The Evolution of Printer Technology: Then and Now

The Evolution of Printers: Then and Now

In today’s society printers are used by many people on a daily basis, and they are, in large part, taken for granted by most. If you think back to the early days of these machines, though, you begin to see how this amazing technology has evolved throughout the years. Printers weren’t always the speedy little machines that sit upon our desktops today, not even close. In the early days, these printers were so large that if placed on a desktop, it would break it in half! Not only that, but printing speeds have greatly increased over the years along with the quality of the print, the capabilities of the printers, and what could be the biggest difference between old printers and new printers: the price tag.

The most influential invention ever in the printing business was the printing press way back in the 1400s. We’ll start our journey back in time with the printing press, and see how it has changed from the early days of manual printing presses to the automatic machines that we use today. From there, we’ll look at the most popular printers that we use today, and see how they started as expensive, bulky, slow, primitive machines, and how they have evolved into the complete opposite of that. It’s quite amazing to see how a machine, such as the first laser printers designed specifically for consumers, began as a machine which had a price tag of over £1,500 and printed only 8 pages per minute (ppm), to laser printers of today which cost a fraction of that price and print up to 200 ppm.

Printing Presses

Gutenberg Printing Press

Gutenberg Printing Press: As I mentioned earlier, the printing press is considered to be the most revolutionary invention in the history of the printing industry. It was invented in Germany by a goldsmith named Johann Gutenberg back in 1439. At the time, this revolutionary invention greatly increased the speed at which books were printed. By today’s standards, the process was still incredibly slow, though. These wooden machines had to be manually operated, and even the ink had to applied to the text-blocks manually.

Steam Printing Press

Steam Printing Press: The design of the printing press remained largely unchanged until the 1800s when a press made completely of cast iron was constructed. This new press reduced the force required to print by approximately 90% while doubling the size of the print size. Still, this new design was relatively slow only producing about 250 prints per hour. It wasn’t until 1814 that the first automatic printing press was constructed, and this printing press greatly increased the efficiency at which newspapers and books were printed. This primitive press was powered by steam.

Digital Printing Press

: Today’s printing presses are fully-automatic, digital presses that are capable of now only printing an entire newspaper, but also folding it properly. They are capable of using a seemingly endless varieties of fonts and colours. The fastest digital colour press in the world is the Xeikon 8000, which is capable of producing 230 A4 ppm in true 1200dpi image quality. This translates into about 8.5 million pages per month!

Dye-sublimation Printers

Dye-sublimation Printers

Dye-sublimation Printers: Dye-sublimation printers are common in producing photo-quality prints. The process works by transferring heat to a ribbon with 3 coloured panels and a clear overcoat layer (cyan, magenta, yellow, overcoat layer). The heated solid-state dye then turns into a gas, and it bonds to the printing material.

One of the first consumer Dye-sub printers that was created specifically to print photos was the Fargo Foto-Fun Printer in the mid-1990s. This thing retailed for approximately £, and it took a sluggish 2.5 minutes to print one photo at a maximum resolution of 203 dpi. An equivalent dye-sub printer of today will produce better quality photos (400 dpi+), is more than twice as fast as the original dye-sub printers (approximately 1 ppm), and you can get a compact model, such as the HiTi BS-ID400, for as little as £12. Quite a big difference in technology in a relatively short period of time!


Xerox Model A

Xerox Model A: The first photocopiers were invented in the 1940s by a man named Chester Carlson. He and a team of researchers later patented the term xerography, which was the process used to create copies with the photocopier. The Xerox corporation was born, and the first ever Xerox machine was called the Model A, which was a manually operated commercial xerographic printer. The Model A was difficult to operate, and it required an incredible 39 step process to produce one copy!

Xerox Model 914

Xerox Model 914: It wasn’t until 1959 that the first automatic photocopier was invented, the Xerox Model 914. The 914 could reproduce documents up to 9″ x 14″ – hence the name Model 914. It took this huge machine about 15 seconds to warm up and make its first copy, and then 7 seconds between subsequent copies. The Model 914 weighed a backbreaking 648 pounds, and its dimensions were 42″ x 46″ x 45″. This huge machine was only able to manage 7 copies per minute, and it carried a hefty price tag of just under £15,000.

Xerox CC275

Xerox CC275: Today’s photocopiers are digital rather than the older analog models. This has a couple of advantages including automatic image quality enhancement, and the ability to scan images once and then print out multiple copies instead of having to rescan the image each time a page is printed. Xerox now sells both B/W and colour photocopiers, with the more expensive colour models ranging to over £10,500. The Xerox CC275 will copy up to 75 ppm, which equates to about 300,000 pages per month. The first copy takes less than 3 seconds to be completed, compared to 15 seconds in the Model 914. New photocopiers are also much lighter than in the past, the CC275 only weighs about 300 pounds compared to over 600 pounds in the model 914. I’d say that Xerox copiers have come a long way in 50+ years!

Laser Printer

HP LaserJet

HP Laserjet: This type of printer is common in today’s workplaces and is becoming increasingly common in people’s homes as well. The reason that laser printers are so popular is because they produce high quality prints at a very rapid pace, and these printers tend to have a relatively long life span. Laser printers weren’t always lighting quick, though. The first mass-produced desktop laser printer was the HP LaserJet, which was released in March, 1984. While extremely innovative at the time, this LaserJet doesn’t quite live-up to today’s laser printer standards. This printer was capable of printing only about 8 ppm, and the print cartridge had to be replaced every 3,000 prints. This prehistoric printer sold for an astounding £1,750 back in 1984. The LaserJet was popular, though, and HP celebrated 50 million sales of this printer in 2000. The most innovative aspect of this printer was not its speed or printing ability, but its quiet operation which was very different from other noisy personal printers on the market.


