3.7 – Printers: What Will We Print Next?

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We’ve come a long way from the printing press. For a technology that started as a vehicle for the mass production and distribution of text, we’ve ventured well beyond text or even paper altogether. Can we eventually print living things?

Hot off the presses.

“10-22-38 Astoria.” That’s the opening salvo of the story of photocopying. All it took was a penniless law student, a lightbulb, an electrically-charged plate and some buckets of sulfur powder to make it possible. It radically changed the way we communicate overnight, and it’s entirely possible that had that law student never come up with it, no one would have, and had a Rochester, New York-based company not been so bent on differentiating itself from neighboring competitor Kodak, it’s entirely possible no one would’ve bought into it. That company was named Haloid. You might know them today as Xerox. 80 years later, Xerography is still going strong.

Connecting the dots.

It started in a casino. To prevent skimming and fraud, a serial problem-solver set out to poke an ink ribbon hole on a poker chip, giving each a unique code. This was the genesis of the dot-matrix printer, the charmingly loud office companion that made a lot of noise in the computing industry. Now anyone could print a variety of texts at home or work, albeit slowly and in visibly low resolution. Re-enter Xerox, now from a research lab on the West Coast. The company was now experimenting with lasers, not just to make copies, but create new documents from scratch, yet didn’t see the value in them. Apple laid claim to popularizing the laser printer.

New dimensions and new horizons.

The latest frontier in printing doesn’t involve paper at all. It breaks the mold by literally breaking mold. 3D printing’s long gestation period dates back to 1983, with the printing of a small plastic cup formed entirely from digital data. As the technology became more wildly available, the applications for 3D-printed objects has expanded and proliferated. Renderings and models, sure, but now bridges, replacement parts, and perhaps even biomaterials – human organs – using human cells, digital data and 3D printing technology.

“I do think we’re within a decade of printing vital organ tissues that can be used for repair, replacement and ultimately replacement.” –

Jennifer Lewis, Professor of Biologically Inspired Engineering, Harvard

What you’ll hear in this episode:

  • Possibly the most important invention of all time
  • Imagine writing law textbooks out by hand
  • What do the numbers 10-22-38 add up to?
  • Zero, but with an X
  • The poking of poker chips that paid off big
  • Who didn’t love the sound of dot matrix printers?
  • The coup that shifted the landscape of lasers
  • 3D printing
  • Conjoined twins and the surgery that sparked a medical revolution
  • Can we print bridges? Houses? Human organs?

Guest List

  • David Owen is a staff writer at The New Yorker. His book about Chester Carlson and the Xerox machine is Copies in Seconds.
  • Chuck Hull is Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer, 3D Systems. He invented the solid imaging process known as Stereolithography, the first commercial 3D printing technology.
  • Frank Romano is Professor Emeritus at the Rochester​ Institute of Technology and the author of 60 books on printing technology.
  • Mark Frauenfelder is the research director at Institute for the Future and the founding editor-in-chief of Make magazine. He's the author of eight books, including Made by Hand.
  • Gijs van der Velden is the CEO of MX3D, a 3D printing company that is currently using a 3D printing to construct a metal pedestrian bridge in Amsterdam.
  • Jennifer Lewis is the Wyss Professor for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, where she co-leads the 3D Organ Engineering Initiative.
  • Gary Starkweather is an American engineer and the inventor of the laser printer. He worked for Xerox, Apple Computer and Macintosh Research during his career.

Walter Isaacson: Chester Carlson is wandering through the stacks of the New York Public Library, stretching his legs and rubbing his tired wrists when an idea hits him. It’s the late 1930’s and the young inventor is working at the patent office by day and studying law at night. But since he’s too poor to afford textbooks, he spends his evenings at the library copying the textbooks by hand and right there, while holding an aching wrist with seemingly endless hours of copying ahead of him, Carlson conjures up the idea for a machine that will take him decades to perfect, but is eventually considered to be one of the most significant inventions of the century.

It was an invention that would change how we were and pave the way for the personal computer revolution. Chester Carlson’s big idea? The photocopier. I’m Walter Isaacson, and you’re listening to Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies.

