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I have several printouts from what is presumably a dot-matrix printer, dated 1987. When zoomed in on these, you see the usual stair-step patterns on diagonal lines. However, it's difficult to determine exactly where the individual pixels of the monochrome image lie... part of this is the tendency for the ink to bleed into cheap paper, littering the edges with splotches and so forth. This alone can't account for some of the problems I've had trying to restore an original raster of the image... the width and height of features don't appear to be multiples of some common factor.

Now, my understanding of the mechanism that a dot-matrix printer uses for printing is that there will be a single vertical row of pins, and then a stepper motor moves that array horizontally across the paper. Unless great care was taken in the engineering of the mechanism, there's no reason to expect that the distance between the pins vertically would equal the shortest distance the array can be moved horizontally. There's also no reason to expect that the horizontal movement would be a minimum of the width of a pin... overlaps might be possible (speculation on my part, I don't know if this was ever offered, or what the point would be).

So, what shapes would these pins be? Were they square or round? Would they ever be wider than tall (or taller than wide)? Did the mechanism make overlapping of the individual pixels a possible, and in what circumstances did that occur? What number of pins were available commercially? (I seem to vaguely remember seeing ads for 9pin and something higher in the 20s>)

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    9-pin printers had all the pins stacked vertically in single column. 24-pin printers had two rows of 12 pins, with the second row slightly offset downwards. – Ross Ridge Jun 8 at 20:51
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    Note that to print faster some printers could print both ways. The reverse lines was typically slightly shifted as compared to going from left to right every time. – Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Jun 9 at 8:58
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    @ThorbjørnRavnAndersen And such printers often also had a "high quality" mode that only printed in one direction to eliminate any such misalignment. – TripeHound Jun 9 at 10:59
  • @Ross, my 9-pin Robotron had two offset rows. I would think it was the norm: there is no particular reason to feed pins through a dense row when they can be conveniently spaced. – Zeus Jun 10 at 6:48
  • Of the order of 100dpi. 72 or 144dPi for example.And round. Round needles and round holes are easy to make. – Brian Drummond Jun 10 at 11:25
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The Epson MX-80, upon which many other printers were based, had nine round pins which were vertically spaced at 1/72" intervals. On such printers, the print head could generally move at two speeds, one twice the other. At high speed, a printer could place dots at 120dpi resolution, but could not strike two adjacent dots. At low speed, the resolution was doubled. The MX-80 graphics commands were limited to using the top 8 pins, and only allowed software to specify every other dot (yielding 1/60" resolution or 1/120" resolution) but text mode would exploit the full resolution.

Vertical paper motion was controlled in increments of 1/216", so software that wanted to print three passes could achieve 216dpi resolution.

Some other printer mechanisms were more limited. The Seikoshia mechanism upon which Commodore's printer was based had only one horizontal speed and was limited to 60dpi horizontally for both text and graphics. The Commodore printer offered no means of achieving better than 72dpi vertically, and I don't think any other printers offered such means either.

The Apple ImageWriter had a vertical stack of 72dpi pins, but its common graphics modes were either 72 or 144dpi horizontally, and it could advance the paper in multiples of 1/144".

Most 24 pin printers used a basic resolution both horizontally and vertically of 1/180", which could with multiple pass printing be used to produce 360dpi.

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TL;DR;

Typical dpi of dot matrix printers available in the 1980s

Horizontal:

  • 60, 72, 80, 90, 120, 240 and 360 dpi

Vertical:

  • 72 dpi for 8/9 pin and
  • 120 dpi for 12/24 pin printers.
  • Multiples thereof by printing a line twice.

The Long Read:

However, it's difficult to determine exactly where the individual pixels of the monochrome image lie...

Which of course is intended, after all, they should give letters, not dot-clouds.

This alone can't account for some of the problems I've had trying to restore an original raster of the image... the width and height of features don't appear to be multiples of some common factor.

They rarely are as the horizontal resolution is not defined by pin distance but timing. Of course, 'square' resolutions were offered to simplify bitmap graphics. Usually 72 dpi.

