3D Printing: What Will We Print Next?

In this Trailblazers podcast excerpt, host Walter Isaacson tells the story of the printing revolution. Listen to the full podcast here.

From the moment Johannes Gutenberg used movable type to produce a copy of the Bible in the 1450s, printing technology has radically altered the way we spread ideas. But it wasn’t until the advent of the home computer in the late 20th century that the printing revolution truly became available to almost anyone. Now, a new revolution is underway: 3D printing.

None of this would’ve been possible, however, if it weren’t for a penniless law student with a bold idea.

Xerography, Otherwise Known as…

In the late 1930s, Chester Carlson was working at a patent office by day and studying law at night. Too poor to afford textbooks, he spent his evenings at the New York Public Library copying them by hand. There in the library stacks, Carlson conjured up the idea for a machine that would change how we work and pave the way for personal computing. His big idea? The photocopier.

On October 22, 1938, in Astoria, Queens, with the help of a hired physicist, Carlson walked through the messy process he’d developed involving a light bulb, electrically charged plate, and buckets of sulfur powder. When finished, they removed the apparatus to reveal a sheet of paper with the words “10-22-38 Astoria.” It was the world’s first photo copy.

Carlson’s innovation took advantage of the property known as photoconductivity—using light to charge particles almost as if they were magnetic. He called his process xerography; everybody else called it incredible.

Yet convincing people to buy his xerography machine was a challenge. Finally, in 1947, a photo supply company called Haloid took an interest as a means of distinguishing themselves from their competitor, Kodak. In 1959, 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: Xerox.

The Xerox 914 photocopier became so popular it was produced for 17 years, and “Xerox” so ubiquitous it entered our vernacular as a verb.

Screen to Page

In the early 1960s, 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 create on a computer screen onto paper? The first solution was simple: Connect the computer directly to the typewriter. But these devices were slow and cumbersome, and they couldn’t produce graphics. Enter Robert Howard.

In the mid-60s, Howard was working with casinos on a way to give their chips individually identifying signatures to prevent fraud. With his system, a needle could poke an ink ribbon as a chip passed before it, giving it a unique printed code. Literally connecting the dots, Howard realized his technology was good for more than poker chips, and the dot matrix printer was born. Capable of printing different fonts and graphics, the dot matrix was an important milestone for home computing. But they were also slow, noisy, and the print quality was decidedly low resolution.

Around the time Howard was developing his dot matrix printer, the next stage in the printing revolution was already underway, and the path led directly back to Chester Carlson.

Back at the Xerox corporation in New York, engineer Gary Starkweather was toying with the idea of how to use the principles of photoconductivity that Xerox had harnessed so profitably to print original documents from scratch. In 1971, Starkweather moved out to Xerox’s Palo Alto Resource Center to bring his idea to life. Just nine months later, he’d built the first working laser printer. But despite wild success with its commercial laser printers, Xerox failed to see the potential of bringing laser printing into homes. As a result, multiple personal computer companies beat them to market.

Like Chester Carlson’s photocopier, the laser printers we use today are remarkably similar to Gary Starkweather’s inventions. Both innovations have stood the test of time, but they share one obvious limitation: They only print in two dimensions.

Another Dimension

In the 1980s, engineer Chuck Hull set out to design a better way of creating prototypes than the costly process that took weeks or months. He devised a method, called stereolithography, that uses an ultraviolet light to produce thin layers of a specialized plastic. These layers stack on top of each other to create a three-dimensional object. In March 1983, Hull produced the world’s first 3D-printed object: a small plastic cup. What once took months could now be done in a day.

For the first few decades, 3D printing was largely used for industrial applications, but the greatest impact 3D printing could have in the near future might be closer to home. As consumer-friendly 3D printers have become more widely available and less expensive, they are contributing to the rise of the maker movement, in which anyone can design and create their own wares.

Moreover, the medical applications of 3D printing seem limitless. Surgical teams use 3D-printed models to plan complicated surgeries, such as separating conjoined twins. 3D printing is drastically reducing the cost of prosthetic limbs. And, incredibly, a team at Harvard University is working on printing a human kidney using specially-made inks containing human cells.

The first printing pioneers gave us the power to realize our ideas on the page. Today’s 3D printers allow us to turn them into physical reality. What will we print next?

Hear the full story in the “Printers: What Will We Print Next?” episode of the Trailblazers podcast.