Xerox celebrates a 40-year-old innovation that transformed business communications

Gary Starkweather.
Gary Starkweather.

In 1969, in his lab in Webster, New York, Xerox engineer Gary Starkweather was challenged with improving the speed of an early-version fax machine. His research eventually led to the invention of laser printing, which profoundly changed how people and businesses communicate around the world. Forty years ago, the launch of the Xerox 9700 – the company’s first commercial laser printer – gave rise to today’s digital printing industry, which currently generates more than $120 billion in global annual revenues, according to market research firm Smithers Pira. The 9700 also transformed office printing with generations of laser printers and multifunction devices using the technology. Last year, KeyPoint Intelligence cited the 9700 as the product that heralded the third wave of industrial automation (computer-driven printers) after steam-powered presses in the early 1800s and electric-powered presses later during that century. “The Xerox 9700 helped usher in the wave of computer-driven automation in the 1970s that transformed offices, data centers, copy departments, and ultimately, the printing industry around the world,” said Jeff Hayes, Managing Director at KeyPoint Intelligence. “Much of how we communicate in hard copy today can be traced back to this remarkable product.”

The Xerox 9700 in a typical workplace setting.
The Xerox 9700 in a workplace setting.

As one of the most successful products in Xerox’s history, it routinely generated more than $1 billion in annual revenues. It’s also likely that most North American households were affected by it. In the decade after its release, the 9700 was the printing press of choice to print bills and statements for credit cards, banks and utilities. It led the market for high-speed, high-volume production of other types of documents that used transactional data as well, including insurance policies and investment reports. “The laser printer is arguably the greatest invention made in a Xerox research centre,” said Steve Hoover, Chief Technology Officer at Xerox Corporation. “The 9700 was the first in a long line of iconic products that were made possible by Gary Starkweather’s invention, including DocuTech and today’s iGen family.”

Xerox 9700 B&W promotional image.
Xerox 9700 B&W promotional image.

The 9700 was retired on the last day of 1997, ending 20 years of market leadership. However, many of the 9700’s advanced capabilities remain relevant today, including printing at speeds as fast as 120 pages per minute, automatic two-sided printing, cut-sheet paper, standard resolution of 300 dpi, and the ability to print graphics. The 9700 also paved the way for variable-information printing by personalizing each document in a production run. The machine could also be outfitted with Magnetic Ink Character Recognition (MICR) toner for secure printing of cheques. In recognition of his achievements, Starkweather was inducted into the USA’s National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2012. Today, he’s retired and living in Lake Mary, Florida. Looking back, he says he knew his invention would have a significant impact, but was less clear at the time about how it would play out. “A real question was raised at the time about the future of paper and how the printer would survive into the future with people using novel displays, and so on,” Starkweather recalled. “Some 40 years later, laser printers are still going strong.”

The laser printing innovation continues today with the recent launch of 29 new Xerox ConnectKey-enabled printers and multifunction devices, which offer on-the-go capabilities, cloud connectivity, and access to productivity-boosting features and apps. The family of products includes a variety of sizes, speeds and capabilities to match the needs of small-sized and medium-sized businesses as well as large enterprises. And at the heart of ConnectKey devices is the laser technology Xerox invented 40 years ago.

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Tony Curcio is the editor of Graphic Arts Magazine.