Computer printers can be found in numerous homes and offices nowadays, but it took almost half a century for people to realize their importance and for engineers and designers to adjust them as to become available for everyone who needs them.
However, it was a somewhat lengthy process to transform computer printers into what they are today, namely sophisticated devices that can print high-quality photos or the multifunction machines that do all the office jobs for you: they copy, they print, scan, and if you wait for a few more years, maybe they'll even make your coffee.
Nevertheless, considering the fact that printing, as in the process of reproducing text and image, started long before modern gadgets appeared, namely in ancient times, the development of the modern printers doesn't seem to have been such a torment after all.
Milestones in the history of computer printers
In 1953, the first high-speed printer was developed by Remington-Rand for use on the Univac computer, while the first dot matrix printer was marketed by IBM, in 1957, the same year that the dye-sublimation printer entered the market.
Unfortunately, the information regarding the exact date of the invention and development of several types of computer printers are either incoherent, contradictory or simply insufficient. However, there are a few moments in the history of computer printers that have become reference dates and changed the course of history.
In 1938, Chester Carlson invented a dry printing process called electrophotography, commonly called a Xerox, the foundation technology for laser printers to come. This device opened the way for the laser printer, one of the most common types of printers up to this day. Thus, the original laser printer called EARS was developed at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center beginning in 1969 and was completed in November, 1971. Xerox engineer Gary Starkweather adapted Xerox copier technology by adding a laser beam to it, thus developing the laser printer.
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.
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 and operated at speeds of more than 100 impressions-per-minute. It was the first printer to combine laser technology and electrophotography, according to IBM.
In 1984, Hewlett-Packard introduces the LaserJet laser printer, featuring 300dpi resolution, for 3,600 US dollars. Apple also launches a laser printer, one year later, the Laser Writer, perfected one year after its release. From the 1990s on, laser printers only kept getting better and cheaper, with numerous large companies in the field releasing high-quality, constantly updated products.
Although inkjet printers only appeared on the consumer market in the late 1980s, they had been under development for more than twenty years by that time. In the mid-1970s, printer manufacturers realized the potential of the technology that would make dot matrix printers obsolete. The challenge, however, was to come up with a way to create an affordable inkjet printer that would reliably create high-quality printouts.
The first inkjet printer appeared in 1976, but it took until 1988 for the inkjet to become a home consumer item (researchers had a hard time creating a controlled flow of ink from the print head onto the page, and preventing the print head from becoming clogged with dried ink. Once these challenges were overcome by Canon and Hewlett Packard in the late 1980s, liquid inkjet printers began to appear more frequently on the market. One of the first such devices was Hewlett-Parkard's release of the DeskJet inkjet printer, priced at a whopping $1,000.
Continuous inkjet printers were developed by IBM and used electrically-charged droplets to coat the page with ink very quickly, but also wasted a lot of ink. This technology never caught on with consumers, but is used today in industrial settings, for labeling cartons and addressing direct mail.
The more popular design among consumers is the drop-on-demand inkjet printer, invented by Siemens in 1977. These printers, which spray ink only where needed, are slower than continuous inkjet printers but less expensive. Most drop-on-demand printers, including those made by HP, Canon, and Lexmark, use thermal technology to push the drops of ink out of the print head; Epson uses its own technology, called piezoelectric, to achieve the same effect.
Toner-based printers employ a xerographic printing process, but differ from analog photocopiers in that the image is produced by the direct scanning of a laser beam across the printer's photoreceptor. The most common toner-based printer is the laser printer, which uses precision laser to cause adherence.
Laser printers are available both in color and monochrome varieties, being known for their high-quality prints, good print speed, and a low (B&W) cost-per-copy. Another toner-based printer is the LED printer, which uses an array of LEDs instead of a laser to cause toner adherence to the print drum. However, these are less common than the first ones.
They used to be present mostly in office environments, because of their rather elevated price. However, as with most electronic devices, the cost of laser printers has fallen markedly over the years. In 1984, the HP LaserJet sold for $3500, choked on small, low resolution graphics, and weighed 32 kg. Low end monochrome laser printers often sell for less than $75 as of 2008.
Nevertheless, recent research has indicated that laser printers emit potentially dangerous ultrafine particles, possibly causing health problems associated with respiration and cause pollution equivalent to cigarettes. It is said that the degree of particles released is generally proportional to the amount of toner required.
