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Daisy Wheel Diaries, part 1: origins

The beginning of our tale

A bit over a week ago, I saw a video of a dot matrix printer being used to play "Eye of the Tiger", which was posted on Hacker News. In that comments section, some users wondered about acquiring dot matrix printers for the modern day, given their reliability and low running costs.

Since I am endlessly curious about irrelevant topics, I naturally went off to the Wikipedia article on dot matrix printing. Dot matrix printers are something I'm well familiar with, since I think my Dad explained them to me at some point when I was younger, and he had an old one in the house at least briefly. From the Wikipedia page, I wandered about and ended up at the similar technology of daisy wheel printing. It's something I also knew about (thanks, Dad!), but reading about it piqued my interest. Something about them appeals to me more than dot matrix printers. Let me explain.

Both are forms of impact printing, which, as the name suggests, impacts against paper (with ink in-between) to produce character forms on paper. Dot matrix printers have a line of dots (why it's called a matrix is beyond me, it's entirely one-dimensional) that stamp down, producing a tiny vertical slice of a character. With lots of dots you can produce reasonably high-quality characters of an arbitrary typeface, or even graphics. Daisy wheel printers, on the other hand, spin a "daisy wheel" (or print wheel) which has many "petals" (thus "daisy") with fully-formed type elements (individual characters), and imprint a whole character into the page at once. Since the characters are pre-formed, you have to change the wheel to change your typeface, and you only have a limited choice of size (10pt or 12pt, usually). But, daisy wheel printers, at least compared to low-end 9-pin dot matrix printers, produce very high quality output, much like a typewriter. This advantage faded when 24-pin dot matrix printers became common, but for a time, they had a slice of the printer market pie.

I don't really know why. But something about the high-quality output (beautiful impressions on paper from actual type elements!), something about the mechanism (a wheel!), it captivated me. I had to buy one. Yes, it's obsolete technology from thirty years ago! But, so? It's fun! And I can print some of my essays with this thing. Some of them. The ones in Mandarin Chinese are never going to work on this thing. But I digress!

So, I searched eBay for "daisy wheel printer". There was only one actual printer in the results, and it wasn't even from here in the UK. But there was a result! Inevitably, I was going to buy it. But what, exactly, was it?

The printer

The printer make and model I had chosen, or rather, that fate had chosen for me, was this: The Royal LetterMaster. From the eBay listing, I knew it used a Centronics-type parallel port (for years the standard on printers), had bidirectional printing, full ASCII, et cetera. But that's just the stuff listed in the Features section of the manual. I'm more curious than that, and despite it being a certainty I would purchase this, I of course did more research.

Unfortunately, this is obsolete technology we're dealing with, and this model and make isn't particularly famous. Luckily, there were a few (very few) results on Google.

One was an archive of COMPUTE! magazine's June 1986 issue. This made it clear this was a budget printer, and it must have been released in 1986 or earlier, given the issue it appeared in. It was part of the line named "Royal Consumer Business Products" - apparently offered by Royal (you know, the typewriter company), and it had an older higher-end sibling, the Royal OfficeMaster 2000, which had proportional spacing, greater speed and a serial port.

Another was a YouTube video of the thing in action, from a mere nine months ago, no less! This gave me an idea of how it sounds in use. Impact printers are well known to be noisy, but it didn't sound too bad in the video. The video also proved that the thing could be trivially set up on Windows: it's printing a Windows printer test page, and you can see that he's using the Generic / Text Only printer driver. So that was quite handy information. Also, the more I watched and rewatched this video, the more attached I became to the thing, the more I wanted it.

With a bit more googling I landed upon the modern website of Royal: royalsupplies.com. Turns out they still exist, and they make cash registers. Importantly for me, they also make supplies for their old products. Unfortunately, I couldn't find any mention of the LetterMaster on their site, and when I emailed them, they said they had no record of any product by that name. This worried me, as suddenly I was unsure if this was actually the same company. But, I looked again at the printer photos and what I knew about it, and everything (particularly the logo) pointed to it being by the same Royal that made typewriters. I contacted them again asking more clearly (saying that it was a 1980s product), and their response this time was clearer: they don't have a product in the store mentioning it. So, perhaps they had such a product in the past? I assume that.

I contacted the eBay seller, and they provided me with the part numbers for the ink rolls and print wheels. These weren't available on royalsupplies.com, sadly. But, take a look at their site map, where there's a list of every product they currently sell by part number. The LetterMaster ink roll part number was #013018. There's no 013018 on the site map, but note that there's 013017, Blue Nylon Time Clock Ribon, and 013019, Purple Nylon Cash Register Ribbon, under Royal Supplies. So this makes it pretty clear that it was a Royal product: the part code fits into their numbering scheme, and under Royal Supplies no less. They may not offer that specific part any more, but I do wonder if 013017 or 013019 might be compatible. Hmm. Similarly, there's no LetterMaster print wheel, part number 013052. But there's 013066 and 013067, both Typewriter Printwheel. The proximity and similar naming is no coincidence.

So, the thing I was getting sadly didn't have a proportional typeface, nor even support for it. It didn't have all the bells and whistles of higher-end printers, but at least it's a daisy wheel printer. One made by a typewriter company. One in good condition that, according to the eBay seller, had never been used, too. Awesome!

The purchase

As always, I dithered quite a bit. But delaying the inevitable is pointless. So I took the plunge, and bought the $50 printer.

All went well, and just over $125 was taken out of my account by PayPal.

...wait, what?

Oh dear. Turns out that, because the thing needed to be shipped from America (USPS Priority International!), and it's pretty big and, for a package, heavy (it's not so heavy itself), the postage cost was just over 150% the price. Oops.

I frantically messaged the seller, asking them to cancel and refund me since I hadn't realised the postage cost. But, not long after, I realised that ~$125 isn't actually that bad... it's about £85 and, I really wanted this damn thing. I'd kept watching that video, I'd done all this research, I'd become so damn attached. I'm not financially stretched, either. So...

I sent another message soon after, saying, actually, don't cancel, I'm fine with the postage. They kindly said they'd refund me the difference between the postage cost they'd charged me and what USPS actually charges them, once they posted it. It turns out that they charged me a little too little (by about $2 or so), so they wouldn't end up having anything to refund me (and would take a small hit, instead), but it was a nice gesture.

So, printer in the mail. Anticipation. Woop.

Of course, this is a printer from the United States. From the back panel the seller had kindly pictured, it was clear this thing did not support European 240V AC, only American-style 110V. So that'd need to be dealt with.

Luckily, a 100W (though only half of that was needed) step-down converter was just £14 from Amazon, so I got that.

The other problem is that I live in a modern world where my only computer is an Apple MacBook Air, which doesn't have a parallel port. Which isn't terribly surprising, given printers haven't had those for about two decades. But it's still a problem.

But there's also a simple solution to that: a £5 USB-to-Centronics cable, also from Amazon. It wasn't advertised as having OS X support, but googling I discovered other OS X users had used USB-to-parallel cables successfully on OS X, so I just crossed my fingers and hoped it would work.

So, printer and necessary adapters ordered, all I needed to do was wait. Once the printer had arrived, the real fun could begin! Though checking USPS parcel tracking daily is quite fun its its own way. ;)


Continued in part 2, where I cover the printer's unboxing and initial setup.

Edit, 2015-04-11: By the way, the date of this post lies. It wasn't written on the 8th. It was written in the early hours of the 9th, when I should have gone to sleep.