Speaker 2: Printing today is for everybody.

Speaker 3: Printing now ranks among the nation’s great industries.

Speaker 4: Come comrades, I want to show you a real printing press.

Speaker 5: Here it’s primarily for the dissemination of pictures and texts.

Speaker 6: Newspapers, books, magazines by the millions.

Speaker 7: That offset press will turn out a perfect sheet, won’t it comrade?

Walter Isaacson: From the moment that Johannes Gutenberg used movable type to produce a copy of the bible in the 1450’s, printing technology has radically altered the way we communicate. Once an idea can be put down on paper and reproduced in mass quantities, it can spread at unprecedented speeds. Mass produced books and newspapers fundamentally changed the way information traveled, opening up the world in a way it had never been before.

But it wasn’t until the late 20th century that the printing revolution truly became available to almost anyone. With the advent of the home computer and the printer, now anyone could be a publisher. Half a century after the first affordable printer came on the market, there’s a new revolution in progress. 3D printing. Now anyone with an affordable 3D printer can produce real 3D objects and their sophistication is growing day by day and none of that would’ve been possible but for a penniless law student with a bold idea.

On October 22nd, 1938, in the back of a beauty shop in Astoria, Queens, years after is eureka moment in the library stacks, Chester Carlson was about to make history. With the help of a hired physicist, Carlson walked through the messy process he’d developed involving a light bulb, an electrically charged plate, and buckets of sulfur powder. When they were done, they removed the apparatus to reveal a sheet of paper with the words, “10-22-38 Astoria.” They had just made the world’s first photo copy.

David Owen: To make a copy, you had to be there, you had to make the copy at the same time that you made the original or you had to set it in type. Gutenberg. The printing press, you could make duplicates, but you could not take a book that Gutenberg had printed and make a copy of it without resetting it all in type and printing it again.

Walter Isaacson: David Owen is the author of Copies in Seconds: How a Lone Inventor and an Unknown Company Created the Biggest Communication Breakthrough since Gutenberg.

Carlson’s innovation was to take advantage of a property known as photoconductivity, which uses light to charge particles almost as if they were magnetic.

David Owen: You have the idea that if you could cover a surface with a photoconductive material and then reflect the image of a document onto it so that the places where the ink was dark, where it would retain a charge, if you then placed an oppositely charged powder on that plate, it would stick where the type was and you would have an image of that document and if you could then transfer that powder to a piece of paper, you’d have a copy.

Walter Isaacson: Carlson called his process xerography. Everybody else called it incredible.

David Owen: With most inventions there is almost always multiple people working on it at the same time. If Gutenberg hadn’t invented movable type, somebody else would have right then. It was in the air, it was going to happen. But with xerography, that wasn’t the case and there are people, physicists and others who’ve worked with xerography who have said that if Carlson hadn’t come up with this, it’s entirely possible that nobody would have. It was a non-intuitive process that as one scientist said, it involved joining together a bunch of unrelated ideas that were themselves obscure. A scientist who worked at Xerox for many years told me that the more he has learned about xerography, the more amazed he is that it works.

Walter Isaacson: But despite it’s revolutionary status, convincing people to buy it was a challenge. For years, Carlson shopped it around to various office equipment companies, dragging around a clunky prototype that always seemed to break down at the worst possible time. Finally, a company called Haloid took an interest in his work.

A photo supply company based in Rochester New York, they were looking to distinguish themselves from their much better known neighbor and competitor, Kodak. Haloid took on the challenge of creating a workable product from Carlson’s designs, assigning a group of dedicated but underfunded engineers to work on the project.

David Owen: They worked in just sort of remarkable circumstances. The group that was working on the toner worked in a little house in a not very nice neighborhood in Rochester and they had to, they adjusted their schedule because the woman who lived next door hung her laundry out on the clothesline one day a week, so they knew not to do their toner experiments on that day because they would ruin her laundry.

The engineers used to sneak into the lunch room at Kodak to eat. They weren’t making any money, and they would try to pick the brains of the people who worked at Kodak to try to get ideas about things that they can do.

