Retrotechtacular: The $175,000 Laser Printer

Laser printers today are cheap and readily available. But in 1976, they were the height of printing technology. The IBM 3800 was the $175,000 printer to have in that year. (Video, embedded below.) But you couldn’t have one on your desktop. Even if you could afford it, the thing is the size of a car, and we don’t even want to guess what it weighs. The printer took tractor-fed continuous form paper and could do 167 pages a minute at about 150 dots per inch (actually 180 x 144). For the record, that was as much as 1.7 miles of paper an hour!

In those days, people who would use this printer traditionally had massive banks of noisy impact printers. We imagine this device saved many data processing person’s hearing. Compared to a modern laser printer, though, it needed a lot of maintenance. For example, the initial models needed a xenon flash lamp replaced every month, although later models could go years on one bulb. Looking at some of the hardware in the video, it was probably made closer to the end of life for these printers which were made through 1999.

Big Iron and the Burster

If you didn’t get a chance to play with one of these giants, you might wonder what a burster is. This was a common computer room machine that took apart forms at perforations. For example, you might load a fanfold stack of payroll checks. The burster would split them apart after printing, leaving you with a nice stack of separate checks. It would also remove the tractor feed edges. Don’t confuse this with a decollator, which would strip carbon copies apart. You can’t use carbon paper multicopy forms with a laser printer. The printer did have a special mode where it would print multiple copies of the same page in one pass.

A diagram from the IBM 3800 brochure

The printer had exciting features like the ability to print a form simultaneously as it printed the data. To do this, you installed a negative that was “printed” on the photoconductive drum with that same flash tube mentioned earlier before the laser did its work.

Laser printers have a lot in common with photocopiers. The process is the same except the copier gets an image on the drum via optics while the laser printer draws on the drum with — surprise — a laser. IBM started development with an IBM Copier I, but it couldn’t handle the throughput required for the 3800, so it was only the starting point. The machine does remind you of a copier on the inside, though. Ultimately, the printer’s 9,000 separate parts would wind up in the hands of about 10,000 IBM users.

Sub Models

The printer had several submodels. The first model had an option to print directly from a tape drive. Other models were faster, had kanji characters, and improved resolution. All the printers had a helium-neon laser, but improvements in optics pushed resolution to 240 dots per inch. The 25 milliwatt laser used an innovative low-helium-diffusion glass, meaning the tube lasted about ten times longer than comparable commercially available laser tubes in 1976.

There were many tricks and innovations used in the printer. For example, a special contrast mark appeared on every page. The printer read the mark with an LED sensor to adjust the amount of toner and to detect blank pages being printed accidentally. You can read a brochure about the modern marvel.

If you love the old big iron, there are plenty of videos out there. You can relive the days of raised floors, coffee cups, and ashtrays.

38 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: The $175,000 Laser Printer

  1. I was on the receiving end of one of these. I wrote a lot of tech & user documentation in a government programming office. It was nice printer, and with sufficient knowledge of the input code, a lot of things could be done with it.

  2. I worked for a company printing bank statements on a Xerox 9700 in the early 90s. It was a beast of a machine with data fed by an DOS XT clone connected to a reel-to-reel. Just be careful loading the bottle of dry toner, if the connection isn’t good it would make quite the mess everywhere!

    1. Yes they did operate “off-line” by reading from tape, but also could be configured channel connected “online” with “bus and tag” cables. Two main differences between the IBM 3800 and Xerox 97xx machines the Xerox was a 300 dpi cut sheet printer while the IBM was fanfold 240dpi. 2nd, the Xerox platform maintained on device intelligence that allowed simple data streams to be enhanced with fonts and form overlays. IBM platform relied on a host mainframe platform/ architecture to precompose the datastream for the target printer (aka AFP). Siemens (later Oce) was also in this battle, an alternate to IBM. Interesting times…

  3. HP made a data center laser printer on a similar scale as this one. The interesting side effect of this was that the fusing of the toner drove moisture out of the paper. If the printer was located in a small room, a large print job would result in water dripping down the walls. The first versions also emitted enough ozone to irritate eyes and noses.

      1. Correct, there is no money in printers themselves, the real money is in the ink and service contracts! 😂 I heard that almost every day at HP in the “spo group” (“system printer organization” the engineering group that created these types of printers).

