Marking 40 Years of Xerox Laser Printing

No doubt some readers of this blog remember the earliest days of laser printing, when desktop models produced four and six pages per minute at 300 dots per inch in black-and-white only. And that was a big advance over the impact printers that up until then had ruled the day, with their no-graphics, typewriter-quality output and operations so loud that some had plastic noise shields.

While these memories are valid, they don’t actually tell the story of the earliest laser printers. Those came out in the late 1970s, a few years before laser printing reached the desktop and the office. They were big-footprint console models that resided mainly in data centers, where they were fed transactional data from mainframe and mini-computers and wedded with electronic forms to produce bills, statements, insurance policies and the like.

Prototype of the 9700 first used in the research lab.

And the biggest surprise to those unaware of these early printers: they were fast! The first Xerox laser printer produced two pages per second (120 pages per minute) at the initial standard resolution of 300 dots per inch.

This month marks the 40th anniversary of the announcement of Xerox’s first laser printer, the 9700, which printed at that remarkable speed. It was engineered from an invention made by Xerox’s Gary Starkweather in 1969 in Xerox labs in Webster and Henrietta, N.Y., and developed at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in California, and engineering facilities in Dallas.

Inventing the Laser Printer

Starkweather initially turned to laser technology to address a problem he’d been asked to solve: Improve the speed of an early fax machine. His invention blossomed when he transferred to PARC in the early 1970s. One of his prototypes, nicknamed EARS (which stands for (Ethernet, Alto, Research character generator, Scanned laser output terminal), became the research facility’s office printer, performing reliably for several years before the company decided to develop it for commercial markets.

Gary Starkweather invented the laser printer while working at Xerox research labs.

For its first product, the 9700, Xerox targeted the lucrative, high-volume, data-center printing market. The pioneering product was a big hit, transforming high-volume printing and routinely generating more than $1 billion in annual revenues for Xerox—the equivalent of $3 billion in today’s dollars. And most North American households were likely touched by it, because the 9700 was the printer of choice for production of bills and statements by banks, utilities and credit card companies.

As a follow-up product, the Xerox engineering team looked at developing a personal or small-volume printer, eventually developing a prototype on the 20 copies-per-minute Xerox 3100 copier. According to Starkweather, however, “The marketing and product planning people (initially) couldn’t see where the money was to be made with such a device.” By the time they saw the opportunities in paper and toner sales, Starkweather said, “We were already behind the eight ball. Small laser printers were already entering the market from other vendors.”

Transforming Business Communications

Before long, a trickle of small laser and desktop laser devices were appearing in the marketplace, which soon became a flood of laser printers, xerographic multifunction devices, and xerographic production printers and presses that have profoundly changed the way people and businesses communicate around the world.

That transformation continues today with the recent launch of 29 new Xerox ConnectKey devices that allow for mobile printing, scanning, apps and workflow automation. Again Xerox innovation has turned multi-function devices  into workplace assistants. And still at the heart of ConnectKey devices is the laser technology Xerox invented 40 years ago.

Gary Starkweather went on to work at Xerox through 1987, followed by stints at Apple and Microsoft. He retired in 2005 and was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2012. Today he lives in Lake Mary, Fla.

Looking back, Starkweather says he knew his invention would have a significant impact, but was less clear about how it would play out. “A real question was raised at the time about the future of paper and whether or not the printer would survive into the future with people using novel displays and so on,” Starkweather said. “Some 40 years later, laser printers are still going strong.”

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