The laser printer story is the story everyone wants to hear and you can find plenty of that on the web.
With Gary’s passing I have been trying to recreate in my mind what Gary was going through being the solo inventor of the laser printer. Reading the Computer History interview located here it reminds of what few know about Gary. https://archive.computerhistory.org/resources/access/text/20...
Gary is a physics major who knew how to write software. Gary’s speciality was optics which led to him getting a job in Bausch and Lomb’s division working on lenses for high end cameras for Hollywood. This story is explained in more detail on page 7 of the 53 page document above.
Gary being in the Rochester was also where Kodak was located would often say “The Sky is blue, and the grass is green. No matter what you do with colors don’t break those rules.” So even when he was at Xerox he thought about color. It is part of being an expert on optics.
What I think Gary realized in 1967 when he had the “eureka” moment of the laser printer is if he used a laser to paint a drum the optics totally changes to a more precise addressing. He knew he could use the laser for CMYK for color printing, but first step is to do monochrome printing.
On page 6 of the above document, Gary discussed the use of computers to improve the optics in lens. Why can’t computers use the optics in a laser printer to print anything you want?
In 1992, I took the bold step of leaving Apple Computer to go work at Microsoft on Windows 3.1, being program manager for all the Far East TrueType fonts. But even though I was now in Redmond I would still see Gary in Cupertino when I would visit family and friends in the bay area. I would visit Gary to discuss imaging, fonts, DTP, and color. Five years later in 1997, Gary says he thinks it is time for him to leave Apple. I said why not come to the Windows Imaging team. He says isn’t really wet there, and he would rather stay in Saratoga. Luckily Microsoft made an offer Gary could not turn down and now we were both in Redmond in Windows group. 2-3 years later Gary moved to Microsoft Research and I think that is the happiest I have seen him when at work.
Gary explaining his move from Apple to Microsoft is on page 38 of the above link.
One nice picture that I think will get out there soon is a picture of Bill Gates at Gary Starkweather’s retirement party. Bill is smiling and Gary is too. That’s a nice way to end your working career.
His move from Rochester to Xerox Parc in its earliest days was his "last chance" according to Xerox management. There he found kindred spirits who welcomed him and would up quickly loving him for his fearless approach to invention, no matter how difficult.
He was a great guy to work with and be with (one of the raft of things I did in the early days of Parc was to experiment with the design and making of high quality display fonts using an allout video system* that could reach the limits of video). We realized that it could barely do the much larger characters needed for the first laser printing system and rigged a coax from "the old character generator room" down the hall to Gary's lab to provide test pages for Gary's early experiments.
The story below about the use of Edmund Scientific "hobby" reflecting telescopes is more or less the way it happened -- except that the front part that says he was "annoyed" is not. That was not Gary's style; he just moved forward, and what happened is very similar in spirit to the computer researchers at Parc building their own simulated mainframe (MAXC) also in the first year because Xerox wouldn't allow us to buy a PDP-10 which was made by a competing company.
I also object to him being called "a badass" (I realize it is suppose to be a compliment, but it quite misses what really top talents are like in its attempt to suggest some kind of pop-culture teenage aggressiveness. Gary was an artist who simply transcended difficulties put in his way.)
He now joins another great engineer's engineer at Parc -- Chuck Thacker -- in our memories of truly great people who could do truly great things.
* designed by Butler Lampson, Bill English and Roger Bates, and mostly built by Roger, with an excellent interactive font design program made by Ben Laws.
Excerpt from Dealers of Lightning:
Starkweather and Rider worked together on coordinating the SLOT and character generator until early 1972, when they were stymied not by a technical obstacle but one entirely man-made. This was the relocation of more than twenty of PARC’s seventy scientists up the hill to a building newly rented from the Singer Company and known as Building 34 (because its address was 3406 Hillview). The Computer Science Lab, including Rider, got bundled off to the new quarters while everyone else, including Starkweather, temporarily stayed behind on Porter. The move separated the two by a kilometer of real estate—too far to string an overhead line and, with the four-lane Foothill Highway in the way, impossible to link via a ground cable.
“The administrators said, ‘Don’t worry. You’ll be back together in another year,’” Starkweather recalled. “I said, ‘Great, what are we supposed to do in the meantime?’”
