Remembering the IBM 1403: Hammer Time

When I think of office printing, I’d mostly say we have it generally figured out. Sure the drivers are often a mess, the hardware is really just a racket to move ink, and networking them is often its own circle of hell, but we at least have a fixed idea of what a laser or ink printer will do.

The IBM 1403

But this post from IEEE Spectrum reminds us that wasn’t always the case. The IBM 1403 leaned heavily on IBM’s history with typewriters. Except it used an elaborate series of hammers to hit behind the paper into an ink ribbon and the alphanumeric character. Some models used up to 132 hammers in a single printer.

You would think that all this complexity would make it a rather cumbersome machine. Well it was certainly noisy, but it was also incredibly fast. In general use, it could hit up to 1,100 lines of text per minute (18+ per second), and with a more limited character subset could reach a maximum output of 1,400 lines per minute.

Just think of all the great ASCII art you could print with one!

Evan Ackerman Comments:

The 1403 printer was incredibly fast. It had five identical sets of 48 embossed metal characters like the kind you’d find on a typewriter, all connected together on a horizontal chain loop that revolved at 5.2 meters per second behind the face of a continuous ream of paper. Between the paper and the character chain was a strip of ink tape, again just like a typewriter’s. But rather than pressing the character to the paper through the ink tape, the 1403 did it backward, pressing the paper against the high-speed character chain through the ink tape with the aid of tiny hammers.

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About the author

Rich Stroffolino

Rich has been a tech enthusiast since he first used the speech simulator on a Magnavox Odyssey². Current areas of interest include ZFS, the false hopes of memristors, and the oral history of Transmeta.

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