Dot Matrix and Word Processors

I was writing about something completely different the other day, and went on this side diversion about dot-matrix printers, and thought about how a giant subset of the population (like everyone born after about 1985) never had to deal with them, while I spent far too many hours fighting them in computer labs, pulling apart the intricate pieces to pry loose jammed scraps of paper that got worked into the machinery.

There’s so many distinctive features of this whole era of printing that are long forgotten.  Dot matrix printers usually used eight little pins to stamp a ribbon as the print head jumped across the page.  My friend Matt had one of these, the Commodore 801, and the thing I remember most about it was that it was unidirectional; the little print head would zip across the page at a breakneck 50 characters per second, then the page would move up a line, and the head would return to the left.  But it didn’t print on the sweep back to the left, which meant it was half as fast as the expensive printers that would print on both passes.

The printers were also tractor-feed back then.  The paper had those little perforated runners hanging off of each end, little strips with holes in them, and the box of paper was fan-fold, so you could feed in the sheet and it would continuously chew through the giant thousand-page sheet of paper in a carton.  Then, after you spent 20 minutes staring at the printer, hoping the thing got through your term paper in one pass, you then had to fold and tear apart each page, then tear off the feed strips on either side.

And, of course, that never worked right.  If you didn’t line up the paper exactly, turning the little knob on the side of the printer, the end of the physical page would not match up with what the computer thought was the end of the page, and you’d get this mangled mess with a blank strip of what was supposed to be the top and bottom margins in the middle of the printed page.  The whole operation of aligning and feeding and advancing paper was a precision thing, and if the paper got folded or creased or otherwise fucked up, the printer would have no mercy and create an origami disaster out of your precious schoolwork.

The output of a dot-matrix looked like shit, and they did a lot of little tricks to get it to resemble actual type.  Like some printers had this “near letter quality” feature, where they’d do multiple passes on the same line to get a higher resolution, and they started adding more pins.  When I was at IUSB, we had armies of these Panasonic KPX-1124 printers, which had 24 pins instead of 8.  These pieces of shit were the bane of my existence back in 1991, and I spent untold hours tearing jammed paper out of these while some dumpy housewife screamed at me about her Psych 101 paper getting trashed.  (If you ever did time around one of these, watch this video and tell me if the clunking sound of that print head slamming into the left margin over and over doesn’t make you go full postal.)

It seems like everyone forgets the other bastard child of that era that made perfect typewritten letters, at the sake of glacial speeds and 120-decibel print runs.  The daisy wheel printer had a hub with a bunch of little spokes coming off of it, each one carrying a little type letter.  It could spin the wheel with a servo motor and then hammer it against the ribbon with a solenoid, making an ink impression that looked exactly like a typewritten page.  These were a big deal if you were printing out things like college admission letters, or you had an English teacher that had a hair up their ass about dot-matrix printers and wanted you to hunt down a selectric and hammer out the damn thing the old fashioned way.  Daisy wheel printers were louder than fuck, and a low-end model typically cost more than your entire computer.

But not everyone had computers.  When I was in high school, I had this “word processor” which was a glorified typewriter, except it had a single line of an LCD display, and it used a thermal print head.  It took these cartridges of some kind of crap that it could transfer to a page with a set of heated pins.  If you have one of those label maker machines, it was a similar deal, but masquerading as a desktop machine.  I think you could only type in one line at a time, and then hit return and wait a minute for it to etch onto the paper.  This wasn’t the best machine for stream-of-consciousness writing, but it was way faster than hunt-pecking on the K-Mart manual typewriter I got at a garage sale as a kid, where you’d type any faster than three characters a minute and all of the little hammers would get wrapped around each other and jam.

I somehow lucked into finding this girl in my freshman year of college that thought I was some kind of writing genius, and got her to type my papers for a semester.  I guess that sounds sort of chauvinistic, but that’s an arrangement that I feel sorry the current generation won’t find themselves in.  The “can you help me type my W131 paper?” pickup line has gone the way of the dodo.

After I wasn’t able to fully seal that deal, I dated someone who bought one of those Brother word processors, which were a very brief halfway-house between a typewriter and a computer.  It was this huge microwave oven-sized thing that was a fusion of a printer, a tiny CRT monitor, a keyboard, and the Notepad.exe program in ROM.  You could type a few pages at a time and then save them to a floppy disk (which was totally incompatible with any other computer) and then when you got it all situated and edited, you pressed a key and it would spit out the creation on actual paper.  My roommate Kirk later had one of these beasts, and I think I remember Larry working off of one for a while.  Here is a nice video of one in action.

Now, computers are cheap as hell, something it seems that most people forget, and laser printers or nice inkjets are everywhere, and we don’t really think about stuff like this.  But I remember the smell of the fine paper dust inside of a monster line printer on campus, one of these washing machine sized beasts that would mass-print thousands of pages off of VAX computers, so long as one of us consultants hooked it up with the occasional corrugated cardboard box of 17″ wide tractor feed paper, that cream and light green-lined stuff.  Every now and again, some idiot would send an ASCII-art dragon to the printer, a giant picture rendered in letters that would print banner-style across three dozen pages of paper, over the course of an hour.  (Even better, when you’re sitting in a public lab and someone in a dorm sends through a picture of a Penthouse Pet done up ASCII-style.)  That was all infinitely better than when someone would accidentally dump a binary file to the DEC LG06 in the library, and it would spit out page after page of random junk until you could get an operator in the machine room to kill the queue.

My last hurrah with dot matrix was about five years ago, when I bought a Tandy 100 off of eBay.  The guy threw in a bunch of other random crap, including a Radio Shack printer from circa 1985, with some bizarro serial cable and no chance in hell of ever working with a machine produced this century.  It went straight to the dumpster, but I probably should have videotaped it going off of a four-story building, or getting it Office Space style with a baseball bat.

  • Jack has a Brother word processor, and you can save the files in .txt format. It uses standard 3.5" floppies. That's how he used to deliver his reviews, and I am extremely glad that he can email them now, instead.

  • The newer Brother word processors use an actual DOS formatted disk. I also remember some models (maybe not theirs) in the later 90s actually saved in a Word or RTF file. But the ones in the 80s and early 90s used a completely random format, and didn't even use the same block/sector pattern or any of that shit, so you couldn't even put them in a PC and rip out the raw data unless you modified a disk controller's BIOS or some super-involved shit. Generally the only way around this is to print the shit out and OCR scan it. And if you don't have the exact model of word processor (and yes, even different Brother models couldn't read each others' disks) you have to go hit eBay and try to buy an old machine to recover your data.