Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2794: LASER PRINTER

Andrew Boyd

Today, tenacity. The University of Houston’s College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

In the early seventies engineer Gary Starkweather found himself caught up in an internal horse race at Xerox. His competitors were better staffed and funded. One team had fifty people; another, twenty. Starkweather’s had only two. It had been an uphill battle to get even that far.

Starkweather in his office photograph

A few years earlier Starkweather had been working at Xerox’s New York research facility. The company was already dominant in the market for photocopiers. Computers didn’t need copiers but they did need printers — devices that made original documents based on instructions sent from the computer.

One morning, Starkweather woke up and thought, hmmmm … maybe Xerox technology might make for a good printer. But when he took the idea to management, he was told “… it was the most brain-dead idea [his boss] had ever heard.” Still, Starkweather wouldn’t let go of it. He set up a work area in the back of his lab behind a black curtain. Starkweather’s boss was aware of what was going on and, after months of trying to stop it, threatened to lay off members of Starkweather’s team. The interminable engineer had two choices: abandon the idea, or go up the corporate ladder.

Starkweather had heard Xerox was opening a new research center three-thousand miles away in Palo Alto. He approached a senior vice-president and threatened to leave for IBM if he didn’t get a transfer. The transfer was granted, and within ten months Starkweather had completed a prototype of his new printer.

But the obstacles he faced were far from over. For one, corporate headquarters couldn’t grasp the potential market for computer printers. Computers were still a relatively new technology.

Second, while Xerox was doing some research on printers, most of it had nothing to do with Xerox’s photocopying technology. Starkweather recalled one printer based on a ten inch drum that spun around at more than eighty revolutions per second. Characters were placed on the outside of the drum and were used to stamp impressions on paper much like a typewriter. According to Starkweather, characters routinely flew off the drum, and there was a lone woman in Troy, New York who knew how to fix them.

It was ultimately decided that a competition would be held to see which printing technology was superior — a “fly-off” in the words of Starkweather. The teams prepared their printers. Professional reputations were on the line.

But when Starkweather saw the six pages to be printed for the fly-off, he knew he’d already won. They didn’t include just letters and numbers, but graphs, pictures, and other complex figures. Starkweather’s new laser printer, which built upon Xerox’s core strengths, was the only technology up to the task. It went on to revolutionize printing and proved a financial windfall for Xerox. And it was all thanks to the efforts of an admittedly tenacious engineer.

laser printer picture

I’m Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we’re interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Notes and references:

For a related episode, see IMPACT PRINTERS.

M. Gladwell. Creation Myth: Xerox PARC, Apple, and the Truth About Innovation. The New Yorker, May 16, 2011. See also: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/05/16/110516fa_fact_gladwell. Accessed May 15, 2012.

The picture of Gary Starkweather is from Wikimedia Commons. The picture of the laser printer is from a website of the Xerox Corporation.

This episode was first aired on May 17, 2012



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2012 by John H. Lienhard.