Liquid inkjet printers operate by propelling variably-sized droplets of liquid or molten material (ink) onto almost any sized page. They are the most common type of computer printer for the general consumer due to their low cost, high quality of output, capability of printing in vivid color, and ease of use.
Like most modern technologies, the present-day inkjet was built on the progress made by many earlier versions. Among many contributors, Epson, Hewlett-Packard and Canon can claim a substantial share of the credit for the development of the modern inkjet. In the worldwide consumer market, four manufacturers account for the majority of inkjet printer sales: Canon, Hewlett-Packard, Epson, and Lexmark. The inkjet technologies used by these printers are thermal inkjets, piezoelectric inkjets and continuous inkjet.
Solid ink printers are a type of thermal transfer printers, also known as phase-change printers. They use solid sticks of CMYK colored ink (similar in consistency to candle wax), which are melted and fed into a piezo-crystal operated print-head. The print head sprays the ink on a rotating, oil coated drum. The paper then passes over the print drum, at which time the image is transferred, or transfixed, to the page. They are most commonly used as color office printers, and they are great at printing on transparencies and other non-porous media.
Although the acquisition and operating costs are similar to laser printers, the drawbacks of the technology include high power consumption and long warm-up times from a cold state. Also, the resulting prints are difficult to write on, because of the consistency of the ink, and are difficult to feed through Automatic Document Feeders, but these traits have been significantly reduced in later models. In addition, this type of printer is only available from one manufacturer, Xerox, manufactured as part of their Xerox Phaser office printer line.
Dye-sublimation printers employ a printing process which uses heat to transfer dye to a medium such as a plastic card, paper or canvas. The process is usually to lay one color at a time, using a ribbon that has color panels. This type of printers is less suited for text, being increasingly used as dedicated consumer photo printers.
Thermal printers work by selectively heating regions of special heat-sensitive paper. Monochrome thermal printers are used in cash registers, ATMs, gasoline dispensers and some older inexpensive fax machines. Colors can be achieved with special papers and different temperatures and heating rates for different colors.
UV printers - Xerox is working on an inkless printer which will use a special reusable paper coated with a few micrometers of UV light sensitive chemicals. The printer will use a special UV light bar which will be able to write and erase the paper. As of early 2007, this technology is still in development and the text on the printed pages can only last between 16-24 hours before fading.
Obsolete and special-purpose printing technologies
Despite the existence of numerous modern printers, there are also printing technologies which are either obsolete, or limited to special applications, even though most of them were, at one time, used on quite a wide scale.
This is the case of impact printers, which rely on a forcible impact to transfer ink to the media, similar to the action of a typewriter. All but the dot matrix printer rely on the use of formed characters, letter forms that represent each of the characters that the printer was capable of printing. In addition, most of these printers were limited to monochrome printing in a single typeface at one time, although bolding and underlining of text could be done by overstriking, that is, printing two or more impressions in the same character position.
Impact printers varieties include, Typewriter-derived printers (Friden Flexowriter, IBM Selectric typewriter), Teletypewriter-derived printers, Daisy wheel printers, Dot matrix printers (ballistic wire printers, stored energy printers) and Line printers ( drum printers, chain/train printers, comb printers). Dot matrix printers remain in common use in businesses where multi-part forms are printed, such as car rental service counters.
Also, pen-based plotters fall into the same category. A plotter is a vector graphics printing device which operates by moving a pen over the surface of paper. Plotters have been (and still are) used in applications such as computer-aided design, though they are being replaced with wide-format conventional printers (which nowadays have sufficient resolution to render high-quality vector graphics using a rasterized print engine). It is commonplace to refer to such wide-format printers as "plotters", even though such usage is technically incorrect.
There are other types of printers available on the market, which are specialized on a certain field of printing though, such as electrolytic printers, spark printers,barcode, billboard and laser etching industrial printers. However, they involve printing techniques that fall into different categories and are better to be analyzed in conjunction to them.
Just like every other gadget out there, printers too have developed in time, reaching a point where they can perform multiple functions at once and include more gadgets into one. Thus, there are modern printers which can directly interface to electronic media such as memory sticks or memory cards, or to image capture devices such as digital cameras and scanners. And this will probably change, or better said improve, probably in a very short while, since that's what it usually happens with technology.