Daisywheels, golfballs, thermals and lasers

From wikipedia commons.

From wikipedia commons. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If anyone ever had a Sinclair Spectrum, they probably remember the little ZX printer designed to be plugged into the back. Designed like an electric toilet roll dispenser, it used a roll of silver thermal paper. Inside, little pins literally burned into the thermal paper to leave behind (sort of) recognisable print. The poor thing used to get tired and slow down towards the end of a large print job and you almost ended up feeling sorry for it.

If the print was difficult to read when first produced, the fading over time meant that it was totally unreadable after a few days. Those in the know used to spray their printouts with hairspray to extend their longevity.

When I started work, there was one printer to rule them all. A dirty great big behemoth of a printer connected to the mainframe. Almost all processing happened overnight because it cost less and any output from that processing went not to a screen, but onto paper; tons of it. I don’t know how these printers used to work, but they were lightning fast and the paper was warm with a distinctive smell. All the screens in the building were dumb terminals so there was no concept of local printers.

As and when PCs started to appear, people wanted to print things which meant they needed a printer. The first such devices were dot matrix printers. Brutally mechanical affairs, they used a print head made up of a matrix of hammers which formed the print by bashing through an ink soaked ribbon onto the paper. If that sounds noisy and slow, they were. Each agonising line of print sounded like a mini machine gun.

The print quality was awful and if your printer happened to be more than 12 months old, the pins had a nasty habit of getting misaligned which made the text barely readable.

Daisywheel printers had a radial print head with characters on the end of spokes. When these struck the paper through the ribbon, a whole character came out. Golf ball printers worked the same way, only the characters were all stuck onto a small ball. These cut down on the noise and the print quality improved enormously, but they were limited to a single font.

Nowadays with inkjet and laser printers coupled with ever more sophisticated software, there is almost no limit to what can be printed at low cost, but they are restricted to two dimensional paper.

With 3D printing, which is widely used in industry, layers of material are laid down according to a digital blueprint in order to construct a physical object. Suddenly, almost anything can be manufactured one piece at a time if you have the right kit. The printers are tumbling in price, so it won’t be long before there are no limits on what you can create in your own home.

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