atomic_fungus (atomic_fungus) wrote,

#3291: This is like 1987 or something.

I logged out of WoW telling Sailor V I was tired, but ended up playing Freecell and listening to '80s music from my E: drive.

I played ten hands of Freecell, and was trying to decide what to do next. Go to bed? Ehh...tired, but not that tired. Not anime; that'll keep me up too late. Movie? No, for the same reason.

Then I realized: I have to print out the book so I can do a final edit on it.

I used to write fiction a lot more than I do these days. It's kind of sad, in a way, that I don't; but in the late 1980s after I got my GED and before I started college or anything, I'd stay up late writing, and sleep during the day.

I was in the habit of printing out everything I worked on; once I finished a chapter I'd print it, so that if something happened to the disk I'd still have a copy of what I'd written. (I learned the hard way.)

The old C-64 couldn't handle very long chapters, either; the first novel-length story I wrote --and completed--entirely on computer had a huge number of chapters, even though it did fit all on one floppy disk. (It really wasn't that long a book, though.)

When I began to have trouble with keeping track of what story was where, I organized. The floppy disks were labeled but the printouts were just put in manila envelopes and stacked in a desk drawer, which was haphazard and a pain to keep neat; so I bought a filing cabinet and file folders, and each project got its own folder. This helped a lot; now I could find a project when I wanted to without having to sort through a stack of stuff. Just open the cabinet, find the right folder, and off you go.

And once in a while, I'd reprint a whole story. In a few cases this was a major undertaking since some ran to more than a hundred pages, single-spaced.

"What, a hundred pages? So what?"

My dear boy, this was 1987. (-ish.) I had a printer which ran at the blazing speed of 110 characters per second. Not lines, characters--so that in one second the thing could print one line of a single page because it was an 80-column printer and advancing the page to the next line took time.

Besides, this was a C-64 with the marvelous Commodore Serial Bus. The printer was an Epson RX-80/FT; to interface it to the C-64 I had a CBM-to-Centronics parallel adaptor, but that slowed things down a bit.

With a one-inch margin, there are 60 lines of text on an 8.5x11 page; so it took roughly a minute to print a page. Ten pages, ten minutes.

Two hundred pages, three hours and twenty minutes...and that doesn't include bursting the pinfeed form, either.

Note for 21st century readers: in 1987, dot matrix printers--look them up on Wikipedia--used continuous sheet paper. The paper used by these printers was one continuous sheet, but perforated every 11 inches; and on the sides were extra paper with round holes, regularly spaced, for the tractor feeds to pull the paper through the printer. The "pinfeed" part of the paper was also perforated so these could be torn off, and then the sheets could be separated. The correct parlance for this operation was "bursting the form".

So if I decided to print out an entire novel-length story, it was a project.

I say this because--after I decided I'd print out this novel to have a book I could edit--I started this blog post...and the printer finished printing three hundred pages long before I was even well-started.

I started writing this post at 1:34 AM, with the printer whirring happily away. But my Brother HL-2170W is just a wee bit faster than my old Epson RX-80 was. About twenty times.

My little Brother laser printer cost under $100 in 2007 (the Epson cost $400 in 1984 dollars) and prints 20 pages per minute. The thing finished the 300-page print job in about 15 minutes, not counting when I had to reload the paper tray. (It only holds 250 sheets.) And since it uses--what was, in 1987--copier paper, there are no forms to burst.

It's 25 years later. If you'd told me I'd be doing this kind of thing in 1987 in the very same room--well, the technology wouldn't have surprised me, but the fact that I still lived in my parents' house would have probably depressed the shit out of me if you hadn't told me the entire story.

Incidentally, the paper is cheaper, too. In 1987, continuous printer paper cost not less than $10-$20 for 1,000 sheets. (You could get it at Radio Shack for the bargain price of $30 per 1,000 sheets, though.) The cheapest stuff was 15 pound bond paper, which tended to jam and tear easily. My Epson was designed for 20-lb bond; the 15-lb would pop out of the tractor feeds at inconvenient times, ruining the print job and forcing me to start that particular chapter over.

The paper I used tonight? $4.50 for 500 sheets, in 2012 dollars, even. That's like $1.50 in 1987 dollars.

The Epson could use copier paper. I had the /FT variant of the RX-80; it could use regular typing paper or anything, basically; and you had to manually put each sheet into the printer and line it up and get it all set before you could print.

It would have taken a week to print something big that way.

Also, this was dot matrix. My Epson could only print "draft" quality; but a couple of my friends got Panasonic printers which could print "near letter quality" and I borrowed one to print a story. NLQ mode required that the printer's print head go over each line twice: it would print one set of dots, increment the paper by one pixel, and then print another set of dots over the top of it. This doubled the resolution available for making letters on the paper at the expense of taking twice as long to print the job. So that three-hour print job?

Yeah, it's six hours in NLQ mode.

Also, that particular model used this small ribbon cartridge which would wear out pretty fast. That's right: you needed a ribbon, like a typewriter, and they'd run out of ink or dry out and stop making letters on the paper.

I stopped buying Epson cartridges after I learned that when the you could take the cover off the top of the cart, spray the ribbon with WD-40, and go right on printing. The solvents in the WD-40 loosened the ink up, and a ribbon that had faded out would print like new once you gave it that treatment. And of course the WD-40 was totally harmless to the printer mechanism; it's just solvent and it evaporated pretty quickly.

But the Panasonic ones? You could do that, but the thing would eventually wear right through the ribbon. It was too short; it went past the print head a lot faster than the Epson ones did. So what would happen is, you'd be printing along, and suddenly the print head would jam up; the printer would throw a code and all you could do was shut it off and restart. This happened several times in a row before I realized it was the ribbon, pulled it, and discovered that the ribbon had died horribly. As bad as that was, at least the printer hadn't broken while I was using it. (How nice that would have been, having to buy my friend a new printer....)

Canon came out with its CX laser printing engine in about 1985, a year after I got my Epson. It could print 4-6 pages per minute, and at letter quality; grayscale graphics were possible, at 300 DPI.

It cost five thousand dollars. here I am, in 2012, printing at 20 pages per minute, with a $100 printer...and writing this blog post about how it used to be, back in the 1980s, took almost four times as long as my print job did.

This is progress.

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