HP P1005 LaserJet: Today, the fastest laser printers can shoot-out 200 B/W ppm, or 100 colour ppm – a far cry from the 8 ppm of the first LaserJet. Taking a look at a more comparable laser printer to the original LaserJet, we see that desktop laser printers have come a long way in 20+ years. The HP LaserJet P1005 desktop printer is HP’s smallest laser printer – about half the size of the original LaserJet. This compact little printer features a 266 MHz processor, 2 MB of memory, and can print pages at a rate of 14 A4 ppm – almost twice that of the first-ever LaserJet. This printer also has a longer duty cycle than the original at 8,000 printed pages. The biggest difference between then and now is the price. The P1005 outperforms the original LaserJet in every way, and yet it has a retail price of only about £70.

Fax (Facsimile) Machines

Telecopier 200

Telecopier 200: As we all know, fax machines are used to transmit copies of documents via the telephone network. Similar electronic transmission technology has been around since the mid to late 1800s in a crude form, but modern fax machines date back to the 1970s. The first laser, plain-paper fax machine was the Telecopier 200, which was manufactured by Xerox Corporation in 1975. This bulky fax machine could send standard A4 pages at 2, 3, 4, or 6 minute transmission times that were selected by the operator based upon how high the quality the operator wanted (ie: faster fax – lower quality). At the 6-minute interval, this fax machine could produce prints with a resolution of 96 x 96 pixels. This analog fax machine worked by using a laser and photoreceptor technique that was similar to how a laser printer functions. While this fax machine could do a sufficient job of sending faxes, its size was immense, and its transmissions were slow.

Xerox F110

Xerox F110: Taking a look at an example of today’s fax machines, the Xerox FaxCentre F110 is a £300 digital fax machine. This fax machine, like most today, not only sends faxes, but it also scans documents, will make copies, and it can also function as a printer. One of the biggest differences between old and new, is the huge difference in size between the two machines. Where the Telecopier 200 was almost the size of an ATM machine, the F110 weighs only 7.25Kg. Another huge difference between the two fax machines is the fax transmission time, which on the Telecopier 200 is a minimum of 2 minutes, and with the F110 it’s a blazing 3 seconds per page. The laser technology is also far more advanced in today’s fax machines – the F110 is capable of printing at 600 x 600, compared with a maximum of 96 x 96 in the first-ever laser fax machine.

Inkjet Printers

HP DeskJet

HP DeskJet: Inkjet printers are the most common type of consumer printer on the market today, and for good reason. They are inexpensive, produce quality imagery, and they are relatively speedy. The same can’t be said for the original inkjets from the late 1970s and early 1980s, as these were slow and didn’t produce very good quality prints. One of the first mass-produced consumer inkjet printers was the HP DeskJet in 1988. The original DeskJet didn’t print in colour, and it carried a hefty initial price tag. This price seems expensive, but at the time it was the best value on the market when compared to other inkjets. This printer was only capable of printing 1-2 ppm, and although it was small in size, it still weighed in at a hefty 14 pounds. The original DeskJet was capable of printing at 300 dpi quality – not great, compared with today’s standards.

Today’s DeskJets are head-and-shoulders above the originals in every aspect. Some DeskJets can be purchased new for less than £40 – much cheaper than in 1988. One such printer is the HP Deskjet D2530. This printer will print in both B/W and colour, and it will print either type at speeds of up to 16 ppm. It’s capable of printing up to 1200 dpi images in colour, and it will accept a variety of paper sizes including both 4 x 6 photo sised paper or standard A4. There’s also a huge size difference between the old and the new. Today’s Deskjets weigh approximately 1/3rdof the total weight of the original DeskJet.

Fine Art Digital Photo Printers

Fine Art Digital Photo Printers

Digital Photo Printers: Fine art digital printing began back in 1991 in order to produce high quality, large-sised photos such as posters and other artistic prints. A pioneering figure in this type of artistic expression was Graham Nash (left in the photo), who was one of the founding members of the British rock band Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young. Nash Editions produced many of the band’s large, artistic posters and prints during the 1990s and beyond.

The first true digital fine art printer was the Iris Graphics Model 3047 in 1989, which carried an insane price tag of £40,000 and more. The printer was basically a large-scale inkjet printer that printed A0 sised paper (841mm x 1189mm). The desired image is stored on a 0.25 inch recording tape that is inserted into the tape reader on the machine, and it is then printed out on paper process, and the inks that were used with the Iris machine had a very poor lifespan in terms of light fading stability – often times prints would start to fade within a couple of years. The Iris Graphics Model 3047 now resides in the National Museum of American History.

New printers, such as the Epson Stylus Pro 9800, have revolutionised the digital photo printing industry. This 44 inch printer uses an 8-colour UltraChrome K3 ink, which provides for some of the highest quality prints anywhere in the world. The 1 inch print head of the 9800 is twice as fast as previous models, and much faster than that when compared to the Iris. This printer is capable of producing large-scale colour prints at 2880 x 1440 dpi. The price tag of this printer is far less than the Iris Model 3047 sold for, with a MSRP of approximately £4,500.

It’s easy to see how printers have evolved throughout the years, and how they continue to increase their functionality while still managing to decrease in price year after year. It’s hard to imagine where printing technology will be in 20 years! New printing technology is already being developed to produce the next generation printers that are capable of printing 3-dimensional objects. It seems that printing innovation will soon be taken to the next level so stay tuned!

About the author:

Tom is a huge tech and gadget geek with a broad range of interests including travel, art and design. Much of his time is spent blogging on CreativeCloud but he also enjoys writing for other blogs in the design niche.

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