Hold The Line – History of the Line Printer

Whilst in the modern day we can use Inkjet or Laser technology to produce our print outs, there was once a time where the process was a bit more complex and time absorbing. These printers were known as a Line Printer, but how much do you know about this important part of print history?

Origins of the Line Printer

To trace the very first introduction of the Line Printer, we only must look back to the invention of general purpose electrical computers. First developed during the 1940’s before progressing in capabilities throughout the 50’s and 60’s, general purpose electrical computers relied on adapted typewriters or computer specific printers for their input commands. These were known as a Line Printer, which work in a very similar way to the typewriters we sometimes still come across today. Often likely to create much more noise than a typewriter, it was common for line printers to be enclosed in sound-absorbing cases which would contain most of the industrial type sounds that the Line Printer would produce.

The Five Designs of Line Printer

Throughout history, the Line Printer has been created as five different types of designs, each with their own unique properties and method of function. These were regarded as Drum Printers, Chain (Train) Printers, Bar Printers, Comb Printers and Wheel Printers. Here’s a summary of each of the designs of line printer:

Drum Printers


Image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Drum-printer.jpg

Drum Printers were an old-line printer technology that formed character images around a cylindrical drum. When the desired character in the selected position rotated around to match in-line with the printer hammer, the hammer would hit the paper from behind which would push it into the ribbon and onto the selected character.

Chain (Train) Printers

Chain printer

Image credit: https://flickr.com/photos/mwichary/2297145919

This incarnation of a line printer relied on a chain mechanism to produce printed materials. The chain consisted of ‘slugs’ which were linked together to create the main operating method for this type of printer. When the chain spins horizontally, it spins around a set of hammers. Like Drum Printers, when a desired character would fall into line of the printing column, the corresponding hammer would hit the paper into the ribbon and onto the required character within the chain.

Bar Printers

Bar printer

Following an operating method similar to Chain (Train Printers), Bar Printers were less expensive but operated at half the speed of its predecessor. Instead of a chain that would move continuously in one direction, characters were placed on ‘fingers’. These ‘fingers’ were mounted onto a bar which moved from left to right, and then right to left in front of the paper. Again, much like the Drum and Chain (Train) Printers, hammers of the printer would strike the paper onto the bar, printing out the selected character from the mounted bar.

Comb Printers

Comb printer

Image source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v1vAIe1sxXw

If you’ve never heard of this type of Line Printer, it might be because it’s often given a different name. Comb Printers (or the more commonly known Line Matrix printers) were capable of printing dots instead of individual characters. Inside a Line Matrix Printer is a row of dot hammers which were often the entire length of a piece of paper. These hammers are attached to a shuttle which would move backward and forward on a track. In order to print, these hammers would be released magnetically at the appropriate time, colliding with a ribbon and onto the paper.

Wheel Printers

Wheel printer

Image source: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KSU8XT2hGh8

The last of the line printer designs, Wheel Printers, were perhaps the most advanced models produced and bear a similarity to how today’s modern-day printers tend to operate. Using a wheel print mechanism, Wheel Printers were able to print up to 150 lines of characters a minute. Utilising 120 different print positions, each one has its own type wheel which would rotate electromagnetically. Once all of these were aligned into the correct position, hammers in the printer would strike against the wheels which would also collide with the ribbon and paper to create a print.

Line Printers in Today’s World

Surprisingly, Line Printers haven’t been completely phased out or abandoned by the invention of Inkjet or Laser Printers. Although slower in speed, some businesses still use a line printer due to their relatively low cost and ability to print on multi-part forms. They can also be regarded as more durable machines, which makes them suited to industrial environments and shop floors. However, it’s often stated that the overall print quality of a line printer can be low and are unable to create graphics even to this day. They also rely on continuous feed forms which are difficult to source due to them no longer being in high demand.

What are your thoughts on the line printer?

Perhaps you still use one for your business or remember using one at some point during your lifetime?

We’d love to hear your input on this so why not drop us a comment below or tweet us @FindMySupplies.

Sam Rose