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An excerpt from an article[1] I ran across a few weeks ago seems appropriate:

"The printer was the first drum printer that I had ever seen. It would print 1500 lines per minute alphanumeric, and 1800 lines per minute when only numeric values were being printed. It cost $243,450. Its reliability was somewhat suspect. I walked through the room that it was kept in every day for a year, and the only time that I ever saw it working was at a trade show in Los Angeles. The main reason that I went to the show was that I heard that the printer was there and working. I suspect that the printer was a strong contributor to the demise of Toni Schumans' career with Burroughs. Doug Bolitho was giving a plant tour to a group of potential customers one day and he somehow had the printer printing something. Toni walked into the room and loudly exclaimed "My God it's working". She left Burroughs shortly after the incident."

It's an excerpt from an autobiography. The article as a whole originally came up because the author worked for a summer with Donald Knuth - as in, Donald Knuth of the Art of Computer Programming, the quintessential tome of accurate, elegant, academic, truth-on-a-whiteboard computer science. Presumably Knuth sometimes walked by the non-operative printer some days in the morning too. His job at the company was to write a compiler, and reportedly it was a very good one.

Success and failure in the state-of-the-art have always coexisted. I sit here - as an iPhone programmer, who has recently had to deal with annoying provisioning issues, LLVM and GCC compilation problems, and advertising networks - and I can look through the window of my office to see our printer, which is located behind the water cooler, available over a wireless network, and can accurately print a requested piece of paper the first time I send a print command from my laptop. I think it cost $200 from the office store - in 2011 dollars, before accounting for inflation.

[1] http://ed-thelen.org/comp-hist/B5000-AlgolRWaychoff.html#7


My office has a printer, yes, it's available over the wireless network. However, it cost... somewhere in the neighborhood of $10,000. I'm not entirely sure, we have a five year lease on the thing, and it costs something like $500/month to run. It's an okay printer, as long as you run Windows.

There is a postscript module for the printer, but it costs around $1000, so Mac/Linux machines are out of luck, and our vendor hasn't actually said when we can get such a postscript module installed. (And I get people in my office at least once a week asking how they can print from their MacBook.)

From a hardware perspective, we've come a long way. From a software perspective, it's a wonder that we're still using proprietary nonsense protocols for printing and scanning. And my organization is stuck with a 5 year lease. But even if we weren't stuck with a 5-year lease, it's a $10,000 printer that is incompatible with OS X.

That said, I think this article is over the top and mostly wrong. But it is a great jumping-off point to talk about the limitations of the jumble of incompatible technologies we find ourselves working with, and how we can make them better.

I wasn't sure where to chime in on these comments but this one resonated with me because I used postscript for a year at hp and it's a remarkable language. I think it's a shame that it's mostly unknown today and the opaque pdf standard has taken over.

The world has largely established that http is the way to query devices and control them. Device drivers are the spawn of the devil to me and completely unnecessary (thank you Microsoft). They may very well be the pinnacle of what I'm complaining about.

Printers could have a free wireless web interface where you upload any file type from tiff to doc and it "just works." I realize it's more complicated than that because of colorspaces and half toning and blah blah blah. But it shouldn't be.

And I shouldn't need any special software to save images from my scanner or take a snapshot with my webcam. I actually wrote a command line tool on the Mac to tell Quicktime to save a snapshot from the webcam as a file. That is pathetic and makes me want to hit myself over the head with a sledgehammer.

I don't think I've said anything earth shattering here but wake me up when any of this happens.

"Device drivers are the spawn of the devil to me and completely unnecessary (thank you Microsoft)."

We sort of had this before Windows. When you bought a printer you had to make sure it had an Epson FX mode to support Wordstar, Diablo 630 to print you invoices and IBM Proprinter to print your mainframe reports. It was a bloody mess.

The Windows printer driver model isn't great and MS appear to recognise this, but things were a lot harder when every application did it's own thing.

No other industry has the features you seem to want. You can't just put any tires on your car and have it just work. You can't just throw any gas in it.

As for printers, PS was proposed as a standard so that printers "just worked". It cost money to license, not every jumped on board, and so it didn't establish itself as the dominant brand. PDF is based on PS and people could certainly standardize around it. The problems are the same as with PS, however.