    1. It didn’t have a toner cartridge as we know it. Toner was supplied in plastic bottles and added to a hopper when the printer was running low. I don’t recall the cost but it was well before the likes of HP and Canon made it fashionable to sell the printer cheap but charge through the nose for supplies :-) There was another little-known consumable that had to be added from time to time: fuser oil. After the toner was electrostatically transfered from the photoconductor drum to the paper, the paper had to be squeezed between two hot rollers to fuse the toner into the paper. These hot rollers were fed a small but steady supply of oil to keep the paper from wrapping around the rollers.

    2. Tonner came in plastic jugs, developer came with tiny ball bearings to help the tonner “move”. Data center I was at gained a third printer from another sister site alone with their supplies. Few months later we start having major print image problems. Turns out the tonner had a life span or got too damp from the sister site storage. Had to get someone to sign off on dumping over two and half pallets of supplies. Had the photo drum replaced on that machine as well due to prior damage. IBM used a bike dispatch rider to deliver three jugs for the next nights printing. DHL followed up with a 27 boxes the next morning, both came down from Scotland to London. Out mailroom guy worked out both traveled in the 100 mph range. DHL loved us.

  4. Ok, here is an old story someone told me. Oral + drunken history. The introduction is longer than the story itself.

    Remember Deutsche Bundespost, then a government agency, back in the days with monopoly, laws that forbid to touch any telco cables, connect any devices and all that crazy? This was our world in 1985: (Prices are in DM, roughly 1:1 in € including inflation, monthly lease!)

    I do not know any deeper details about the hardware Bundespost used. Seems to be some /390 with an app moloch named KONTES.

    So at around 1989 Bundespost has around 28 Mio. telephone access boxes. That means roughly (I guess) about 25 Mio customer invoices. Printed invoices, of course, letters mailed by Deutsche Bundespost.

    Soooo. <— HERE!

    I heard that Bundespost handcodes the printing job in ibm 390 assembler. Because: speed. Every day earlier the invoice is printed means a day earlier it is paid. So fast printing relates directly to money.

    1. Hm. I guess that’s right.
      The DBP was quite protective about its landline, I remember.

      Especially American telephones and modems weren’t welcome, I remember.
      They were kind of popular among citizens for some reason, though, which angered the DBP.

      On the bright side, though, acoustic couplers were legal to use, since they didn’t use a physical wire connection.

      For BTX online service, the DBT-03 modem could be rented.
      A few German modems had a license, too. But in either case, postal personnel had to connect them to the phone outlet on the wall.

      This changed in 1990, with the TAE sockets and their plugs which everyone could plug/unplug at will.

      0130 service numbers were cool, too.
      They were entirely free of charge, so holding the line wasn’t so stressful.

      About the invoice.. Seems to be right in principle. Though I suppose customers had a bit of time to pay.
      Normally, a reminder would be sent via mail by the DBP if the payment was overdue.

      PS: I really wonder how the situation was in East Germany in the 80s.
      Did they also use such commercial printers or had they used typewriters to manually write invoices?

      In principle, they had these Robotron mainframes to process information about their citizens. Provided that they weren’t being used for espionage all the time.

      On the other hand, the telephone network in East Germany was said to have been very crude and dilapidated.
      Stories say only a few citizens had their own phone, also.

      After reunion, the BTX service struggled to work on the DDR landline, I vaguely remember. Too much noise on the line etc. Let’s remember, this was simple technology using 1200 Baud/75 Baud and AFSK..

  5. I remember going to work with mom when I was little and going into the dot matrix printer room. It was about closet sized with racks of printers. At full chat you couldn’t really talk to someone. Laser printer is really an invention that changed business and technology.thanks for article.

  6. I operated a whole slew of these at an insurance company in the very early 1990s when I was just out of college. During the year or so that I operated these printers, we went from having to align the printer on preprinted forms to form flash. Instead of putting boxes of paper into the printers, we bought giant blank rolls of paper and the form was entirely flashed onto the paper and the paper was folded in an additional attachment. The folding part after printing became the biggest headache, if the paper rolls were used too soon upon arrival they would have too much moisture and often not jam in the folding process, we recycled a lot of paper. We eventually learned you had to “cure” the paper a few days in the warm dry printing area before using the roll. I wish I had taken pictures of the shear stacks of paper we printed back then, I have never seen anything like it since. Our mainframe setup was one of the largest I have seen in my career.

