EARS: the story of the first laser printer


As Ethernet grew, so did another crucial element of the office of the future: the laser printer. After all, what good was a screen that could display documents in multiple character styles and a network that could transmit them from place to place with no way to print them efficiently?

The idea for the laser printer came from Xerox’s research lab PARC in Webster, NY, with its developer, Gary Starkweather. He came up with the idea of ​​using a laser to paint information, in digital form, onto the drum or belt of a photocopier, recalls Goldman, then vice president of research. Starkweather reported to Business Products Group Vice President for Advanced Development, George White.

“George White came to me,” Goldman said, “and said, ‘Listen, Jack, I have a great guy by the name of Gary Starkweather who is doing some exciting things about translating visual information into print. by a laser, using a Xerox machine, of course. What an ideal concept that would be for Xerox. But I don’t think he’s going to thrive in Rochester; no one’s going to listen to it, they’re not going to do anything that advanced. Why don’t you take it to your new lab in Palo Alto? “

PARC’s new director, Pake, jumped at the chance. Starkweather and a few other Rochester researchers moved to Palo Alto and started the PARC Optical Science Lab. The first laser printer, EARS (Ethernet-Alto-Research character generator-Scanning laser output terminal), built by Starkweather and Ron Rider, began printing documents generated by Altos and sent over Ethernet in 1973.

EARS wasn’t perfect, Thornburg said. It had a dynamic character generator that created new designs for characters and graphics as they came in. If a page did not contain an uppercase Q, the character generator saved on internal memory by not generating a template for an uppercase “Q”. But if a page contained a very complex image, the character generator would run out of space for patterns; “There were certain levels of complexity in the designs that couldn’t be printed,” recalls Thornburg.

Even with these drawbacks, the laser printer was still a huge advance over the line printers, teleprinters, and fax machines available at the time, and Goldman pushed to bring it to market as quickly as possible. But Xerox resisted. In fact, a sore point throughout PARC’s history has been the apparent inability of the parent organization to exploit the developments made by researchers.

In 1972, when Starkweather built its first prototype, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, in an effort to stimulate the technology, issued a tender for five laser printers. But Goldman failed to convince the executive to whom Xerox’s Electro-Optical Systems division reported (whose background was in accounting and finance) to authorize a bid. The reason: Xerox might have lost $150,000 over the life of the contract if the laser printers needed repair as often as the copiers they were based on, even though early evidence showed that printing was causing a lot less wear than copy.

In 1974, the laser printer first became available outside of PARC when a small group of PARC researchers under John Ellenby – who built the Alto II, a production line version of the ‘Alto, who is now vice president of development at Grid Systems Corp., Mountain View, Calif. – started buying used copiers from Xerox’s copier division and installing laser heads in them. The resulting printers, known as Dovers, were distributed within Xerox and to universities. Sutherland estimated that several dozen were built.

“They took out all the optics and sent them back to the photocopier division for credit,” he recalls. Even today, he says, he receives laser-printed documents from universities in which he can recognize Dover typefaces.

Also in 1974, the Product Review Board at Xerox headquarters in Rochester, New York finally made a decision on what type of computer printer the company should manufacture. “A bunch of tech-knowledgeable horse donkeys were making the decision, and it seemed to me, sitting a week before the election, that it was headed toward CRT technology,” Goldman said. (Another Xerox group had developed a printing system in which text displayed on a special cathode ray tube was focused onto a copier drum and printed.) “It was Monday night. I commandeered a plane,” recalls Goldman. “I took the vice president of planning and the vice president of marketing by the ear and said, ‘You two are coming with me. Clear your Tuesday calendars. You’re coming with me to PARC tonight. We’ll be back for the 8:30 meeting on Wednesday morning. We left around 7:00 p.m., arrived in California at 1:00 a.m., which is only 10:00 a.m., and the PARC guys, bless their souls, gave a great presentation showing what the laser printer could do.

“If you’re dealing with people in marketing or planning, blow the tires on them. All the charts and all the slides are worth nothing,” Goldman said.

From a purely economic standpoint, Xerox’s investment in PARC for its first decade has paid off with interest in the profits of the laser printer.

The committee opted for laser technology, but there were delays. “They wouldn’t let us pull out the 7000s,” Goldman said, referring to the old printer Ellenby’s group had used as a base. “Instead, they insisted on going with the new 9000 series, which didn’t come out until 1977.”

From a purely economic standpoint, Xerox’s investment in PARC for its first decade has paid off with interest in the profits of the laser printer. This is perhaps ironic, as one vision of the office of the future was that it would be paperless.

“I think PARC has generated far more paper than any other office because you can press a button to print 30 copies of any report,” said Douglas Fairbairn, a former technician at the PARC and now Vice President of User-Designed Technology at VLSI Technology Inc. “If the report is 30 pages, it’s 1,000 pages, but it still only takes a few minutes. Then you say, “I guess I wanted that photo on the other page.” It’s still 1000 pages.

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