Computers You Should Know

Xerox 9700

Up until the late 1970s, most computers were large mainframe systems that did little more than crunch numbers. They could print out reams of green-bar reports showing sales, accounting info, scientific calculation results and even test data from wind tunnels. None of that really required changes in font or even print size. Xerox, however, saw to it that we came to expect these capabilities — and lasers — in our printers.

The 9700’s story actually starts in the 1960s. Xerox had just started producing the first fully automatic xerographic photocopier, one which used a photosensor, dry ink and an electrostatic process to reproduce an image on a blank piece of paper. They weren’t going to sit on their laurels, though. They immediately charged their Palo Alto research teams to find a way to combine that process with lasers. I believe the exact quote from Xerox CEO Joseph Wilson was, “I want freaking lasers in my copy machines!”

One thing led to another, and soon the scope had expanded to creating a laser printer that could be hooked up to a mainframe or a tape deck. By 1977, the technology and the market were both ripe, and Xerox showed off the first laser printer in Dallas at the National Computer Conference.

It revolutionized the printer market. Now people weren’t limited to a fixed font and print size. All of that could be varied by software. Suddenly, the power of the computer was unleashed on catalogs, price sheets, and other high-volume high-quality documents. Combined with the personal computer revolution, the standard for printing went from boring lines of data on green-bar tractor feed paper to sharp, splashy text on cut sheet paper.

A standard that continues today.

[Image Credit: Xerox]

  • fodder650

    Growing up I got to spend a lot of time with DEC Vax's. My mother was a computer operator when i was a kid. She would do those small .1 OS upgrades to the Mini's and you should see what was involved. Good times. In fact one of the minis would call her at home if it was overheating or had issues.

    Those were the days. I mean who heard of a talking computer that can call you in this day and age

    • The Professor

      I used program for VAX minis and clusters many years ago, and they were interesting machines. I still had a full set of VMS manuals up until about 5 years ago. I never did any of the operator stuff though, too much work.

      • mr. mzs zsm msz esq

        S40> SHOW TIME
        1-DEC-2011 11:56:26

        • The Professor

          Oh my, still working on one, eh?

          • mr. mzs zsm msz esq

            Thankfully very very rarely now! But four years back I was still rlogin-ing in a few times a month to run a utility that had not been ported over yet.

  • The Professor

    Just a suggestion, but a good follow on to this article would be to take a look at Xerox PARC and its innovations, and how it influenced other computer manufacturers. Apple and Amiga are two that I know of.

    • fodder650

      Thats not a bad idea. Most people don't realize thing things that came out of PARC or how it was Xerox that had worked on them. Thing's like the mouse if memory serves

      • FЯeeMan

        The mouse and the GUI among others.

        I still remember seeing an Apple Lisa at some sort of business expo in town when I was a kid. Must have been around 7th or 8th grade.

        <img src="; alt="what, you have a browser that doesn't show images?" width="500">

  • tiberiusẅisë

    If this technology came out in 1977, how did we ever get sidetracked in the late 80s and early 90s with thermal paper? Fax machines with the roll of curly paper. Home typewriters took the flat sheets.

    • The only thing I can think of is cost. Even in the mid-90s a monochrome laser printer was still $1000+. It's only since the late '90s and early 2000s that laser printer costs have come down to the point where they are affordable for home use.

      • OA5599

        Cost, for sure, but also size and to a lesser extent, consumables. A laser printer from that era had a footprint about the same as a microwave oven. Toner cartridges were typically a little above the three-digit range, and drum cartridges were a couple hundred bucks, and the room lights would dim when you ran it. A thermal printing calculator of that era could run off AA batteries and easily fit in a briefcase, and thermal paper was the only thing you needed to replace.

        As an aside, I had access to an Apple Lisa and Imagewriter(?) printer back in the days when most college papers were typed on typewriters or in non-WYSIWYG PC software and output generated in whatever standard dot-matrix font came installed in the printer. I recall turning in one paper that was visually quite impressive, but perhaps a little flimsy on content. I received an A on the paper and don't think I ever used my C64 for word processing after that.

        • FЯeeMan

          Yeah, I bought an LJ4 right after they came out in '92. Our office had just signed on as an HP distributor, and I got it at our cost – $1200. I remember toner cartridges running about $120-$150 or so, but I doubt I replaced one/year for the light duty home use it got. Other than paper, that's the only consumable item it ever went through, though it was just recently (less than 6 months ago) retired to the garage because it's in need of a drum.

          I replaced it with a $60 Samsung laser that constantly sits with the red warning light on because the 'output tray full' sensor doesn't work right. Maybe I'll go price a replacement drum for the LJ4. Darn fine piece of machinery.

    • P161911

      Thermal printing is still very much alive and well. Just about every cash register and credit card machine uses thermal paper. It is VERY convenient for just about any receipt printer. You don't have to fool with ribbons, ink, or toner. You just drop in a roll of paper and go. Any time you buy a lottery ticket, that is printed on thermal paper.

      • tiberiusẅisë

        Interesting. I never made the connection. I was thinking that it was a stop-gap measure. Aside from planned obsolescence, I didn't see why they would develop and market the technology. Now it seems more viable.

      • Great point.

  • Ken

    I was a tech on 9700's in Houston. They were an amazing machine at the time. Best years of my career.