Hewlett-Packard revolutionized printing

The following appears on gazettetimes.com

A generation ago, the American office was a noisy place, where dot-matrix impact printers pounded out documents with a mechanical clatter that could rattle your molars.

Screen Shot 2014-03-27 at 12.20.45 PMOnly one typeface was available — usually Courier. All the letters were the same size, the only way to change colors was by changing the printer ribbon, and reams of spool-fed accordion-fold paper cluttered the floor.

Photos? Graphics? Pie charts? Forget about it. The phrase “desktop publishing” had yet to be coined.

Fast-forward 30 years, and the inkjet printer has become a fixture in millions of homes and offices around the world, smoothly and efficiently turning out page after page of crisp type in a variety of sizes and fonts with sharp, full-color graphics.

And it does it all so quietly you barely know it’s there.

Screen Shot 2014-03-25 at 11.42.55 AMFor all of that, you can thank a small team of Hewlett-Packard engineers in Corvallis, who developed the world’s first commercially viable inkjet technology. The ThinkJet printer debuted 30 years ago this month, and the world has never been quite the same since.

In the beginning

When Hewlett-Packard’s Corvallis campus set up shop in 1976, its purpose was to design and manufacture calculators, an important product line for the company.

But then as now, the local HP site had plenty of other irons in the fire, potential new products in the research and development stage.

Screen Shot 2014-02-11 at 2.36.04 PMThe idea of using a stream of ink drops as a printing mechanism dates to the 19th century, but early efforts to harness the concept were plagued with problems. Hewlett-Packard’s foray into inkjet printing in the late 1970s started out as an exploratory effort to see if a research advance at HP Labs, the company’s Silicon Valley idea factory, could be commercialized.

In 1979 Frank Cloutier, a research manager at the Corvallis site, saw a demonstration of the new technique, which used heat to force drops of ink through a hole. The results were crude, but Cloutier could see the possibilities.

After returning to the mid-valley and thinking about the design challenge for a few months, he started putting together a team to create a compact, quiet, reliable and affordable thermal inkjet printer. More than 100 people eventually signed onto the project, but in the beginning there were five: Cloutier, Niels Nielsen, Paul McClelland, Bob Low and Dave Lowe.

They came to be known as “Cloutier’s crazies,” in part because few HP insiders believed they could succeed. But they kept at it, cobbling together prototypes from parts purchased at hardware stores or scavenged from other HP projects. One early printhead was built with the plastic barrel of a Sheaffer fountain pen.

Initially the new printer was intended to work with a calculator, but the idea was adapted to function with a personal computer as HP prepared to enter that emerging market. The result, known as the ThinkJet, debuted in March of 1984.

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