How dot matrix printers created text

The impact printer was a mainstay of the early desktop computing era. Also called “dot matrix printers,” these printers could print low-resolution yet very readable text on a page, and do so quickly and at a low price point. But these printers are a relic of the past; in 2024, you might find them printing invoices or shipping labels, although more frequently these use cases have been replaced by other types of printers such as thermal printers and laser printers.


The heart of the impact printer is the print head. The print head contained a column of pins (9 pins was common) that moved across the page. Software in the printer controlled when to strike these pins through an inked ribbon to place a series of “dots” on a page. By carefully timing the pin strikes with the movement of the print head, the printer could control where each dot was placed. A column of dots might represent the vertical stroke of the letter H, a series of single dots created the horizontal bar, and another column would create the final vertical stroke.

↫ Jim Hall at Technically We Write

Our first printer was a dot matrix model, from I think a brand called Star or something similar. Back then, in 1991 or so, a lot of employers in The Netherlands offered programs wherein employees could buy computers through their work, offered at a certain discount. My parents jumped on the opportunity when my mom’s employer offered such a program, and through it, we bought a brand new 286 machine running MS-DOS and Windows 3.0, and it included said dot matrix printer.

There’s something about the sound and workings of a dot matrix printer that just can’t be bested by modern ink, laser, or LED printers. The mechanical punching, at such a fast rate it sounded like a tiny Gatling gun, was mesmerising, especially when paired with continuous form paper. Carefully ripping off the perforated edges of the paper after printing was just a nice bonus that entertained me quite a bit as a child.

I was surprised to learn that dot matrix printers are still being manufactured and sold today, and even comes in colour. They’re quite a bit more expensive than other printer types these days, but I have a feeling they’re aimed at enterprises and certain niches, which probably means they’re going to be of considerably higher quality than all the other junk printers that clog the market. With a bit more research, it might actually be possible to find a brand new colour dot matrix printer that is a better choice than some of the modern alternatives.

The fact that I’m not contemplating buying a brand new dot matrix printer in 2024, even though I rarely print, is a mildly worrying development.


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