Gary Starkweather (laser printer)

What you have to do is not just look at the marble. You have to see the angel in the marble.”
Gary Starkweather

Chester Carlson (1906-1968)
Chester Carlson (1906-1968)

In 1938 the American physicist and inventor Chester Carlson (1906-1968) (see the nearby image) invented a dry printing process, called later Xerography (the word comes from the Greek for dry writing), the foundation technology for copiers and laser printers to come. Carlson applied for a patent in 1939 and in 1942 the patent was granted (US patent Nr. 2297691). After several years of unsuccessful attempts to catch the interest of companies in his invention, in 1947 Carlson succeeded in negotiating commercial rights to his invention to Haloid Company (later renamed Xerox). This was the deal of life not only for Carlson but also for the completely unknown company Haloid, which would become one of the biggest companies in the world due to this invention.

In 1967 a young researcher in Xerox’s Webster Research Center in Rochester, Gary Keith Starkweather (9 Jan 1938–26 Dec 2019), B.S. in Physics from Michigan State University in 1960, and an M.S. in Optics from the University of Rochester in 1966, was sitting in his lab looking at all of these big mainframes when he started thinking: What if, instead of copying someone else’s original, which is what a facsimile does, we used a computer to generate the original?

Gary was hired by Xerox as a junior engineer in 1964, several years after the company had introduced the photocopier to American offices, and he began working on a version that could transmit information between two distant copiers so that a person could scan a document in one place and send a copy to someone else in another. He decided that this could best be done with the precision of a laser, another recent invention, which can use amplified light to transfer images onto paper. But then he had a better idea: Rather than sending grainy images of paper documents from place to place, what if he used the precision of a laser to print more refined images straight from a computer? And so the idea of the laser printer was born. This innovation paved the way to offer better print fleet management.

At this time the lasers were rather expensive devices but convinced that the cost of lasers would drop over time and that there was a market for laser printing technology, Starkweather stuck to his guns. His ideas however were met with major resistance from Xerox management.

Gary Starkweather in the early 1970s with a version of the laser printer
Gary Starkweather in the early 1970s with a version of the laser printer

Starkweather was told by his bosses to stop working on the laser printer project. But he couldn’t. He had to go through with this idea. He ended up working on it covertly, convincing people to get different parts for him so he could build it. The prototype was ready in 1969, built by modifying an existing xerographic copier. Starkweather disabled the imaging system and created a spinning drum with 8 mirrored sides, with a laser, focused on the drum. Light from the laser would bounce off the spinning drum, sweeping across the page as it traveled through the copier. The hardware was completed in just a week or two, but the computer interface and software took almost 3 months to complete.

Time has shown that Xerox management was wrong in that assumption: Printers now are a pillar of the company’s growth strategy. Indeed, Starkweather’s drive to create the laser printer eventually transformed a small copier company into one of the world’s imaging powerhouses and revolutionized the computer printing industry.

Salvation for Starkweather came in 1970 when Xerox build the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in California. Starkweather called PARC and was welcomed, his project appeared to be a natural fit into their long-range plans.

Out of hostile territory and finally given the freedom to conduct his research without fear of retribution, Starkweather went to work on building the laser printer. In 1971, just nine months after joining PARC, Starkweather completed the first working laser printer.

He named this machine SLOT, an acronym for Scanned Laser Output Terminal. The digital control system and character generator for the printer were developed by Butler Lampson and Ronald Rider in 1972. The combined efforts resulted in a printer named EARS (Ethernet, Alto, Research character generator, Scanned laser output terminal). The EARS printer was used with the Alto computer system network and subsequently became the Xerox 9700 laser printing system.

Gradually things took off, and by 1973 Starkweather’s group had working models of this thing at the facility. The final result—the Xerox 9700 (see the lower image), introduced in 1977, was the industry’s first commercial laser printer. It was a wild success, despite projections that few customers would produce the 200000 to 300000 prints per month needed for the unit to be profitable.

Xerox 9700 high speed laser printer, sparking a revolution (operator not included ;-)
Xerox 9700 high-speed laser printer, sparking a revolution (operator not included 🙂

Fresh off the success of the 9700, Starkweather shifted his research onto personal laser printers and again ran into opposition from Xerox. Xerox was a company that liked large, fast laser printers. They saw departmental units as the profit center for laser printer technology.

Xerox failed to connect the dots and realize that the profit wasn’t in the printer but in the toner and the paper. As a result, the company was beaten to market by Hewlett-Packard, which introduced the first personal laser printer in 1980.

Xerox had an interesting capability that has always been characteristic of the company, and that is that it always encouraged new ideas but never really liked to pursue them for very long. Things like Postscript, the laser printer, the personal computer, the bitmapped screen, the iconic interface, Ethernet, and packet switching, all of this came out of PARC. And none of it ended up as a product of Xerox.

Starkweather did see the writing on the wall at Xerox, however, and left the company in 1987 after 24 years of service. Following a 10-year stint at Apple Computer, Starkweather joined Microsoft Research in 1997. Later, his main area of research became display technology.

Biography of Gary Starkweather

Gary Starkweather (1938-2019)
Gary Starkweather (1938-2019)

Gary Keith Starkweather was born on 9 Jan. 1938, in Lansing, Michigan, the only child of Richard J. (1911-1965) and Crystal M. Starkweather (1912-1987). Richard owned a local dairy, and Crystal was a homemaker. Their home was near a junk shop, where Gary would bargain for old radios, washing machines, and car parts that he could tinker with in the basement, taking them apart and then putting them back together. “As long as I didn’t blow up the house, I was allowed to do whatever I wanted down there,” he said in a 2010 interview.

While studying physics at Michigan State University, Gary met Joyce Attard, a nursing student two years behind him. They married in 1961 and moved to Rochester so that he could join Bausch & Lomb, which at the time made lenses for eyeglasses, cameras, microscopes, and other equipment. Soon they had a daughter, Amy Beth, and a son, Keith David.

After several of his colleagues were laid off, they moved to Xerox, and in 1964 Gary followed them. His move to PARC came after he read about the lab in the company’s newsletter. After visiting PARC in 1970, he phoned his wife in cold Rochester and asked how she felt about moving to sunny Palo Alto. Her response, he recalled, was, “I’ll have the furniture in the street by the time you get home.”

As Gary developed the laser printer, his new colleagues built a personal computer that could drive it: the Alto, a machine that eventually gave rise to the Apple Macintosh and Microsoft Windows PCs. Gary made it possible to take the information on the screen and put it onto paper.

By the mid-1970s, Gary’s printer could plug into an entire network of Altos, printing documents from across the lab at a rate of a page a second. After the lab split into two buildings, he and a colleague built a system that could transmit print jobs across the street wirelessly. It was, in many ways, a blueprint for the office of today.

After leaving Xerox, Gary moved to the two biggest companies of the computer age—Apple (there he invented color management technology and led the development of Colorsync, a set of color management application programmer interfaces) and then Microsoft, where he constructed a wall-sized multipanel display.

Gary Starkweather embraced and often cited Einstein’s observation that imagination is more important than knowledge. His career and contributions are glorious exhibits of the power of imagination and the ingenuity to realize his visions. Of the numerous honors he received, he was most proud of his induction into the Inventors Hall of Fame in 2012. He shared a Scientific and Engineering Award (an Oscar) from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1994 for work on film scanning for Lucasfilm’s Star Wars. He received major awards from the Optical Society of America and the Society for Information Display, which made him a fellow in 2003, and he was elected to the NAE in 2004.

A quietly religious man, Gary Starkweather died on 26 Dec. 2019 at a hospital in Orlando, Florida, the cause was leukemia.