A dot-matrix printer that taps out a picture using a pencil

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2018/02/15/a-dot-matrix-printer-that-taps.html

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Dude can’t stop wiggling his camera around long enough to let me see the damn picture!


Hmm. I’d like to see the whole process (by which I mean I’d like to have someone else watch the whole process and then tell me the important bits).

I would expect major issues with the core: I see they are using a rather massive pencil, probably for exactly these reasons, but the tip is surely liable to break off periodically. It also keeps depleting, which must affect the point of contact and mess with precision. So I’m a bit doubtful of its ability to deal with anything on a larger format.


This seems to work just fine. I like that the pencil hammer motor is an old disk drive head motor. Those things are great!

An extra level of Rube Goldberg-ness would be to use a mechanical pencil and have a solenoid that pushes its lead-extending button periodically as needed, to keep the lead fresh.


What is making all the hammering sound? I wonder what the clearance between the pencil tip and the paper is, I would have thought hitting the pencil will wear the graphite away or break the tip is the clearance is too large. Very clever.

Never had a problem with dot matrix? You must be a special person. You never had the little perforated holes rip and get out of alignment so that everything prints on one line over and over and over? Laser printers were a huge step up. Not arguing with the basic point though, printers are the devil: here to promise the world and deliver pain.

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I have fewer problems with dot matix printers than modern ones. The paper handling was more straight forward.

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I think I might still have an old APA Style Guide strongly cautioning against the use of primitive dot-matrix printers that wouldn’t even render a lowercase “q” properly. I can’t even seem to find an image of the relevant font; I guess that particular era didn’t last long before much better printers came into wider use.

I recall being sorely disappointed that ol’ WordPerfect 5.1 was quite incapable of employing fancy text-rotation effects with the dot-matrix printer I had at the time, though I suppose that would be the driver’s fault.

All printers suck. Some suck less than others, though. (I can say this with some authority, drawing on a number of years spent as a professional printer repair tech.)

As far as dot matrix printers were concerned, while they do last what would seem to be a long long time, they do wear out, and they do have some interesting failure modes. I’ve seen almost everything from broken feed tractors, chewed ribbons, worn gears, to smoked print heads.

Generally, on the 8/9 pin printers, you’ll never get ‘quality’ prints unless you are willing to wait a very long time, and only if both the printer and the driver supported it. 24 pin printers were NLQ (near letter quality) out of the box, but even then the ‘nicer’ modes didn’t really improve on it. (I’ll not speak of daisy-wheel or Selectric style printers, as while they did letter quality, they were also noisy AF, because they were literally computer driven typewriters.)

Laser has it’s own problems, but the better ones (read: commercial quality business models) tend to be slightly more reliable. (the venerable LaserJet 4 series are just tanks, as long as you feed it a maintenance kit every 100,000 pages, along with keeping it on reasonably clean power and cleaning the paper dust out ever box or two.) One of [ReadactedCo] finance offices had a couple LJ4300s that had over 2 million on the counter, and they were not that old when I observed it back in 2006 that department ran those beasts at the ragged top edge of duty cycle, and we eventually upgraded them to an actual copier to run their reports on.

Press-ready color laser? yeah, those fall under the ‘prima donna’ category- Beautiful print quality, as long as you fed it OE supplies, good quality paper, and kept it in a decent office environment.Oh, and a price tag to match, too. Those generally made their owners money, however. (The coolest one I ever got to play with? A Textronix (now Xerox) Phaser; 20 minute spool up time, and it ate an entire set of the wax pigment blocks during the process, but once it was fired up and ready, it cranked out full edge color pages in under 20 seconds from job start to holding it in your crubby paws.)

Inkjets, in a business setting, are just Bad News, especially considering how cheap color laser has gotten to purchase, and the consumable cost.


Really, I got nothing. My only statement I can add is that I got the longest use out of Apple branded printers, the StyleWriter and the LaserWriter. All others were 5 years, max.

Though to be honest, the reason my Brother laser printer was retired was due to driver issues, not print quality

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When I left a small computer manufacturing company in 2001, they were still running the serial number label printer job on a Mac Plus running some Forth variant, printing labels with an ImageWriter I. They probably did that for several more years before selling to the industry-swallowing competiitor.

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My first thought was “why isn’t the tip breaking off?” but it appears that the hammering sound is just the disk arm hitting a stop. The pencil’s actually tapping the paper quite lightly.

Funny quote from the inventor:

“I believe it could also be useful in the kitchen for chopping vegetables.”

The Apple LaserWriter and the HP LaserJet Series II were incredibly sturdy and reliable machines, basically the same Canon engine with different trim packages. The LaserWriter had the advantage of a real page description language, Postscript, and the LaserJet had the advantage of not having Postscript.

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AxiDraw is a computer-aided pen plotter that uses any writing instrument inserted in the device.

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Also, Apple did… things to the LaserWriter, which made it partly parts-incompatible to the Canon (and HP derived) counterparts; including, IIRC, swapping the voltage and ground leads on some parts to make it quite impossible to substitute parts (and making for some machine-destroying effects if a clueless repair tech tried.)

Most of the ‘classic’ HP printers were derived from various Canon xerographic engines; I know that the 5si and 8000 series were both based on the (mighty mighty) NX engine; they mostly differed in formatter and a handful of other parts and trim pieces. the IIIsi and 4SI were also essentially the same printer, with some changes to the formatter.

I’m not sure where the StyleWriter’s were derived from, probably the BubbleJet printers also made by canon; the form factors looked pretty similar.

I can go on for a while about the older HP printers; a large number of them were tanks, provided they were taken care of. :slight_smile:

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The series II was notable for being a tank even if mistreated, but yeah, the 4s were pretty great too.

The late Dr. John Hendrickson reprogrammed a Series II so that it would print labels for entomology and malacology specimens, he built a tiny little font so you could label tiny little midges and seashells a millimeter long. After the collection curators had run it nearly every day for five or six years, it failed, and I tore down the engine to fix it… and found that somebody had somehow spilled a box of paperclips into it.

I took out the paperclips, replaced the paperclip-shredded fuser and the cartridge, John redid his special programming, and it went back to work!

Sadly I haven’t seen a decent HP printer since the 4m. We use Kyoceras hereabouts now.

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