The astounding science and engineering of printer jams


Originally published at:


If more people stopped printing, the world would be a better place.


I’m printing right now.


I’ve always been amazed that printers worked as well as they do given what they are trying to do with paper. Just the idea of moving paper consistently boggled me.

Being in IT they still make my life hell but that is more up to drivers and printer companies that didn’t want to be in the printer business.

“Look at me! I’m your new printer … let me install 500 megs of software so I can be the center of your new digital lifestyle … oh and let me install a webserver on your computer as our developers wanted everything written in javascript.”


Appropriately enough, I read this in the paper magazine. I’ve never been so enthralled by paper jams, thanks to the great writing in this piece. Rothman keeps on tying it back to the broader connections with engineering and industrial society by introducing us to the whole field of “tribology” which is stuff rubbing against other stuff and delightful paragraphs like this one:

“Paper jams are a species within a larger genus. Traffic jams, too; so do tape decks, guns, and sewing machines. On humid days, voting machines jam, leading to recounts; over the aeons, tectonic plates jam, resulting in earthquakes. Ice floating down a river makes an ice jam; floating logs join up into logjams. (Before railroads transformed the transportation of lumber, logjams had to be addressed by “jam breakers”—experts who spotted and removed the “key logs” jamming up the river.) Jamming happens whenever something that’s supposed to flow through a space fails to do so, perhaps because of overcrowding, or bending, or because its constant movement degrades the space through which it travels.”

Overall, this piece is a reminder of the massive influence in our lives of engineers that we never think about. Its very interesting to read Rothman’s piece alongside this highly critical piece on Engineering in The Baffler:



I’m considering printing out your comment.


I’ll get the sacrificial altar cleaned off then. The last job was a 400 page tech-pack, so this might take a while.


I’m not so forgiving about paper jams as you guys, but that’s not what I came here to say. At my old job, our printer jammed. No surprise there. What did surprise me was when the owner of the company walked by and did a freestyle rap about paper jams.




They can make excuses all they want. I took care of a lab order OKI impact printer system which ran 6 page thick carbon copy printouts 24/7 and it never once jammed. It also had nylon wrapped braided steel cables to carry the print head and a steel paper feed mechanism. The only plastic was the outer shroud and some extruded structural pieces.
Now we pay $2k+ for a workgroup printer that requires roller maintenance every two months and a new $200 fuser every 4 months.


In the late 80’s we had an ion-deposition printer that beat the snot out of every laser printer we had in the corporation: 80 pages/minute, but only two fonts (bigger and smaller, all upper case). It was great for generating long reports, but it was a messy beast: it was supposed to be used in computer-room environments with proper cooling, but it also sprayed toner everywhere – the ceiling above it looked like we were burning coal there.

And when it jammed, it jammed spectacularly.

Typically, 12-15 sheets of paper would get jammed before it reacted to stop itself. These sheets would be accordion-folded in about 1/3" widths, making wonderful little fans. Getting them out of the printer generally required disposing of your shirt, because it required reaching through toner-infested zones to extract these origami logjams.


Fact: Printers can sense fear in users.


Y’know; I enjoyed reading about the finer points of effective damnation in The Screwtape Letters; but that didn’t improve my opinion of the malign forces of darkness.

Similarly, this interesting write-up isn’t doing anything for my position RE: printers being the most damned of all peripherals.


Music that sounds like printers?

Here’s a printer that sounds like music:



The ones at we use at my office all work pretty great. The main issue is generally not so much paper jams but getting rid of the waste toner because they keep the new toner containers locked up so no one likes to switch them out themselves… kinda like how people will avoid having to make a fresh pot of coffee at work. In fact i had to go hunt down the facilities admin a few weeks ago and make her hand me the toner replacement to do it my own damn self.

Coincidentally this morning the printer by me had a paper jam, which was easy to clear but the person responsible just walked away and left it like that.


If a lot of people love each other, the world would be a better place to live.


I print all of the BB comment threads.


This topic was automatically closed after 5 days. New replies are no longer allowed.