Walter Isaacson: In 1959, more than two decades after Carlson had made that first experimental photocopy in the beauty shop in Queens, the company shipped its first photocopier. It bore the name the company had adopted the year before as a sign of confidence in their xerography technology. No longer were they the Haloid Photography Company, they were now called Xerox.

Their breakthrough product, the Xerox 914 photocopier, was one of the most successful product introductions of the 20th century. The 914 became so popular that the very same model was produced for an amazing 17 years. In fact, the Xerox photocopier became so ubiquitous, it entered the vernacular as a verb and 80 years later, xerography is still alive and well.

David Owen: It’s never been superseded. There is is no better way to make copies of existing documents on plain paper. The copier in your office right now is a xerographic copier. It’s the same technology that’s in laser printers, so your laser printer is really, it’s a xerox machine. It’s a xerographic printer. All these devices trace back to Carlson’s original idea, and nobody has come up with a better way to do the same thing.

Walter Isaacson: With the Xerox 914 almost anyone could make a copy and the technology to go beyond mere copying to producing our own original documents with the push of a button wasn’t far off. The path that led to home printing as we know it began, strangely enough, in a casino.

In the early 1960’s, the typewriter dominated offices, but the computer revolution was just around the corner and that posed a problem. How do you get a document you created on a computer from the screen into a physical copy? The first solution was simple. Just hook up the computer directly to the typewriter.

Frank Romano: The IBM Selectric Typewriter, the one with the little type ball in it was a very interesting typewriter, because the keyboard was connected to the font element with cable and when you hit the key, it sent a signal to select a character to impact against the ribbon in the paper.

Walter Isaacson: Frank Romano is Professor Emeritus at the Rochester Institute of Technology and the author of 60 books on printing technology.

Frank Romano: As a result, the IBM Selectric, which was very slow and cumbersome, became one of the first output devices.

Walter Isaacson: Printing in this way certainly had limitations beyond just its speed. Typewriter driven printers could only produce specific characters. That meant no characters besides what you’d find on a standard keyboard and no graphics. Enter Robert Howard.

Frank Romano: Robert Howard was an engineer/scientist and he loved to solve problems and the way he solved many problems, and it just happened by happenstance, was by using dots.

Walter Isaacson: A serial inventor with an impressive track record, Howard had introduced rectangular TV tubes and cable television to the world in the 1950’s. By the mid 1960’s, he was working with casinos on a way to give their chips individually identifying signatures to prevent skimming and fraud. With his system, a needle could poke an ink ribbon as a chip passed before it, giving it a unique printed code. He soon, literally, connected the dots.

Realizing his technology was good for more than just poker chips, and the dot matrix printer was born. By connecting his device to a computer, anyone could print documents with a huge debris of versatility. Fonts of varying sizes and styles or even graphics. It was an important milestone in the home computing revolution.

Frank Romano: The impact of the printer was important because it really made the printing industry. No one was going to buy a computer unless you could print out. That was the biggest issue everyone had. How do I get what’s in the computer onto a piece of paper into some usable form?

Walter Isaacson: But as anyone who has ever had to use a dot matrix printer knows, those machines were far from perfect. They were slow, they were noisy, and the print quality was decidedly low resolution. And although it would take decades to hit the home market, at around the same time Howard was developing his dot matrix printer the next stage in the home printing revolution was already underway and the path lead directly back to Chester Carlson.

Back in Rochester, New York, an engineer at the now booming Xerox corporation was toying with an idea of how he might use the newly minted laser technology to not only make copies and documents, but to generate entirely new ones from scratch.

Frank Romano: There were people who thought it was one of the dumber things they’d ever heard and it would never work and lasers were too expensive and da, da, da.

Walter Isaacson: Gary Stockweather had been working on an early version of the fax machine when he had his breakthrough. What if he could use the principles of photoconductivity that Xerox had harnessed so profitably in the 914 to print documents to providing much higher resolution images at a fraction of the speed. But facing resistance from unenthusiastic higher ups in Rochester, where he had been hiding the product literally under a black curtain to keep them from finding out about it, Stockweather heard about a new research facility Xerox was opening in Silicon Valley. It was across the country from the company’s headquarters, and far from its button-down corporate culture.

