I’m going to go out on a limb here in our lead-up to National Inventor’s Day on February 11 and make a bold claim: The greatest invention ever made in a Xerox research lab is the laser printer.
The Invention That Spawned an Industry
Gary Starkweather invented the laser printer in 1969 while working at the Xerox research lab in Webster, N.Y. Soon after, he transferred to the newly opened Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), where he developed a prototype, which eventually provided the guts of the company’s first laser printer, the 9700, which was introduced 40 years ago in 1977. His invention spawned the digital printing industry, which generates more than $120 billion in global annual revenues1. It’s been at the heart of very successful Xerox businesses for 40 years, and is still core to the company’s future strategies.
What Xerox invention can compete with that resume? The plain-paper copier is in that class, but xerography wasn’t invented in a Xerox lab. Other worthy candidates mostly provided a key component to a system or product, not the entire product or system itself—let alone one that spawned an entire industry.
Looking back, Starkweather says he knew his invention would have a significant impact, but was less clear at the time about how it would play out. He explained: “(Former Xerox Chief Executive Officer) Dave Kearns put it to me very well when he said, ‘We have a seven-year plan and we plan the future with great precision, but we have no idea what we are doing on Tuesday.’”
Lasers were new in the 1960s. As a 1966 graduate of the University of Rochester with a master’s of science in optics, Starkweather was tracking their development as he tackled his initial research challenge at Xerox: increasing the scanning and printing speed of an early fax machine. In the process, he had an insight: instead of copying an original, as a fax machine did, why not use a computer to generate the original?
In 1968 and 1969, he made a successful laser scanning and printing prototype, then moved to PARC where he developed a prototype laser printer that served as the center’s general office printer for several years. By the time he helped develop the 9700, the base technology had already proven to be robust.
A Mainstay That’s Here to Stay
Starkweather continued to work at Xerox through 1987, when he joined Apple to work on laser printing, color management and display technologies. He later joined Microsoft, where he continued his work on display technologies. Today, he is retired in Lake Mary, Fla., where he has many hobbies and interests, including keeping up with the tech industry and occasionally, consulting.
Looking back on his career, he noted that when he joined Microsoft, “A real question was raised at the time about the future of paper and how the printer would survive into the future with people using novel displays etc. Some 40 years later, laser printers are still going strong.”
And thanks in large part to Gary Starkweather’s invention, so is Xerox.
National Inventors’ Day Part V: Gary Starkweather invented the laser printer over 40 years ago: https://ctt.ec/4e4g3+
Read more from the National Inventors’ Day Series:
¹ Smithers Pira