Now, my understanding of the mechanism that a dot-matrix printer uses for printing is that there will be a single vertical row of pins,

True for some, but others, like the excellent 24 pin NEC P6/7 used multiple columns (two in case of the NEC). Each moved a bit, so they could print in high resolution and part overlapping without running twice over the same line.

and then a stepper motor moves that array horizontally across the paper. Unless great care was taken in the engineering of the mechanism, there's no reason to expect that the distance between the pins vertically would equal the shortest distance the array can be moved horizontally.

No. The printer does not move a minimal distance, stops and then prints, but moves continuous, only stopping when there is no more (buffered) data. To generate different DPI the head is simply moved at different speeds. Thus horizontal resolution is mostly a software thing (*1).

For example the quite successful (since cheap and good) STAR LC-10 of the mid 1980s used a 9 pin head with a vertical pitch of 72 DPI, but offered horizontal resolutions of 60, 72, 80, 90, 120 and 240 DPI. The increased resolution was achieved by moving the head at different speed (*2), so for 120 dpi the head simply moved half as fast than at 60, and again half of that for 240.

The NEC P6 offered similar resolutions up to 360 dpi - so technically on par or even better than laser printers at the time.

There's also no reason to expect that the horizontal movement would be a minimum of the width of a pin... overlaps might be possible (speculation on my part, I don't know if this was ever offered, or what the point would be).

While the very early ones (70s) simply outputted a 7x5 matrix, higher resolution did become standard during the early 80s. The mentioned LC-10, using a 9-pin head, offered various character sets between 9x9 with next to no overlap - great for fast listings - all the way to 18x23, usually called NLQ or Near Letter Quality. Here the head only printed in one direction and used overlapping not only horizontally due slow movement, but as well vertically by advancing for only half a pin height (1/144 inch).

So, what shapes would these pins be? Were they square or round?

Most often round or close to round, as this gives the best edges. Especially early on. Having a round pin gives better movement and less need for fine details manufacturing the head. A round hole is the most simple one to drill.

Would they ever be wider than tall (or taller than wide)?

Yes, there were rectangularish (horizontal wider) ones as well, as this ends up giving a better picture to thin vertical lines, while at the same time blending in well on overlapping dots.

Did the mechanism make overlapping of the individual pixels a possible, and in what circumstances did that occur?

As said, horizontal overlapping was easily done by reducing print head speed. So this could be done even early on and with quite cheap mechanics.

Vertical overlapping needed a good paper transport, or a print head with overlapping columns of pins. Either way they came rather late and were more expensive due the need for more exact mechanics.

What number of pins were available commercially?

Anything from 7 pin with the original Centronics 101 of 1970 to 36 pin ones in the late 1980s. Sizes I remember are 7, 8, 9, 12, 18, 24, 36.

Most common during the early 1980s were 8/9 pin, some with double printing for effective 16/18 line charsets, like the quite successful Epson MX-80/100 (*3) and the later Star LC-10 - some in use up today. During the mid to late 80s 24 pin printers like the NEC P6/P7 became quite popular around the world as replacement (or cheaper alternative) to type head printers.

While high count pin printers were successful in Europe and the US, their true home was Japan, as high resolution is mandatory to print their finely detailed glyphs. Thus printers with up to 36 pins were created and sold in good numbers, but rarely seen outside Asia.


Long Story Short:

The question sounds as if you're working on a look-alike emulation for some old printer. To close in you may need at least a manual of the printer used with hardware specifications and modes offered. Using this and round dots (with some blurring) will get you close.

For more detail you may need to acquire a printer (or at least the print head) to check the pin shape, orientation and exact measures. This will get you close to a perfect cleanroom emulation.

Next would be to make it lousy again. After all, these pins did not really fire in sync. Due basic component variance (there are coils and analogue amplifiers) but as well rust and component aging, fire time will vary, giving the very common sight (back then) of having a single line moved a bit to the left or right.


*1 - Embedded that is, as only very few printers allowed to fine regulate the head movement via host commands.