But one Sunday afternoon shortly after the move Starkweather got a brainstorm while sitting at home. He immediately jumped in his car, drove to Porter Drive, and mounted a stairwell to the roof.
Just as he had thought, he could take line-of-sight aim from where he stood to the rooftop of Building 34. He might not be able to span the distance by cable or wire—but he could do it by laser beam.
The next day he ordered four telescopes from Edmund’s for about $300 apiece. He and Rider replaced the eyepieces of two with low-power lasers and the others with sensitive photodetectors. They bolted one laser scope and one detector on each roof, aiming each at its complement across the way, to create a visible light data link.
The circuit worked flawlessly in almost any weather, even fog, although minor adjustments were often necessary after a rainstorm, when the weight of accumulated water made the roofs sag slightly.
“When SLOT was running I’d send a pulse of light up the hill to signal the character generator to send a line of data down to the detector on my roof, which would send it down to this laser and then to the printer,”
Starkweather recalled. “After all, we were only encoding ones and zeros. It was like sending binary data on a long wire made out of light, instead of copper.”
How come is it gone ?
- The Soul of the New Machine
- Where wizards stay up late - The origins of the Internet
- The Idea factory: the great age of american innovation (about Intel ?)
- The Iridium story: Eccentric orbits (Satellite tech)
- Empires of light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse and the race to electrify the world
- Skunk works
That one is about Intel. The idea factory is about Bell.
Is that a new line-of-sight networking device?
"mounted" like mounting a horse.
The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation
The Chip: How Two Americans Invented the Microchip and Launched a Revolution
That last one is a little dry, I still found it interesting. It's about Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce. It's currently available for sale for $1.99 on the Kindle.
here’s a funny extract that gets posted everytime: https://www.reddit.com/r/SR71/comments/2dpmw7/the_sr71_speed...
Without the early commercial laser printers that whole project would not have been possible, for us it was an enabling technology.
I never knew about Gary Starkweather but I'm super grateful for what he did. There are countless other mostly invisible people from that era who created such enabling technologies.
Are there any stories you'd care to add for the audience here? HN readers love personal/inside accounts, and of course are comfortable with technical detail.
An interview from 2017: https://digitalprinting.blogs.xerox.com/2017/06/29/marking-4...
A talk from 1997: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BZFaQiItckU
Another talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PiLDiWh6iBY
National Inventors Hall of Fame page for him: https://www.invent.org/inductees/gary-k-starkweather
It’s now almost ubiquitous, but it used to be something that was downright miraculous.
ColorSync was cool. The group I lead actually developed our own CM engine, so I am quite aware of the types of challenges (and rewards) involved.
Very annoying sound.
MR MR MRRRR MR
With little "voop voop" noises in between when it moved without printing or fed more paper. And then you get to pull the tractor holes off the side of the paper. :)
Good grief, that brings back memories. I had one of these as my first printer as a kid, hooked up to an Apple ][e. It shook the table so hard things would fall off. :D
One of my earliest "computer memories" as a kid was being in a Radio Shack in the early 1980s and seeing a large dot-matrix printer outputting a maze on greenbar paper; the printer sat on a cheap printer cart thing that Radio Shack sold, and as the head moved back and forth, it caused the cart to also "flex and sway" with the movement (again - cheap particle board and screws, bad construction, age - all factored in).
I think the printer was connected to a TRS-80 Model 3 or 4, IIRC.
At the time, I "owned" (parents purchased - and I still have it) a TRS-80 Color Computer 2; which is probably why I was in the store with my Dad, probably buying something for it. It was my first "real computer" (my first "computer" - and introduction to programming - was the controller of the Milton Bradley Big Trak; I still have it, too).
Loading paper onto those printers wasn't an easy or fun task; there were typically two tractor mechanisms, one below the printing area (usually inside the sound deadening enclosure), and one above it (still inside, but under the "lid" of the enclosure). You had to get things lined up just right, and then snap the feeds closed on the bottom (while kneeling and looking - sometimes with a flashlight - at an awkward angle under the printer, inside the enclosure, with a large box of paper in your way), then advance the paper past the print area, and align it properly with the second set of tractors, then close those - then run a test job. If all went well (which it usually did), you had things loaded and could continue with your other tasks.
