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July 9, 2014

My First Printer, Part II

Filed under: Main — admin @ 12:01 am

Imagine my glee as I returned to my apartment back in 1980-something. I had with me my first computer printer, the C-Itoh 8510. I had ink. I had paper. What I didn’t have was a printer driver.

Computer users take it for advantage today, but a printer driver is a big deal. Without one, you can’t print.

Years ago, operating systems cared nothing about printing. They barely managed files, oversaw the hardware, and provided a crude, text-based interface for the human. Beyond that, they tossed up their arms said, “Have it, buddy!”

When you purchased a word processor, it came with just about everything you needed to write. It came with nothing you needed to print. The software has a print command, of course, but to actually print something you had to obtain a printer driver.

A printer driver is a program that controls the printer. It provides an interface between the software, such as a word processor, and the printer. The early word processors didn’t come with any printer drivers, but they did come with directions to let you write your own.

Yep: You had to write your own software to print.

Not only that, you had to write a printer driver for every program you used. Well, every program that could print something. That’s a lot of coding and a lot of drivers.

I remember writing the driver for Super Scripsit, the TRS-80 word processor I used and loved. It actually wasn’t that difficult. That’s because back in those days, all printers came with manuals. The manuals were thick, documenting not only the basics of using the printer, but how to program the thing.

The printer driver directions with Super Scripsit were easy to follow. I’d look up the proper codes in the printer manual and plug them in to the program. My printer driver worked the first time. Still, lots of people were frustrated with having to write a driver. I remember giving my driver away to others — but only those who used the same computer model, same printer model, and same software — so that they could print.

I also wrote the printer drivers for the publisher where I worked. I even got fancy and added new codes so that we could print in italics. That was cool.

WordPerfect was one of the first DOS programs to come with printer drivers. Then other major software followed suit, which simplified the process but didn’t fix the overall problem. That is, you still had to configure every one of your programs to use your computer’s specific printer model.

It was only when Windows 95 came out that Microsoft took it upon itself to provide printer drivers for everything. And to their credit, they did.

Today, writing a printer driver isn’t something you even consider. In fact, printers haven’t come with manuals in decades. But way back when, back when buying a printer was a major event, writing a printer driver was considered part of the deal.

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