*2 - To be correct, this is not entirely true, as the 72 and 80 dpi resolution was done at the same speed as 90 dpi, but with slower firing.

*3 - I wouldn't be surprised if the MX-80 is the most OEM'ed device ever. Even IBM rebadged it as 5152 for the IBM-PC (5150).

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  • I only have the printouts, I have no idea what printer made them. I only have the vaguest notion of what year they were printed (probably +/- 2 years). Trying to put a proper bitmap font from the printouts, but I can't find square pixels that can be made to overlap the images closely enough to satisfy. – John O Jun 8 at 21:55
  • @JohnO What system was it used with? Mind to add some picture with a nice amount of different characters? Is it always the same font and spacing? – Raffzahn Jun 8 at 22:21
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    Of course 24pin were popular, a P6 is still in the attic ;) But the 36 & 48 were so exotic that I only ever read about them. The overlap: you say that needle pins were effectively finer/smaller than laser dots? (Per memory: laser was 'real resolution of fine dots', needle were 'massed bigger dots into a square inch'?) – LаngLаngС Jun 9 at 8:31
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    @Raffzahn atariage.com/forums/topic/… The pdf in this post has about 4 different fonts on the front cover, but I'm trying to deal with the basic one (two paragraphs). Zooming in I'm unsure what to make of the characters. The uppercase letters seem to be around 9 squares tall, most characters are about 6 wide. But no width I can find matches closely enough both horizontally and vertically. I've got a process in place to turn rasters back into fonts proper, if I can figure this out. – John O Jun 9 at 17:37
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    maybe your question is a bit of an XY: you're asking about printer mechanisms, but you really want to identify a font. I think the body text is in (old) Apple Chicago 12 pt. As for converting bitmaps (esp from DMPs) to fonts, I've done quite a bit of work on this. Take a look at some of my fonts on fontlibrary, such as mnicmp - they have source and fontforge programs to do the work. Learning curve, though! fontlibrary.org/en/font/mnicmp – scruss Jun 10 at 18:58
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As a condensed answer:

On a 9-pin printer (the cheaper kind), the physical pins might make a dot approximately one point (1/72") in diameter. The dots could be placed at 120dpi density and 1/240" precision horizontally, and (by three-pass printing) at 1/216" density and precision vertically. Graphics printing normally used only 8 of the pins; the ninth was provided primarily for printing text.

The fastest printing mode made only one pass per line and used horizontal dot density of just 60dpi. It was known as "draft mode" due to the low resulting quality of the print, and the correspondingly low consumption of time and ink. In this mode the individual dots should be discernible on the page.

The more expensive 24-pin printers used smaller pins, more closely spaced, for a higher-quality print. I think the individual dots might be about 1/120" diameter, while high-quality multi-pass printing could achieve 360dpi density.

The above figures reflect relatively late models of printer, but still within the 1980s. Early models might not have been able to achieve the highest quality modes.

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  • The fast mode usually output 120 columns of dots per inch, but each time a pin in the print head fired, it would need a blank column to recover before it could fire again. The strokes of characters like "v" would thus be placed with 120dpi resolution, but the top of a "T" would only have five dots in it. – supercat Jun 8 at 23:13
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    @supercat Hence the distinction I drew between "density" and "precision". – Chromatix Jun 8 at 23:25
  • 24 pin printers typically had three columns of dots but staggered slightly, so depending on the print speed, you could get a wobble effect where one dot was printed by the left-hand column but the next dot by the middle column, offset downwards slightly, and the following one back up again. So they are still hard to map to a raster grid. – Ed Avis Jun 9 at 4:33
  • 240 by 216 in 6 passes in one direction was the maximum possible. As supercat mentions above it was not possible to place 2 dots side by side closer than 1/120". This mode was obviously extremely time consuming and required special drivers/programs to be usable (Signum on Atari ST p.ex.). At university I did my memo. It was 12 pages in best res. It took the whole night to print. – Patrick Schlüter Jun 9 at 11:49

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