Printers I have known

Teletype – when I was one of the small group doing a Computer Science O-level, we had to go to the local FE college who were just starting to teach it. They didn't actually have a computer for us to use, but they did have a Teletype with a connection to the Open University. You wrote your BASIC program on the Teletype, and a leased line to the OU enabled it to run. When, not if, the program didn't work. I can't remember how we edited it (some extremely simple line editor or just over writing lines by entering a new line 100 or whatever?) but you could also get the Teletype to save it onto paper tape for fast – something like ten characters a second! – upload next time.

I don't think I have any of the paper tape, but there's at least one printed program somewhere.

Some dot matrix – after a month or so, the college got the bill for the leased line, went 'HOW MUCH?!?' and decided that getting a Research Machines 380Z would save money, even at over £3k for the version with 8" floppy discs.* Plus at least another thousand for a dot matrix printer, because it wouldn't work with the Teletype properly.

I can't remember what it was, but it could do 132 characters on a line which rules out the next one. I do have a couple of printouts from it though, including a program that simulated radioactive decay by turning a rectangle of asterisks into dots over several passes – my first encounter with e, after I noticed that if my little asterisk's half life wasn't 'one' loop, doing the obvious calculation** didn't work properly – and two games. Doubtless someone somewhere could look at them and go, 'ah, a Centronics..'

Epson FX-80 – I'm quite surprised that WP doesn't have a page on this, even though it gets a mention on the dot matrix printer one, because to those of us of a certain age, it's iconic. I didn't own it – they were about £700 around 1981 – but my university department had several because they were so (relatively) cheap. They also ended up with some MX-80s that could do graphics (not very well, but even so..)

Some line printer – dot matrix printers print a vertical slice of a character at a time, a typewriter prints a character at a time, and a line printer does, gasp, a whole line of text at a time. As this is done by 80 or 132 or more little hammers hitting the paper and something solid at the same time, five or more times a second, they're quite noisy. I SAID THEY'RE QUITE NOISY! Consequently, it was kept in another room under a noise insulating cover, and we only got the results.***

ZX Printer – the first one I bought, £49.95. That was the end of the good news. Narrow and nasty and needing special paper (about a fiver a roll) it worked by having an electrical spark burn off a layer of aluminium from the paper to reveal the black paper underneath.

You tell the young people of today that, and they don't believe you.****

I do have a couple of printouts from it, but the printer and some paper got donated to the computing museum at Bletchley.

Tandy / Radio Shack plotter – in one sense, another bonkers design: a small cartridge held four tiny pen-like ink cartridges. By moving it and the paper in the right way, you drew lines on the 15cm or so wide paper. Draw the right lines and you've got text! I think it was in a sale to the point it was cheaper than an inkjet and did colour that meant I got one.

Some OKI 24-pin dot matrix – not mine, but the person I worked with for many years. They paid £1,500 for it, the same cost as their Zenith 8088 PC clone running at 8MHz, so almost twice as fast as a real IBM PC. The reason for the price tag was that unlike the FX-80 et al which created their characters with a maximum of nine dots per vertical line, this used up to twenty four. Some of the 9-pin printers could bodge this by printing each line three times, moving the paper very slightly each time, and calling the result 'near letter quality' (i.e. as good as a typewriter) but it never was.

Neither was this, but it was over three times faster. The design meant you could also reuse the ribbons quite easily too. I can't remember what eventually failed on it.

Citizen Swift 24 – another 24 pin dot matrix, got largely because of the price (£200ish??) and the way we didn't need the width of the OKI. Only used by me with DOS, Windows XP had printer drivers for it.

Canon BJ-10 – the first inkjet I used. These were neat – a bit shorter than a ream of A4 paper lying down, but otherwise more or less the same size, they were virtually silent and did produce high quality results. As a result, when it died it was replaced by a..

Canon BJ-10e – slightly better version. I think this was the one that had a lovely tall but narrow bold font that was perfect for printing speeches on. It also died after about 18 months.

HP Deskjet 500 – Going back to an older machine! Bought second-hand off cix, this wasn't as neat, but was much more reliable. The quality wasn't great and inkjets are expensive to run, so..

HP Laserjet 6P – the first laser printer for the office in question. Alas, this was after the marketing people took over HP. The print quality was very good – some very nice brochures for a potential Millennium Commission project were done on it – but who thought it was a good idea to have the paper intake be a dust and crap magnet at the top of the printer? Most of the rest was plastic rather than metal too.

Panasonic KX P4420 – I recognise it, and I wrote a printer driver for my word processor (Borland's Sprint) for it, but I can't remember if it was the replacement for the LJ6P or if it replaced the LJ IIs of the LibDem by-election team.

Minolta SP101 – back to my ones. Many laser printers of the early 90s had 512kiB of RAM. While that was plenty to print text and small images, it wasn't enough to do a whole page image at 300 dots per inch resolution This one did some compression of the image data, so it could. You could also 'easily' fit some more RAM but the Minolta sales person at the show I bought it at gave the wrong info so I ended up buying the wrong chips at first.*****

Even so, this is what the London Bisexual Group newsletters and other stuff were printed on for my years as its Hon Secretary.

HP LaserJet Series II and Series III – I've written about these before. As they went out of fashion, they became dead cheap while staying extraordinarily versatile thanks to an host of companies doing add-on stuff for it.

Dell laser printer – I can't remember which. I can remember getting it from a Freecycle event in Forest Hill c2010 and being pleasantly surprised it worked. When the LJ III stopped picking up paper reliably and the usual cures involving sand paper didn't work, it got replaced by this. The speed – about 16 pages a minute – was nice, but it failed to pick up paper after a couple of years and nothing I did could get it working properly. The first printer I had that used USB rather than a parallel port.

Brother HL-2250DN – the current one, bought for £85 in 2013. Does duplex and has a Ethernet port as well as USB so it's shared with everything here. Replaced in Brother's line by something slightly faster but more expensive, grr, but it's showing no sign of going worng.

* I'm sure I've told the story of breaking it by putting a floppy in the wrong way up. They were very nice about it…

** If the half-life is say three ticks rather than one, then 1/6 – a third of a half – must die each time, yes? No!

*** Several hundred compiler errors ending with 'Missing ; in line 3137' usually, indicating that you'd left one out somewhere in the preceding three thousand or so lines.

**** I've just tried.

***** Every cloud has a silver lining: the 256kiB chips ended up expanding a sound card, the lovely Gravis Ultrasound, the sound card to play DOOM with.

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