A generation ago, the American office was a noisy place, where dot-matrix impact printers pounded out documents with a mechanical clatter that could rattle your molars.
Only one typeface was available — usually Courier. All the letters were the same size, the only way to change colors was by changing the printer ribbon, and reams of spool-fed accordion-fold paper cluttered the floor.
Photos? Graphics? Pie charts? Forget about it. The phrase “desktop publishing” had yet to be coined.
Fast-forward 30 years, and the inkjet printer has become a fixture in millions of homes and offices around the world, smoothly and efficiently turning out page after page of crisp type in a variety of sizes and fonts with sharp, full-color graphics.
And it does it all so quietly you barely know it’s there.
For all of that, you can thank a small team of Hewlett-Packard engineers in Corvallis, who developed the world’s first commercially viable inkjet technology. The ThinkJet printer debuted 30 years ago this month, and the world has never been quite the same since.
In the beginning
When Hewlett-Packard’s Corvallis campus set up shop in 1976, its purpose was to design and manufacture calculators, an important product line for the company.
But then as now, the local HP site had plenty of other irons in the fire, potential new products in the research and development stage.
The idea of using a stream of ink drops as a printing mechanism dates to the 19th century, but early efforts to harness the concept were plagued with problems. Hewlett-Packard’s foray into inkjet printing in the late 1970s started out as an exploratory effort to see if a research advance at HP Labs, the company’s Silicon Valley idea factory, could be commercialized.
In 1979 Frank Cloutier, a research manager at the Corvallis site, saw a demonstration of the new technique, which used heat to force drops of ink through a hole. The results were crude, but Cloutier could see the possibilities.
After returning to the mid-valley and thinking about the design challenge for a few months, he started putting together a team to create a compact, quiet, reliable and affordable thermal inkjet printer. More than 100 people eventually signed onto the project, but in the beginning there were five: Cloutier, Niels Nielsen, Paul McClelland, Bob Low and Dave Lowe.
They came to be known as “Cloutier’s crazies,” in part because few HP insiders believed they could succeed. But they kept at it, cobbling together prototypes from parts purchased at hardware stores or scavenged from other HP projects. One early printhead was built with the plastic barrel of a Sheaffer fountain pen.
Initially the new printer was intended to work with a calculator, but the idea was adapted to function with a personal computer as HP prepared to enter that emerging market. The result, known as the ThinkJet, debuted in March of 1984.
The $495 machine featured a 12-nozzle printhead that could produce 80 characters per second at a resolution of 96 dots per inch, crude by today’s standards but a big improvement over most dot-matrix devices — and a whole lot quieter.
“It was designed to fit into half a briefcase,” said Nielsen, who recently purchased a vintage ThinkJet, still in its original box, that he found at a garage sale.
“It was thought at the time that the busy executive on the go would have our printer in one half and one of our battery-powered laptop computers in the other, and he could print on the go.”
Right tech, right time
The world wasn’t quite ready for laptop computers, but it was ready for desktops — a market that was primed to explode just as the next generation of HP inkjet printer, the DeskJet, was being introduced in 1988.
“Quickly people realized that a personal computer was not much use around the home or office without a printer attached to it,” Nielsen said. “What that meant was that we just happened to be sitting around with the right technology at the right time.”
One key to Hewlett-Packard’s initial success in the printer market was price point.
“Back then, in 1984, the letters HP stood for high price,” recalled Cloutier. “We had grown up making products for engineers.”
Inkjet marked a sharp departure in that regard.
Even though the printheads contained sophisticated technology to precisely control the stream of ink, the semiconductor manufacturing techniques used in HP’s Corvallis wafer fab kept costs low. The combined printhead and ink cartridge could be removed when empty and replaced with a new one for under $10.
For Hewlett-Packard, the business results were phenomenal.
“We went from zero percent market share to 70 percent market share in a very short time,” Cloutier said. “We had more than all of our competitors combined, and we maintained that for a very long time.”
Cycles of innovation
That success fueled rapid growth at HP’s Corvallis campus, which swelled to more than 6,000 employees (plus about 3,000 contract workers) by 1996.
Those numbers have dropped to fewer than 2,000 today for a variety of reasons, including outsourcing of high-volume production to low-wage countries and a maturing of the inkjet business.
But Hewlett-Packard remains one of the largest private employers in Benton County, and inkjet remains a key part of the company’s business mix. According to HP’s most recent annual report, printing brought in more than $23.8 billion in revenue last year.
And the Corvallis campus remains heavily involved in the inkjet business.
Most of the company’s most sophisticated printheads, for instance, continue to be manufactured locally, and Corvallis engineers are still engaged in developing new and improved inkjet printers, as well as other applications based on inkjet technology.
HP’s latest and greatest inkjet models offer a case in point.
The Officejet Pro X series employs a new kind of printhead called the pagewide array, developed and manufactured in Corvallis. Instead of the traditional compact printhead scanning rapidly back and forth across the page, the pagewide array packs more than 40,000 ink nozzles onto a stationary printhead that spans the width of a sheet of paper.
The result, HP executives claim, is a highly efficient full-color office printer that can crank out up to 70 pages a minute at about 50 percent of the per-page cost of a color laser printer.
“It’s a game-changing product,” said Tim Weber, vice president and general manager of HP’s printing technology development operation and site manager of the Corvallis campus.
“Twice the speed and half the cost of its competitors — it’s a category buster.”
As for Cloutier’s crazies, most of them have moved on to other things — only one still works for Hewlett-Packard. But the development of inkjet technology remains a landmark achievement in each of their careers.
“I think without question, for me, it’s the one that’s made the most impact worldwide,” said Cloutier, who retired from Hewlett-Packard in 2005 and now heads a solar power startup called Inspired Light.
Nielsen, who took a voluntary severance package in 2007 during a round of corporate downsizing and now works several part-time jobs, has another way of looking at it.
“I had aspirations to be a musician when I was in grad school, but I never made it as a musician in grad school,” he said. “I always considered this thing to be my platinum record.”
Contact reporter Bennett Hall at email@example.com or 541-758-9529.