Archive: Computer Collector Newsletter / Technology Rewind, Jan. 2004 - March 2006

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Cloutier and the inkjets

by Evan Koblentz

Any discussion about vintage computing must eventually cover Hewlett-Packard. But when it does, the talk is usually of oscilloscopes, calculators, computers, and the Compaq-DEC-Tandem branch. Printers tend to be an afterthought.

Frank Cloutier, CTO of HP's Imaging and Printing Group, believes that shouldn't be the case. "I have one of the best jobs on the planetů Recently I was referred to as the grandfather of inkjet," he joked, in a lecture last week at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, Mass.

After years of research beginning in 1979, HP employees at an early-1980s design meeting debated their goals for inkjet technology. The raw technology had existed for a long time but "it had a dismal reputation," Cloutier noted. The situation improved slightly when someone held up a National Geographic cover. Finally, the realization came that the goal wasn't just better color or better fonts or better resolution, but the ability for people to print an entire such image directly from a PC.

Of course HP's inkjets of 20 years ago "did not do this [but] using that as a galvanizing vision was a really important tool," he said. In fact the first ThinkJet models of 1984 could print just 96 dots per inch (www.hp.com/hpinfo/abouthp/histnfacts/timeline/hist_80s.html).

In one experiment, Cloutier covered a prototype miniature cartridge with aluminum foil, having poked holes in it with a sewing needle to allow the ink through. Suddenly the lens on his microscope went dark and he wasn't sure why - until he looked again and realized that "I was coated with ink and it had coated the entire microscope!" Lab accidents aside, "We looked at where we were then and where we wanted to go, and we interpolated," he said.

By 2004, HP has shipped 300 million printers. What's impressed Cloutier most is the resolution available in a typical desktop printer, which followed a technology curve similar to Moore's Law. "The person who coined the phrase that 'a picture is worth a thousand words' was at least an order of magnitude off, actually more'," he observed.