LaserJet turns 25 ... 'PC LOAD LETTER' still unfathomable

The HP LaserJet desktop printer

The HP LaserJet desktop printer was a game-changer the moment it debuted in Atlanta at Spring Comdex 1984, then the computing industry's premier trade conference, now but a memory. Since then the LaserJet line has accounted for more than 100 million unit sales ... and earned itself a spot on the Hollywood walk of infamy.

HP this week marked the LaserJet's 25th anniversary with a celebration at the company's facility in Boise, Idaho, where the original was assembled. (That the milestone wasn't included in my "2009's 25 Geekiest 25th Anniversaries" can only be called a grievous oversight.)

From an article in the Idaho Statesman:

"The LaserJet stole the show in Atlanta (in '84)," said Von Hansen, an engineer in Boise who was part of the development team. "We knew we had something, but we never dreamed it would be this big."

It's HP's most successful product ever, Hansen said.

Laser printers were not new in 1984. They were invented by Xerox in 1969, but they were big machines with enormous price tags. Xerox, IBM, and Hewlett-Packard offered laser printers starting at about $100,000 each.

The first LaserJet printed 300 dots per inch - smoothing graphics dramatically - and allowed desktop publishers to mix fonts on a single page. Its cost was just $3,500.

Hansen also tells the newspaper of a fortuitous airborne meeting with some guy named Gates:

On a flight home from New Orleans in February, 1984 Hansen found himself seated in coach, across the aisle from Microsoft founder Bill Gates, then a mogul-in-the-making. The chance meeting led to years of support from Microsoft for LaserJet products, Hansen said. "They had just come out with Word, and Gates just loved this product."

Bill Gates in coach; now there's an image.

Finding coverage of that Comdex in online archives has been a bit of a challenge, but here is a short review of the LaserJet from a 1984 edition of Creative Computing:

At Comdex, HP also introduced another revolutionary printer, dubbed the LaserJet. Eight times faster than a typical daisywheel printer, the LaserJet brings laser technology to offices and small business at a list price of $3,495.

The machine can reproduce eight pages per minute, while maintaining print quality nearly indistinguishable from copy produced on an electronic typewriter.

Graphics resolution of the LaserJet can provide nearly typeset quality, with 300 X 300 dots per inch.

The LaserJet is more easily compared to a copy machine than to other computer printers. In fact, it makes use of a disposable electro-photographic cartridge OEMed from Canon, which is actually an off-the-shelf copy machine component. Each cartridge is good for approximately 3000 pages of printing and costs $100.

That first LaserJet was not without significant limitations, of course, as noted in this Wikipedia entry:

It featured an 8 MHz processor and the Courier typeface. It was controlled using PCL3. Due to the high cost of memory, the first LaserJet only had 128 kilobytes of memory, and a portion of that was reserved for use by the print engine. This rendered the LaserJet nearly useless for direct graphical image printing, with it only capable of printing a low-resolution 75-dpi image about 1 inch square before running out of memory (larger graphics were printed by having the printer driver stream the image to the printer in real-time as the rasterizor printed the page). It took approximately two minutes for the first page to print out.

You can read what HP has to say about the first LaserJet here. And, origami fans will want to check out this 6-sided view of the machine.

As for that Hollywood connection, the HP LaserJet 4 would receive credit for a Hollywood star turn in the 1999 classic Office Space -- immortalizing the machine's nonsensical error message "PC Load Letter" -- and inspiring T-shirts both basic and complete with the full NSFW movie quotation.

You can watch the "PC Load Letter" scene here.

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