying process? How exactly does it replicate your documents, and who invented this handy machine?
Finding a good starting point on this one was a little tricky but, for this article’s sake, we will begin our story in 1780 with James Watt who built one of the original building blocks for the copying process known as the ‘copying press’. This was the method of producing copies from documents written in special ink by pressing two pieces of paper together.
The copying press was followed by a number of different ideas for speeding up the copying process’ efficiency, including the Gestetner Stencil Duplicator, invented by David Gestetner in 1881. This stencil-method duplicator used a wax-coated piece of paper which, when written upon, removed the paper’s wax coating allowing ink to pass through (the stencil), leaving an impression.
These early replication processes and their modern efficiency concept were further explored in the development of Chester Carlson’s invention of the xerographic process in 1938. Initially called “electrophotography,” the xerographic process was later further developed and fully commercialised by the Xerox Corporation (formerly known as ‘The Haloid’).
Carlson’s Xerographic Process – How Did It Work?
Carlson’s initial duplication concept was based around the idea that materials with opposite electrical charges attract (first discovered by Benjamin Franklin in the mid 1700s), and that with the addition of light become better conductors of electricity – the electrostatic theory. His xerographic process consisted of 5 basic steps.
- Charge It. A photoconductive surface is given a positive electrical charge.
- Expose It. The photoconductive surface is exposed to light reflected from the document you wish to copy. The areas without text or images (illuminated sections) become more conductive effectively dissolving the electrical charge.
- Disperse It. Spreading negatively charged powder over the photoconductive surface. The powder then adheres through electrostatic attraction to the remaining positively charged areas.
- Develop It. A fresh piece of paper is added to the mix which when placed over the powdered photoconductor surface and positively charged. The negatively charged powder is then attracted to the paper as it is separated from the photoconductor.
- Heat It. Heat is used to fuse the powder to the paper, producing a direct copy of the original image.
Continuing on from Carlson’s initial invention, it wasn’t until 1955 that the first automated Xerox Copier was produced.
Ricoh also emerged as a direct competitor to Xerox by developing its RiCopy 101 copier. Other players in the emerging industry included the Radio Corporation of America, IBM and Kodak. These original copiers quickly made their way into mainstream commercial environments and were widely accepted as the norm throughout the ’60s and ’70s.
1973 saw the world’s first electrostatic colour photocopier in produced by Canon, yes, 3M had already released the well-known Colour-in-Colour Photocopier in 1968, however, this machine was based on a dye-sublimation process rather than the now conventional electrostatic technology.
By 1980 the first electronic push-button photocopiers were made available. The market had diversified to include well-known brands such as Minolta, Panasonic, Toshiba, Sharp, Kodak, Konica, and Canon. They all produced their own versions of photocopiers, challenging Xerox’s dominant position within the business photocopier market.
However, as far as the technology was concerned, most of the photocopier manufacturers continued to utilise the original xerographic concept for the commercial market as it is was considered the standard for professional copying.
How Do Today’s Photocopiers Work
When reading below about today’s photocopiers, you will notice even in today’s high tech world, the original xerographic process invented by Carlson is still the underlying concept behind how copiers work. Although, today’s fully automated machines are much more sophisticated, able to carry out a multitude of tasks at high speeds.
- The Charge. A thin layer of photoconductive material applied to a drum is used as a light-sensitive surface called a photoreceptor. This means the drum is now conductive when exposed to light, a uniform negative current or charge is then applied all through the drum before it is exposed to light. Different kinds of drum charging methods are used in different brands and models of copiers.
- Exposure. The document you wish to copy is placed on the scanning window, the document is then exposed to light and the drum rotates. Mirrors reflect the light coming off the blank areas of the paper onto the drum dissipating the electrical charge effectively imprinting the contents of the document via an electrical charge. The darker areas of the document (where there are text or images) remain electrically charged on the drum.
- Development. Toner (powdered ink) that is negatively charged by static electricity is then exposed to the drum via a roller where the original concept used by Chester Carlson back in 1938 of opposite electrical charges forming an attraction is used to get the toner to adhere to the drum image only in the darkened areas that remain positively electrically charged.
- Image Transfer. This toner-built image of your document is then transferred to a piece of paper by bringing the paper in contact with the toner on the drum and applying a reverse polarity charge to effectively release the toner from its attraction to the drum and make it stick with the paper instead.
- Fusing. In order for the toner to stay on the paper and make it useable document heat is applied using a pair of heated rollers to melt the two together.
- Cleaning. Any residual toner is removed from the drum in preparation for the next print cycle usually with the use of a rotating roller or fixed blade. The cleaned drum is then neutralised using LED light to remove any residual electronic charges.
The Evolution Of Multi-Function Printers
As the incorporation of digital technology into printers and photocopiers increased around the world, the traditional separation of the printer and photocopier began to evolve, with a focus on expanding their capabilities blurring the lines as it were. And that brings us to what we now know as Multi-Function Printers or Multi-Function Devices (MFP’s) or (MFD’s) or All-In-One Printers as they are sometimes referred to.
The multi-function machines of the ’90s were able to fax, copy, colour print, scan, and more! Other more recent features such as image enhancement, resizing, different paper sizes, high-resolution scanning, and internal memory have meant today’s digital copiers/printers have taken on a multitude of daily tasks, incorporating them all into the one machine.
The main difference between today’s digital copiers and original electrostatic versions is the ability to scan the document and save it internally as an electronic file, enabling a level of on-demand copying previous unseen.
The digital photocopier of today effectively consists of an integrated software-driven control pad or screen, scanner and laser printer, giving the ability to scan and print at very high speeds and print large quantities of documents very economically from computer or paper copy.
The 1990s saw the introduction of the first multi-function desktop all-in-one printers with the added functionality of alternatives to just printing the document out by integrating scanning, faxing, copying and phone functions into a single machine.
This was just the beginning of the development of these iconic multitasking machines, which have become an office staple over the years and now include scanning, copying, printing, emailing, faxing, and the advanced ability to store document data.
Many of the original printer brands are still in the market today with HP, Canon, Brother and Toshiba, all major players for today’s increased business printing needs, as well as keeping the home consumer market happy with smaller more portable versions.
Wireless Printing And MFP’s
The early 2000s saw the widespread introduction of wireless technology in multi-function printers on a mass scale. Wireless capabilities are now considered a standard feature of both the corporate and home use printing environment.
These printers/multi-function devices can connect to other devices (computers, smartphones, laptops, tablets, etc.) via WiFi or sometimes Bluetooth, allowing the freedom to move about and for multiple users to connect at any one time from across the office and beyond.
Over the past few years, the technology for MFP’s has escalated and improved dramatically with improvements in WiFi capabilities and wireless networking. While purchasing standalone printers and copiers is still possible most businesses prefer the multitasking ability of MFP’s.
As you have learned from reading this article, both the photocopying and printing processes incorporate an interesting mix of science, mechanical hardware, and software – next time you are impatiently standing at the printer/copier waiting for it to finish you can now have a little appreciation for what it took to get there! Looking for the latest in business printing equipment?
Give the team at Business Distributors (BDL) a call today.