Whatever happened to …

… ribbon cables?

I got the inspiration for this post a couple of Sundays ago when Mike Zamansky talked about his first computer being a TRS-80.  Mine too!

However, it wasn’t until a few years ago that I bought myself a brand new printer.  Before that, I had just purchased a couple of second hand printers.  When I think about it, as a teacher, having your own printer at home was not a wise economic choice.  After all, you could just take your documents to school and use the school’s printer.  I can’t recall any real reason to own my own.  99.9% of what I printed was school related.

Every now and again, I might need to print a boarding pass but even now with my Lexmark inkjet printer an arm’s reach away, it’s far more economical to go to the public library and print the “once in a blue moon” copy of what I might need on paper.

But, I just had to have my own printer.  The first one I had was an electrostatic printer.  You needed to buy specially coated paper and things printed dot by dot with questionable quality but it was really, really fast.  The output was like a silver roll of toilet paper and completely useless for most things.  In fact, when I’d print resources at home for school, I’d have to use the school photocopier to get it in decent form.  Or, as decent as it would get.

Eventually, I upgraded to a dot matrix printer that used a ribbon and a moving head that got my in the doghouse when I’d use it when the kids were trying to sleep.  You always needed to have a backup ribbon and printing in colour was out of the question.

With both printers, printing graphics was less than satisfying when compared to current standards.

Like I said, it wasn’t a judicial use of funds and I wouldn’t ever do it again!

But, there was a commonality between these two original printers.  They were connected with a parallel printer cable or, as we called it, a ribbon cable.  I would have thought that I’d hoarded one here but apparently not!  The closest thing I could find was a ribbon from my Hyperduino kit but you’ll get the idea.


p.s. the irony of using a Chromebook as the background will hopefully not go unnoticed!  In terms of cables, it was short and very fragile.  The cable connected to the bottom of the TRS-80 and then to the back of the printer.  Clips held it into place.  You absolutely wanted to make sure that it lay flat and that there were no significant bends in it lest you break one of the connections.  Now that I think about it, there was a great deal of manufacturing and materials to make it all work.

For printing, our Panasonic 1091 printer in the computer room was relatively fast.  At least compared to the Apple IIe computers in the Practice Office across the hall at school.  Their printers were connected via serial ports and that led to some interesting discussions and lessons about the differences between serial and parallel ports for printing.  As an aside, my first computer joystick connected to my TRS-80 via the parallel port as well!  I just had to flip the computer on its side and exchange the cables.

But, parallel printing was doomed in favour of other methods.  Probably the costs of creating the cables was a big factor.  Then, there was a problem with distance – parallel connections had their limits.  The real problem though was that sharing a parallel printer can be a challenge.  It really was designed for a single computer but, if that single printer was a fileserver like our QNX server was, you could do some amazing things with print queues and also assigning priorities to individual print jobs.  I can opening confess now to jumping places in line by setting MY priority for printing to be the highest.  Purely an academic exercise of course.

Right now, I don’t know if you can even buy a new computer and/or a printer with parallel printing capabilities.  Instead, they’ve been replaced with these ethernet adapters that let you connect a printer to your network and share it with everyone.  Where’s the challenge to configuring a standalone device so that it becomes multi-user?

Your thoughts for a Sunday?

  • Did you ever use a parallel printer?
  • Do you know the difference between DB9 and DB25?
  • In your school, how many networked printers would a visitor or technician find?
  • Do you own a home printer?  When was the last time you used it?
  • Does your school actually have a networked printer or is it a printer/photocopier combo device?
  • Can you print to that school printer from your computer at home or do you physically have to be in the school to use it?
  • Have you ever used a cloud printing setup?
  • While parallel printer cables may be difficult to find, if you open your computer, you’re likely to find a ribbon cable inside.  What does it do?
  • or, is all this ancient history and ramblings of a madman because you, your school, your district have gone completely paperless?

Please take a moment and share your thoughts with us.

The complete collection of posts in this series is available here.

Got an idea for a future post?  Add it to this padlet.


OTR Links 10/01/2017

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.