Gary S.: I went out and told the people in Palo Alto what I was working on. Well, they were thrilled because little to my knowledge, they had been working on a computer system that had a screen that was completely graphical, all bits on the screen just like we use today. They didn’t have any idea how they were going to print the stuff, so they looked at my printer, said, “Oh my gosh, we’ve got a marriage made in heaven here.”

Walter Isaacson: Xerox’s Palo Alto Resource Center, also known as Xerox Park, is legendary in the annals of computer history. It’s where everything from graphical user interfaces to object oriented programming to the ethernet was dreamed up.

Gary S.: Most of the model ethernet, email, personal computing, personal printing, all that kind of stuff. All started there and was basically up and running by the mid-70’s and within three years, by 1973, we were printing from this little personal computer to my laser printer at one page a second.

Walter Isaacson: But while Xerox’s photocopier innovations changed the world and made the company billions, they couldn’t see the potential of this new technology that was being developed right under their noses.

Steve Jobs famously visited Xerox Park 1979 and he came back to Apple with the idea for the Macintosh’s graphical user interface and mouse controlled computing, both Park inventions that Xerox failed to capitalize on and not long after, Apple would claim the laser printer as well.

Gary S.: I got a call from one of the professors at Stanford one day and says, “You got to believe, Steve Jobs is coming over with some new system. You got to come over and see it.” So I drove over there. That day he unveiled in for the group the Macintosh, he unveiled the laser printer, and then he had this wonderful graphic on the screen and printed it at full resolution on the laser printer and I said to myself, “It’s over. They’ve done it. They’ve put the system together.”

Walter Isaacson: Like Chester Carlson’s photocopier, the laser printers we use today are remarkably similar to Gary Stockweather’s original inventions. Both are innovations that have stood the test of time, still operating under the same basic principles. They’ve changed the last century of business and they aren’t going anywhere, but they do share one obvious limitation. They’re both only capable of creating two dimensional images, and those images are usually printed on paper.

One of the most remarkable breakthroughs of the last few decades has offered a way around those constraints, and for the first time, printing actual three dimensional objects is a reality. Like many innovations, 3D printing was born out of an inventor’s impatience with the pace of then current technology.

Chuck Hull: There was an issue of what it took to me a prototype for a plastic part that was going to be injection molded.

Walter Isaacson: Chuck Hull is widely acknowledged as the inventor of 3D printing. Back in the 1980’s mocking up physical copies of objects was a slow and costly process.

Chuck Hull: The scenario was an engineer or designer designed the part, then the part had to be tooled, so since it was going to be injection molded, you had to have a cavity, the inverse of that part so the design then went to a designer who would design that tool then to a tool maker who would make the tool and then finally to a mold shop or a molder who would make a few of them, send them back to the designer, and that whole process was you know weeks and weeks, up to even a couple of months before a designer actually saw his first part, his first article.

Walter Isaacson: As an engineer, Hull had witnessed this problem many times firsthand and he knew there had to be a way to streamline the process. He devised a method that used an ultraviolet light to produce layer after super thin layer of a specialized plastic. Eventually enough of these layers stacked on top of each other would create a three dimensional object. What had taken months of waiting could now be done in a day.

The process was known as stereolithography. Working on his own time – on evenings and weekends, Hull spent a year developing his idea and finally in March 1983, he produced the world’s first 3D printed object. A small plastic cup.

Chuck Hull: It was kind of a revelation that you could take digital data and turn it into a material part like that.

Walter Isaacson: When the company he worked for wasn’t interested in taking the tech to market, Hull formed his own company, 3D Systems, to design and manufacture 3D printers. For the first few decades, in the 80’s and 90’s, it was largely used for industrial applications. But soon enough, uses he’d never dreamed of began to emerge.