Your screenshot example. I assure you that you are not the first person to think of this feature. Apple does distribute Photo Booth with OS X after all. Is your complain then that they didn't cater to an the incredible minority with a command line tool to do this? I don't see this as a reasonable complaint. It's certainly not something to hit yourself over the head with.

None of this has anything to do with computers nor state-of-the art. Your complaints seem to be that society is not catering to your specific needs quite enough. Or that people are not working together quite enough. While I agree with you on the later point, it's not worth getting so worked up over. It's always been this way and likely always will.

It cost money to license

Also the only decent-performance chips doing it were from Adobe, and they weren't cheap. At the time, this would have pretty much cut the low-end printer market to the ground. The high-end printer market, of course, pretty much all did PostScript if you asked them to.

I don't think he's complaining that there is no CLI utility by default, but rather that he can't write one other than by going through Quicktime, because instead of a widely accessible (e.g. HTTP) server, it has some proprietary driver.

Try using PCL. My wife's office had a printer that didn't have a postcript module option. Every technician said it was impossible to print from the Mac to it. I tried a couple of CUPS PCL drivers and it worked fine.

I completely agree with this sentiment. Look where automobiles were 100 years ago - nothing like the vehicles we use today; vehicles that are designed to squeeze every last MPG out of a gallon of gas, or can keep us from dying in a major car accident.

Computing will improve. Computing will always improve. I think rants like this are helpful to point out where we definitely can improve, today, to bring on the future - such as making the iPhone dev and release process easier ;-)

You are kidding, right? Cars have hardly changed at all, still the same petrol powered devices with are a hard shell. Sure the car companies were forced to add in some extra safety mechanisms, but this does not mean much.

What? That's so wrong it's not even funny any more. If you look at the advances in efficiency (on all fronts - energy consumption, manufacturing, maintenance, ...), comfort, safety and basically all facets of personal transportation, it's nothing short of amazing. Today you can buy a new car for 4 months middle class wages and it'll be miles beyond anything you could buy just 25 years ago. (ok maybe not counting some things like leather seats, but apart from a few exceptions like that).

How often do cars break down now compared to 30, 50 or 80 years ago? I am pretty sure most of the early drivers were quite good mechanics, these days? Not so much. I'm sure Mr. Ford would find modern cars very foreign.

A chair, clothing and even houses haven't changed much over the years either. Most designs only change bits at a time, slowly morphing into unrecognisable things.

True, but a minor head overhaul would have been about 1/2 an hour with 'roadside tools' (say to replace a valve spring) possibly during your trip to grandma.

Today that same repair would be a couple of days in the shop, requiring tens of thousands of dollars of specialty tools. Of course those springs don't fail as often as they did back then (a combination of improved materials science and engineering) but when they do the fix is out of reach, even for a trained mechanic without access to a shop with all the required specialty tools.

I don't think anybody carries a valve spring compressor in their toolbox. Plus you'd run the risk of dropping the valve unless you was really careful and good luck getting the keepers back in on the side of the road without a way to hold the valve up. Even then who has the parts with them to make this a 1/2 hour job? Cars are just as hard/easy to fix now as back then. Fuel injection is arguably easier to troubleshoot then a carb given the computers help.

This used to be s.o.p. in the early 20's.

Have a read:


The good old days of grease and spittle and they didn't even have duct tape yet!

That link is about replacing the entire valve (valves were a wear part, much like tires today, only with much shorter service life).

How often do cars break down now compared to 30, 50 or 80 years ago?

Major car failures in cars first 5 years fell by 1/3rd between 2005 and 2010.


So, I'd expect a lot less than 30 years ago.

For those of you who, like me, had no idea what Burroughs was: An old American business equipment company.

Roughly: American Arithmometer Company (1886) → The Burroughs Corporation (1904 rename) → (1986 merger) Unisys.

It's more than that. Burroughs was the mind-blowing innovator of the mainframe era. Look up the Burroughs B5000, which Alan Kay has been raving about for years as still in some ways more advanced than anything that has come since (or at least, anything popular). We had a few threads about it on HN a month or two ago; one of them was the article the GP is linking to. I highly recommend reading the whole thing.

Why should - 50 years later - we still be astonished that our software works? Doesn't that alone say that we haven't advanced?

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