Brief History

From the dawn of computing to the 1970s, type-based impact printers were the main form of computer printer. From the mid-1970s onward, non-impact printers, such as laser printers and inkjet printers began to appear. Because these printers were quieter and faster than impact printers, the proportion of nonimpact printers steadily rose from 1980 on, as they became increasingly used in offices.

Teleprinters were used as the input-output device for early computers. Units that combined the four functions of a keyboard, printer, paper-tape reader, and paper-tape punch, such as the Genetype made by Shinko Seisakusho and the Universal I/O Unit made by Oki Electric, were widely used. The printing speeds of these devices — between 375 and 500 characters per minute — were too slow for computer use, so companies began developing line printers at quite an early stage. Oki Electric, in partnership with the Telecommunications Laboratory of the Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Public Corporation (now NTT), developed a belt line printer in 1958 that used a type belt for printing. The printer was exhibited in June 1959 at Automath, an international information processing conference held in Paris. Based on this exhibit prototype, Oki Electric built a commercial model that printed 120 characters per line at a speed of up to 600 lines per minute (when using a 48-character set). Shinko Seisakusho, in partnership with NTT's Telecommunications Laboratory, built a prototype of a line printer with a type drum. NEC later built a commercial model based on this prototype that printed 120 characters per line at a speed of 200 lines per minute (96-character set) or 300 lines per minute (48-character set). This model was used as the output device of the NEAC-2203 computer. Shinko Seisakusho also supplied the mechanical portion of its drum printer to Hitachi, which built commercial models for the HITAC 301 in 1960 and the HIPAC 103 in 1961. Fujitsu developed a line printer in 1954 that used a type bar to print 60 characters per line in one step, achieving a print speed of 100 lines per minute, for its FACOM 100 relay-based computer. The company developed a type-drum line printer in 1960 that printed 500 lines per minute (50-character set) for use as the FACOM 222A's output device.

Line printers, either utilizing a type drum or a type belt (or band), reached speeds of 950 to 1,250 lines per minute (48-character set) by the mid-1960s and speeds of 1,600 to 2,000 lines per minute (48-character set) by the mid-1970s. Type-based serial printers also reached speeds of 1,200 characters per minute by the mid-1960s and speeds of 2,400 characters per minute by the mid-1970s. Dot-matrix serial printers were also developed. Initial models had only 16 x 16 dot matrixes, but by 1977 24 x 24 dot-matrix printers were developed that were widely used, as office computers, and then dedicated word-processor machines, started to appear in the 1980s. Also in 1977, Oki Electric developed a dot line printer that printed 132 characters per line at 110 lines per minute that was used with office computers and other devices.

Non-impact printing methods include electrographic methods that use lasers or LEDs, inkjet methods, and thermal transfer methods. IBM announced the IBM 3800 laser printer in 1975 that was capable of printing between 10,000 and 20,000 lines per minute, which widely publicized the advantages of laser printers. From 1977 on, NEC, Hitachi, Fujitsu, and others began rolling out ultra-fast kanji-character laser printers with speeds in the 10,000-lines-per-minute range. Hitachi started shipping its first-ever laser printers — the H-8191, H-8195, and H-8171 — in 1977. In 1980, Fujitsu completed the FACOM 6715D laser line printer with Japanese character capability and NEC completed the N7384 Japanese-character page printer. Canon came out with a 2,000-lines-per-minute laser printer in 1976 that made use of photocopier technology and with the LBP-10 desktop laser printer that used a semiconductor laser in 1979. The LBP-10 was so successful in dramatically lowering the cost and size of laser printers that it was sold on an OEM basis to Hewlett Packard (HP), Apple Computer, and others. Canon has continued to hold a large share of the global laser printer market.

There are two methods of inkjet printing: the continuous method, which creates a continuous stream of ink droplets, and the drop-on-demand method, which only ejects ink droplets when needed. Commercial models using the continuous method began to appear at the end of the 1970s. HP and Epson announced drop-on-demand inkjets in 1984 and Canon in 1985. The drop-on-demand method was simpler in construction than the continuous method, and it paved the way to higher density print heads, multiple print heads, color printing, higher quality printing, and faster printer speeds. The market grew enormously in 1990 when Canon announced the personal BJ-10v inkjet printer. Color inkjets appeared en masse in 1992 and have been the most common printer format, in terms of numbers, since 1995. Today, Epson and Canon hold two of the largest shares in the global inkjet printer market.