Saturday, 24 October 2020

Epson MX-80 (1980)

Introduced October 1980

It was the noise you remember most of all, the slow tortured screeching of metal pins hammering thousands of tiny black dots onto paper, for what seemed like an eternity. When you were in a room full of them, the sound was cacophonous but distinctive. Not quite like the rat-a-tat machine gun fire of a daisy wheel or the howled whistling of a modem, the din of a dot matrix printer is thankfully something seldom heard today.

The Epson MX-80 is probably the key product of its type. Introduced in October 1980, this 9-pin dot matrix printer was capable, reliable, compact and lightweight. Most of all, it was successful – the MX-80 and the Epson printers that followed it defined the way most of us printed for more than a decade.

Elegantly but practically designed, the MX-80 used a simple 9 x 9 matrix to produce typically 80 columns of text. Nine pins meant that the printer could produce “true descenders” on letters such as p and g rather than 8 x 8 matrices (as found on most computers) which could struggle. Italics, bold characters and underlining was all supported, and the printer could also produce custom graphics with a little effort.

Epson MX-80
Epson MX-80

The MX-80 was a bidirectional printer with logic seeking which meant faster print times of up to 80 characters per second. On the standard model the paper was tractor fed from a box of fanfold paper (also called continuous stationary) on the floor, typically allowing for up to 2000 sheets before the slightly awkward task of feeding in some more.

You would typically hook up the MX-80 to a small computer using a parallel port which was a big cable, but it didn’t require anything to set it up. Serial options were available, and the MX-80 F/T had a friction feed so it could use cut sheet paper. A larger MX-100 had a wider carriage for bigger paper.

It was cheap to run – mostly you’d just need a new ribbon from time-to-time, although quite expensive to buy. By modern standards it was very slow, taking up to a couple of minutes for each page. And then there was the paper…

Fanfold paper is all connected together, making one continuous piece of paper where the pages are perforated so that they can be pulled apart from each other. Most fanfold paper also has perforations along the sprocket holes on either side. If you’d waited a couple of hours for a really big document to print out, you might then want to split the paper into A4 sheets. This was an agonising manual process that involved carefully pulling the paper apart. If you didn’t pay attention then you could rip the page, and you might have to reprint it (if it was even possible to print a single page in whatever application you were using).

Epson MX-80 and Apple II
Epson MX-80 and Apple II

Despite all the drawbacks, it was a useful device and consumers loved it, not least because it was very cheap to run. IBM loved it too, and rebadged it as the IBM 5152 to go alongside the IBM PC. The MX-80 spawned a number of 9-pin and 24-pin successors, and despite most modern printers being lasers or inkjets, you can still buy Epson dot-matrix printers today. But where are they used?

Dot matrix printers can be found in industrial environments, warehouses and also in the aviation industry. A combination of ruggedness, reliability and low maintenance costs outweigh the slow speed, low quality and noise in those environments. Although you would be unlikely to find an MX-80 still in operation after all of these years, you can still find many examples of its descendants.

Image credits:
Cushing Memorial Library via Flickr – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Nakamura2828 via Wikimedia Commons – CC BY-SA 3.0


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