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ImageWriter II Printer Resurrected

I’ve had an ImageWriter II printer gathering dust in the back of my closet for at least a decade. Originally purchased at the Silicon Valley Electronics Flea Market for 25 cents, it was an obsolete anachronism even then, and the seller was desperate to get rid of it. It came home with me, but I never used it and the printer was quickly forgotten.

Recently I wondered: Will it still work? Have the internal capacitors leaked their caustic innards all over the PCB? Has the ink ribbon from Bill Clinton’s presidency ossified into solid rock? Will those tiny and fantastic dot-matrix pins be stuck forever in tar-like goo?

Somewhat shockingly, I discovered that you can still buy new ImageWriter II ink ribbons in 2023. And also continuous feed paper, with the tractor holes on the sides. You can even find newly-made Mini DIN 8 printer cables, if you know where to look.

It was a journey back in time, straining to remember setup steps that I’d last done 30 years ago. In the classic Mac OS, where is printer setup done? In the vaguely-named Chooser desk accessory? Is it supposed to show me a list of installed printers? Do I need driver software? Which classic Mac OS programs even support printing?

After a few minutes of awkward experiments, I discovered TeachText and its six glorious built-in bitmap fonts, with a choice of six specific font sizes. No Postscript, vector fonts, or arbitrary text size scaling here.

I typed a few lines of text, clicked the print button, and… nothing. Seconds passed, and I felt the sting of failure, but then the printer sprang to life. Hooray, success! I was rewarded for my efforts with a soothing bzzzt-bzzzt-bzzzt symphony of print head movement as the ImageWriter slowly processed the page. And I do mean slowly. Even in normal quality mode, it takes about a minute to print a single page of text. I shudder to imagine the speed of high-quality print mode.

We are spoiled with today’s laser printers that can render a full page in seconds. For now it’s fun to relive the world of 1980s printing. I feel like I should be writing an 8th grade history report about Julius Caesar and then creating Happy Birthday banners with Print Shop.

For people who are attending Mactoberfest Meetup on October 14, I’ll have a computer running MacWrite and connected to this Imagewriter, so you can experience the good old days too. Bring your school history report on a 3.5 inch floppy.

Read 2 comments and join the conversation 

2 Comments so far

  1. Tux2000 - September 22nd, 2023 1:06 am

    Slow? I don’t think so, after watching your video. To me, it looks like an average dot matrix printer. Of course, you can control print speed by choosing the print quality:

    Draft mode is typically fastest, printing one line left-to-right and the next one right-to-left. The printout from this mode looks a little bit “shaky”, because the positioning of the print head is not that great.

    Normal mode is shown in your video, printing only left-to-right, with better positioning, but wasting time by moving the print head back to the left-hand side without printing.

    High quality mode, often called NLQ (Near Letter Quality) on 9-pin printers, emulates a better printer by printing each line twice, with a tiny bit of paper feed in between. This results in a dot matrix of 18 instead of 9 pins, but with print time doubled.

    A different print speed problem is the way how the text is printed:

    Dot matrix printers, like ink jet printers, generally come with a few build-in fonts, so you can send just the text as (ASCII) letters to the printer, just like teletypes and ancient terminals worked. This needs very little bandwidth to and very little RAM in the printer (characters in RAM are just indexing the font ROM), so the printer does not have to wait for new data, and the computer does not have to wait for the printer. A single character needs 8 bits, no matter which font you choose.

    Another way is to render the page in the computer and use the printer in graphics mode. This allows to use all thousands of fonts you can put on the computer, you can rotate text, use decorative fonts, and of couse, you can print graphics and text. But you need to send each and every dot and not-dot to the printer, one bit per dot. A character that would need just 8 bit in text mode suddenly needs 64 bits for a character fitting in an 8×8 matrix, even more if the character is larger. You need much more bandwidth to the printer, and the printer needs much more RAM, at least sufficient for one print row of graphics.

    I don’t know exactly how the MAC prints on the ImageWriter, it surely looks like graphics mode to a long-time PC user. But the print setup dialog suggests that the fonts are in fact embedded in the printer’s font ROM.

    Anyhow, I’m impressed that the printer just worked after replacing the ribbon.

  2. John-Robert La Porta - September 25th, 2023 4:59 pm

    LaPorta from 68k…glad to see this up and working! They are great machines, lots of fun! Even more fun with the AppleTalk card installed.

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