History of Computer Printers

A woman using a printer and photocopier bank

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The history of computer printers began in 1938 when Seattle inventor Chester Carlson (1906–1968) invented a dry printing process called electrophotography—commonly called a Xerox— which was to be the foundation technology for decades of laser printers to come.


In 1953, the first high-speed printer was developed by Remington-Rand for use on the Univac computer. The original laser printer called EARS was developed at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center beginning in 1969 and completed in November 1971. Xerox Engineer Gary Starkweather (born 1938) adapted Carlson's Xerox copier technology, adding a laser beam to it to come up with the laser printer.

According to the Xerox Corporation, "The Xerox 9700 Electronic Printing System, the first xerographic laser printer product, was released in 1977. The 9700, a direct descendant from the original PARC "EARS" printer which pioneered in laser scanning optics, character generation electronics, and page formatting software, was the first product on the market to be enabled by PARC research."

Computing Printers

According to IBM, "the very first IBM 3800 was installed in the central accounting office at F. W. Woolworth’s North American data center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1976." The IBM 3800 Printing System was the industry’s first high-speed, laser printer. It was a laser printer that operated at speeds of more than 100 impressions-per-minute. It was the first printer to combine laser technology and electrophotography.

In 1976, the inkjet printer was invented, but it took until 1988 for the inkjet to become a home consumer item with Hewlett-Packard's release of the DeskJet inkjet printer, priced at a whopping $1000. In 1992, Hewlett-Packard released the popular LaserJet 4, the first 600 by 600 dots per inch resolution laser printer. 

The History of Printing

Printing is, of course, far older than the computer. The earliest dated printed book known is the "Diamond Sutra," printed in China in 868 CE. However, it is suspected that book printing may have occurred long before this date. 

Before Johannes Gutenberg (ca 1400–1468), printing was limited in the number of editions made and nearly exclusively decorative, used for pictures and designs. The material to be printed was carved into wood, stone, and metal, rolled with ink or paint and transferred by pressure to parchment or vellum. Books were hand copied mostly by members of religious orders.

Gutenberg was a German craftsman and inventor, and he is best known for the Gutenberg press, an innovative printing press machine that used movable type. It remained the standard until the 20th century. Gutenberg made printing cheap.

Linotypes and Typesetters

German born Ottmar Mergenthaler's (1854–1899) invention of the linotype composing the machine in 1886 is regarded as the greatest advance in printing since Gutenberg's development of movable type 400 years earlier, allowing people to quickly set and breakdown an entire line of text at once.

In 1907, Samuel Simon of Manchester England was awarded a patent for the process of using silk fabric as a printing screen. Using materials other than silk for screen printing has a long history that begins with the ancient art of stenciling used by the Egyptians and Greeks as early as 2500 B.C.

Walter W. Morey of East Orange, New Jersey, conceived the idea of a teletypesetter, a device for setting type by telegraph using coded paper tape. He demonstrated his invention in 1928, and Frank E. Gannett (1876–1957) of Gannett newspapers supported the process and aided in the development.

The earliest phototypesetting machine was patented in 1925 by the Massachusetts inventor R. J. Smothers. In the early 1940s, Louis Marius Moyroud (1914–2010) and Rene Alphonse Higonnet (1902–1983) developed the first practical phototypesetting machine. Their phototypesetter used a strobe light and a series of optics to project characters from a spinning disk onto photographic paper.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Consuegra, David. "Classic Typefaces: American Type and Type Designers." New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2011. 
  • Lorraine, Ferguson, and Scott Douglass. "A Time Line of American Typography." Design Quarterly148 (1990): 23–54.
  • Ngeow, Evelyn, ed. "Inventors and Inventions, Volume 1." New York: Marshall Cavendish, 2008.
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Bellis, Mary. "History of Computer Printers." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/history-of-computer-printers-4071175. Bellis, Mary. (2023, April 5). History of Computer Printers. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-computer-printers-4071175 Bellis, Mary. "History of Computer Printers." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-computer-printers-4071175 (accessed June 7, 2023).