Full Color Dot Matrix Is The Art We Need

Fans of 80s-era computer printing technology are few and far between, but Apple’s ImageWriter II was a beast of a printer. This tractor feed dot-matrix printer is nigh-indestructible. The print quality was actually pretty great. It was loud as hell, which is a mark of quality electromechanical components. It could do color, and color dot-matrix art on tractor feed paper is the aesthetic we need. If you’re not convinced yet, you can also take off the perforations from tractor feed paper and make a cool little paper snake.

[Dandu] isn’t one to let things like serial printers and obsolete color dot matrix ribbons get in his way of creating ImageWriter art. A while ago, he printed off some incredible art using some obsolete equipment, and the results are better than what you would expect.

The process for creating full-color art on a dot-matrix printer was to plug the ImageWriter into an old Mac (an LC III in this case, with 12 MB of RAM). Photoshop (version 3.0!) was used to open a JPEG, and MacPallete II used to send the data to the printer. This isn’t a process that prints all the colors all at once; first the yellow is printed, and the tractor feed paper is brought back to the beginning. Then the magenta is printed, then the cyan, then the black. The single page of art took 20 minutes to print, and you can see a sped-up version of this process below.

Yes, the ImageWriter II can print in full color, but who cares about this now? A few people apparently — a company is now remanufacturing ImageWriter II color ribbons — opening the door to retro art for all. Yes, that ImageWriter in your basement still works, so let’s see what you can do with it.

21 thoughts on “Full Color Dot Matrix Is The Art We Need

  1. Alas, my 512K Enhanced had a B&W screen, so I wasn’t doing color art nearly this sophisticated. Still, my ImageWriter II and my roommate’s Badge-a-Minit kit made for some fun times…

  2. Ah, the good old days, had a Star LC24-200 connected to my Amiga, it had an option to “double” the resolution by overlapping, but it would take ages to print.

    And BTW, the sound makes a good alarm clock :)

  3. I miss the fan fold paper endlessly feeding out of a large box, seldom needing to add paper. It seems the ribbons printed far longer before running out of ink compared to modern ink cartridges that seem to always be empty. They were great printers for printing out big manuals and the quality was fine for those applications.

    1. well they maybe felt like they printed longer. But from my experience, the first days everything was nice black and white, but after a few prints the ribbon started to wear out and everythingthat suppost to be black became a pale grey. But it could print pale grey for many many prints. So once I accepted the lower quality it printed quite a long time. But to be honest… I’m glad laser printers are here today. Never missed the matrix printer (except for the sounds it made, it really felt like you were printing something. Nowadays many pages a minute fall silently out of a shiny box. Where’s the fun in that?

    2. I have a couple customers that still use dot matrix printers.

      we went through about 5 years ago and ran cost analysis on printers and for what they are doing. The cold and humid environment of the warehouse also played a big part in it. I forget the exact numbers but it was significantly cheaper than a laser was. Not to mention the pallets of carbon copy paper. Since everything is quadruplets for customer invoices/orders. I replace a dot matrix every 7-8 years or so if they can’t be rebuilt from parts already around. Usually its the rollers and platten that start getting sticky and either need resurfacing or replacement.

      We had serious problems with some of the lasers for a while due to the humidity and temperatures. Despite them being within the operating parameters they listed.

      1. I had two tricks for dot matrix printers, both involving WD40: First, the ribbon seems to only get too light for readable text late Sunday afternoon, just after the stores closed – so put the ribbon in a baggie, and spray in the baggie with a 10 second shot of WD40. Second, every few months, dismount the print head, place the ‘nose’ in some paper towels, and then from the underside / back of the print head node, spray the WD40 to wash out the gummy ink residue from the ribbon.

        1. I had a printer with a ribbon that held it all wadded up in a long box. The top of the box was just pressed on with some pins. That made it easy to pry the lid off then spritz a few spots with WD-40. Put the lid back on then hold the little knob in one hand, jam a BIC point into the other side then twirl around until the whole ribbon cycled through 3 or 4 times to fully disperse the WD-40.

          After a couple of times of that, it couldn’t be refreshed with WD-40. The trick then was to drizzle stamp pad ink across it, followed by a few shots of WD-40, then twirl until the ribbon between exit and entrance was solid black.

          A person with a lot of time on his or her hands could take three ribbons like that, wash and bleach the ribbons then put them back into the housings and soak them up with cyan, magenta, and yellow stamp pad inks. Then do some color separations and make using one of these old ImageWriter color printers look easy.

  4. Dot matrix was the best way to print source code, as you could have an entire file on one long sheet. I can’t say that I ever needed color, but I suppose syntax highlighting for dot matrix would be good for a laugh.

  5. Dot matrix noise is a feature.

    True story (as told to me by a grad student there): At the TRIUMF particle accelerator (UBC, Vancouver, Canada) there is a dot matrix printer in the control room that’s used to print error and status messages from the accelerator control computer. It’s been there for decades. Operators have become so used to the characteristic sound of each error or status message that they don’t even need to read the message to know what it says.

    Now, even though they’ve needed to replace the printer when it wore out, they don’t even bother to put a printer ribbon in it. The sound is all they need.

  6. I remember back when my kids were in school they would create their reports with pictures/coloured text, then blank out the text to print the coloured stuff on my 24-pin Epson, followed by blanking out the pictures to print the text on the printed sheets with my LaserJet III. Good times!

  7. Many many years ago I had a service call to China to repair a machine we had installed previously. No amount of troubleshooting by email helped. The machine ran on a Macintosh LC computer which was chosen because at the time it was the only computer that could display Chinese characters. The only printer that didn’t mess with our ‘real time’ software was the good old Imagewriter2. Turned out the Mac wouldn’t go because the printer wouldn’t go online. It wouldn’t go inline because it thought the smoked plastic cover over the print head area wasn’t installed. Which turned out to be because … the little magnet on the tab on the cover had disappeared. My cure was to open the printer and bypass the reed switch on the circuit board. That Imagewriter caused one rather expensive service call.

  8. needle type printers still have an application today – punch-through copies. you may also still see airwaybills printed by typewriter for exactly the same reason – copies. if you sign the whole lot, the “yellow one” usually stays at the company as evidence. i think epson still sells them, though at a slight elevated price, as no one really uses them anymore except some business niches. still have a star nl-10 with both cards for c64 and standard parallel

  9. We use Oki dot matrix printers on our modern Teradyne Automatic Test Stations to print out our test results. Were emulating the old reel to reel tape drives and the original hardware still using the mostly original software written in the late 70s to utilize hardware designed in the 60s. The original hardware used teletype machines for printouts

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