Oh - and the cleaning of those printers - so much paper dust, plus the "chads" from the holes (not all were cleared on a run of paper, so the tractors would pop them out and they would get lost all over and inside the machine).
> Jobs were printed with special "separator pages" to help to operators find where to split the perforated printouts and deliver them to the right users' collection bins.
Fun times to find your "job" and split it off to take back to your cubicle; also fun to find someone else's job and deliver it to them on the way back. Sometimes they'd be thankful or surprised, but it was also fun to do it when they had gotten up to go to the printer - they'd get there, couldn't find their job (but could find the ones "around" it), go back to their desk in a huff, then sit down and find the printout on their desk...hehe.
I kinda miss those days (but I don't miss having to build and format reports - talk about a nightmare and thankless task).
I applied for a position (any position; at the time, I was still in school) and they hired and trained me as an "operator" (because I didn't have a degree, they told me, they couldn't hire me as a programmer). They put me in a small cold room with the main computer they worked on (via serial terminals) - an IBM RS/6000 AIX box. There was also a vacuum column 9-track tape drive (which they taught me how to load and use), and a large Genicom 4440 printer.
IIRC, the printer was a dot-matrix line printer, so it could fire one row of "dots" out, eventually forming the characters as the paper moved. Even in it's enclosure, it was loud, but it could rip thru a box of greenbar in no time flat.
The printer was something they sold as VAR to their clients, because it could handle multi-part carbon paper forms, like checks. We'd write programs to print to these custom forms (holding the paper up to the lights and lining up the characters with the form positions - ugh!). So, when the client used a program that printed, they were also expected to check if the printer was in the middle of a printing job, and had the write paper loaded.
Sometimes, though, we'd "dial in" to their machines to test certain code and get feedback via phone; sometimes that code was for a printer (imagine trying to debug proper printing formatting and such over a phone - hair pulling!). Well, sometimes they wouldn't check the printer before we'd run the software (even after we told them to do so). That printer would take off...
...and then we'd hear a scream over the phone for us to "stop the printer" because it would be ripping thru the box of multi-part check paper (actual physical checks with carbon copy) with whatever we were printing (generally, not checks).
Clients sometimes did this themselves as well - and eat thru an entire box of checks before they knew it; multipart check forms were (from what I understand) stupid-expensive (because they were custom printed for an individual account, not too mention the special paper they used, plus the carbon copy capability).
Ah - those were the days.
And yes, I eventually got hired as a programmer (aka SWE), before I turned 19; in between me loading tapes or running print jobs for the programming teams and such, I would also play around with learning the software they used (a variant of PICK called UniVERSE), writing small games and other such things. One of the sysadmins gave me a copy of a book on PICK to help me along, and they were "monitoring" my account. Eventually, they started handing me small tasks - "fix this bug" or "code this custom feature" - to see if I could do it.
I could, I did, and I eventually was hired, sans degree, as a programmer - and started my career that I still am doing today, as an SWE, nowadays doing SPAs using Node.js, React, and other technologies (I've lost track of the technologies and software over the years I have known, used, programmed in, etc - suffice to say, I haven't done it all, but I've carved a big chunk out, certainly).
Oh - and that place was also my introduction to Unix (via AIX on that IBB RISC platform); by the time I left that job, I knew terminfo like nobody - I had to, because we were always needing to set up clients systems with it properly to handle their serial terminals, and do it in a way that was also usable with terminal emulators on PCs, and such - it felt pretty crazy at the time).
HP, Brother, etc haven’t run out of ways to screw us yet :(
When the toner light goes on I just open up, shake it carefully from side to side and stuff it back in. It happily prints another 200 pages before it complains again. HL-1430 is my latest one, it just refuses to die. But all brothers we bought for work is also running way past their expected lifetime. The HP:s on the other hand breaks down all the time.
Is Brother ok quality these days?
I think this is the kind of thing Sam Altman was talking about related to important not always being popular, and the need to persevere.
There's a rarer and more special consideration in a case like this as well. Taking out "inventor of the laser printer" adds more information than it removes. It adds the information that Starkweather is significant enough that HN readers ought to know who he is. If that information were hard to obtain, there might be a tradeoff here, but since it's literally one click away, I think the benefit of this edit outweighs the cost.