Old Betsy and Dot-Matrix Printers   4 comments

Old BetseyMy first job supporting computers was at the library at Miami University. I was responsible for a number of computer-based indexes to periodicals and journals. During my time, a computer-based card catalog–an innovation at the time–was rolled out, and expanded my scope. My job was to make sure all the terminals were functioning, as well as provide instruction to the users as to how to use the systems. At this point, in the early Nineties, computers were no where near as ubiquitous, and the technology was still relatively basic. All of the systems were dumb terminals, hooked to a central server.

Among my duties was the care and feeding of the printers. In those days, inkjets weren’t common, and laser printers were quite expensive. To print the references you needed, the cheap solution was a dot matrix printer. In the case of the library, it was scores of Okidata 390s–you can still buy them today.

These really were reliable printers. Where my inkjet seems to take several moments of priming and humming before printing the first line, the Okis just went. When I consider the environment they operated in–a lot of start-and-stop print jobs in a publicly assessable area–the tractor-fed paper rarely jammed. Even then, it was usually due to a fellow student attempting to “fix” something. I’d have to lug a new box out to the card catalog every once in a while, but, for the application, the continuous feed paper was a perk. The ink lasted forever, and when I did need to replace it, a new cartridge just snapped in. There was no “aligning printhead” or other action on the printer. One person in my role could typically take care of the estate with a five minute pass every hour. Everything was just simple.

Granted, you couldn’t print graphics on it, and, if you wanted any speed at all, you were limited to the 3-6 typefaces built in. But, for just printing data, they got the job done reliably. Sometimes, when I have to pace back and forth between my desk and the office LaserJet, I wonder if it’s really worth what was given up.

I seem to not be the only one who feels this way. Over the weekend, I saw an Oki at a bookstore, lovingly tagged Old Betsy. The plastic clearly yellowing with age–it wouldn’t surprise me if it had been there nearly all of the store’s twenty-eight years. I pointed it out to my wife, and the clerk said that she was the most reliable printer in the shop. I absolutely believed her, and, for a moment, wondered if we had one kicking around our closet.


4 responses to “Old Betsy and Dot-Matrix Printers

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  1. Ah, but there were graphics. People spent a lot of time figuring out combinations of symbols which when used to create shades of gray (.a space was white. a period was the lightest gray, a colon a little darker, etc.) black and white images could be created which were identifiable from a distance. There were also giant banners – HAPPY BIRTHDAY – with the H created by a pattern of Hs. The fan-fold paper did not have to be taped or stapled together.

    • Oh yes–I remember both. The ASCII graphics were actually rather impressive, as it took, as you say, a lot of time and a good while to set up, as well as a good eye for shading.

      The banners are something we have no real replacement for in the world of ink jets, as we don’t use continuous feed paper. At one job I had, we kept a copy of Print Shop just for such occasions. I think I have a type-in listing for such a program in a book called BASIC Computer Games.

  2. mommalibrarian
  3. mommalibrarian

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