Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
Thursday, January 23, 2020
by Mark Brudnak
Last year, LRS celebrated its 40th year in business. Our early success was, in large part, driven by founder Dick Levi’s clever idea of sending mainframe print jobs across a VTAM network instead of monstrous, expensive printer cables. But this innovation, like every innovation, was built upon countless earlier ones.
It’s said that all inventors stand on the shoulders of the giants who came before them. On December 26th, 2019, the printing and computing community lost a true giant. Gary Starkweather, the inventor of the laser printer, died in Orlando at the age of 81.
One of the most detailed (and entertaining) reflections on Starkweather’s genius is a 2011 New Yorker article “Creation Myth,” in which author Malcom Gladwell describes the inventor’s efforts to convince his employer to support his experimentation:
Xerox built machines that scanned a printed page of type using a photographic lens, and then printed a duplicate. Starkweather’s idea was to skip the first step—to run a document from a computer directly into a photocopier, by means of a laser, and turn the Xerox machine into a printer. It was a radical idea. The printer, since Gutenberg, had been limited to the function of re-creation: if you wanted to print a specific image or letter, you had to have a physical character or mark corresponding to that image or letter. What Starkweather wanted to do was take the array of bits and bytes, ones and zeros that constitute digital images, and transfer them straight into the guts of a copier. That meant, at least in theory, that he could print anything.
“One morning, I woke up and I thought, Why don’t we just print something out directly?” Starkweather said. “But when I flew that past my boss he thought it was the most brain-dead idea he had ever heard….”
Luckily for LRS and the rest of the IT community, Starkweather’s boss did not have the final say. Today, nearly everyone in the developed world uses laser printers and/or their results on a daily basis. Did you get a letter in the mail today? Print a copy of an email? Hand a boarding pass to a gate attendant at the airport? You can thank Gary Starkweather for his creativity and perseverance, which brought documents out of the iron age of printing.
In addition to his work at Xerox, Starkweather was a lauded researcher at Apple Computer and recipient of an Academy Award for his work with Lucasfilm and Pixar. For more information about Gary Starkweather’s most famous “A-Ha moment,” click on this video link to the Computer History Museum’s interview with the inventor himself.
"Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration." – Thomas Alva Edison, 1903
“If you have a good idea, you can bet someone else doesn’t think it’s good.” – Gary Starkweather, 1997