  7. That is the beast that made my Grandfather retire early from the print shop on the Quantico base. He said that the manual he would have had to learned was about 6″ thick and he was not interested Luckily he was old enough to retire with a full pension.

      1. Almost comical to read the part about the machine simply continuing to feed a paper fire. …almost.
        I didn’t see any mention of static control measures in the link.
        In the early 80’s, I seem to recall some anti-static brush bars amongst the local surplus store’s inventory of used printer parts.

        I’ve been in a few corrugated box plants and those people were always seriously concerned about paper dust and any sort of ignition source.

  8. The 3800 was the first development project I worked on when I joined IBM in 1980. This machine was a beast and required a wide variety of skills to develop. There were teams of electrical, mechanical, optical and materials engineers to name just a few. The control unit included a custom CPU implemented mostly in TTL. In those days, it was the only way to assemble a page of 240X240 pixels fast enough to keep up with the 200+ page per minute print speed.

    1. A skilled operator could thread paper through the 3800 in just a few minutes. But when a box of paper was finished, you didn’t have to completely thread the new box through the machine…. the printer detected when paper was nearly out and then you’d slide a new box of paper into place and there was a vacuum-operated splicing station where you used a special perforated tape strip to join the end of the previous box of paper to the beginning of the next. This was much faster than threading through the whole machine as shown in the video. When printing at full speed, the 3800 could rip through a box of paper in about 15-20 minutes as I recall. In later years, we figured out how to order huge rolls of paper directly from the paper mill. If so equipped, our customers could offload a roll of paper from a delivery truck with a special fork lift and mount it on a spool next to the 3800. The paper would then be fed via rollers down under the raised computer floor then over and back up under the 3800 for printing. This would allow for hours of printing between paper reloads.

  9. I don’t recall the exact machine (this was over 40 years ago), but back in this era, at least one model came with a built in bracket for the supplied fire extinguisher. Paper was moving very fast, so the fusers were very hot!

    I didn’t get to see the insides, but there was some sort of gravity fed metal shutter/shield to protect the paper from the glowing hot fuser — in the event of a paper jam, to keep the paper from bursting into flames. Should a power failure occur, the shutter would return to the closed condition from gravity alone to protect the sheet.

    HP had a crude model with only 180dpi, and very little memory. Text was rendered *as* the paper was being imaged (not completely rendered before the page was launched). I recall one document with a table of contents that printed just fine. But should the table of contents have a series of periods connecting the text at the left, to the page number on the right, the rendering couldn’t keep up with all the periods. Mid page they disappeared.

  10. Our first printer was a laser, back in the late 80s. Handled postscript, which was awesome. Size of a coffee table. Stunk of ozone, and very messy when you refilled toner.

    When you sent bad postscript, it’d print stack dumps.

  11. As usual, IBM equipment appears to be amazing. They used the BEST of everything on each of their machines. I still remember the insides of our 3090 mainframe. I have never seen hoses and connectors that were that well made, LOL! The machine was water cooled.

    1. I do think this one in the video could have had a much better designed paper feeding system that was much less bothersome. For starters the alignment could have been done more automatically.

      1. Just an observation, I used two of these as a student around 1985 and by then they had progressed so the alignment was automatic, I am sure we no longer had to tell it what size paper it was loaded with either. We had touch panels rather than buttons as well. (At least my memory is telling me that. :-))

  12. I’ve translated manuals of the successor the 3820 in early nineties to Dutch. Yes, we still did that at the time.
    I have to say quite some interesting details to try and translate when you can’t see the device itself. Good thing, there was one which had just been installed at IBM Diegem in Brussels (site is no longer IBM and a complete business park now) at the time.

  13. In 1993 I had researched color laser printers and they cost at that time fifty thousand dollars. I’ve been watching them go down in price and size since then. I remember that year and price because of a life changing event, and I’ve always associated one with the other.

  14. Flashback city! I was a console jockey at NASA/GSFC in the early/mid 1980s. The 3800 replaced several 1403 train printers, tho we kept one or two for backups in case someone had a rush job while the big guy was being serviced. On graveyard shift we had one operator dedicated to the 3800 – separating foot-tall stacks of output at the job header pages and filing ’em in pickup cubbyholes, and feeding new boxes as it ran out. With all the batch jobs running overnight, that printer never stopped printing unless there was a hardware fault, and we had two on-site dedicated IBM CEs standing by to fix it the first thing in the morning if it did fail.

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