Chuck Hull: There was a case where conjoined twins were separated with the aid of 3D printing models so that the surgical team could very carefully plan step-by-step how they were going to approach the surgery. The models were, of course of the conjoined twins, they were joined at the head, but also various details of how to proceed with the surgery so this was a well publicized case, then it brought to bear how useful 3D printing could be. Today, that’s fairly common. Almost all conjoined twin surgeries are planned using 3D printing, plus lots of other surgeries.

Walter Isaacson: In fact, as the technology has become widely available and increasingly affordable, medical pioneers are pursuing more and more applications of the technology, pushing the boundaries of what anybody ever thought possible.

Jennifer Lewis: Bio printing is a technique that allows you to directly print human tissues.

Walter Isaacson: Jennifer Lewis is a professor of biology inspired engineering at Harvard University. At her labs, she’s leading a team that is working on the printing of a human kidney using specially made inks containing human cells.

Jennifer Lewis: If you imagine our printer, if you were to come into my lab at Harvard, you would see a multi-material platform where each of these inks are loaded into cartridges and then we come down and we start to print layer by layer.

Walter Isaacson: Her goal? To print out a functioning human kidney and it seems within reach.

Jennifer Lewis: I do think we’re within a decade of printing vital organ tissues that can be used for repair and ultimately replacement. We’re moving along that path. Our research, I think, is providing a foundational piece towards that goal, but there are many other groups working on this as well across the world.

Walter Isaacson: While Lewis develops structures of molecular complexity, other engineers like Gijs van der Velden are using 3D printing to create objects on a much larger scale.

Gijs van der V.: We were looking for an ID that could really communicate that it was now possible to 3D print large scale items relatively fast and constructive and what’s better to prove that case than printing a bridge?

Walter Isaacson: In Amsterdam, van der Velden and his company are using a specially designed metal printer to print a ten meter long steel footbridge over a canal in the city’s red light district.

Gijs van der V.: What we’re looking for is designs that add just a little bit more intelligence or functionality in a way that you would never be able to do when you would produce these items with classic methods. For example, we can make hollow spaces giving them an internal structure and because of that, you have a much more light weight end product which can be very handy if you go to space or if you want to make your car lighter or a bridge.

Walter Isaacson: But the greatest impact 3D printing could have in the near future might be a lot closer to home. Over the last decade, consumer friendly 3D printers have become easier to access and less expensive and they may herald a change in the way we interact with the world around us.

Mark F.: As the editor of MAKE Magazine, a lot of people started incorporating 3D printed parts into the projects that we covered in the magazine, and so I thought, “I’d better get a 3D printer myself so that I can become familiar with it and understand where this technology is heading.”

Walter Isaacson: Mark Frauenfelder is the author of Made By Hand by inventors in the world of Do It Yourself and the former editor of MAKE Magazine.

Mark F.: It was crude, but right away I started seeing that this thing was going to become a pretty important part of my life and my family’s life. One of the first things I started doing was actually printing parts of things around the house that had broken and that turned out to be like a great thing for fixing stuff like parts in a dishwasher, parts of patio furniture, parts of roll-up blinds in the house, parts for the freezer mechanism in our refrigerator. This thing was coming in really handy and I thought, “We are going to see 3D printing technology expand into homes as people find this thing more and more useful.”

Walter Isaacson: When Star Trek: The Next Generation introduced The Replicator so that Captain Picard could have a hot cup of Earl Gray tea whenever he wanted one, it felt like the science fiction concept of a device that could create any object on demand was hundreds of years ahead of its time. But with the rise of 3D printing, that far-flown 24th century future now seems a lot closer. Like the Gutenberg press revolutionized the spread of ideas, new innovations in printing technology have the potential to make the manufacturing process available to nearly anyone.

Beyond commerce, the medical applications seem limitless. Replacement organic body parts are on their way. The first pioneers gave us the power to realize our ideas on the page. Today’s 3D printers allow us to turn them into physical reality and that has the potential to change everything.

I’m Walter Isaacson and you’ve been listening to Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies. If you want to find out more information about any of the guests on today’s show, you can visit our website at delltechnologies.com/trailblazers. On the next episode, we’re taking a look at the world of forensics and the disruption that TV shows like CSI have had on real world crime solving. Thanks for listening.