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In the 1980's, few people could afford laser printers and other page printers (e.g. inkjets) were not yet affordable. Most had inexpensive dot matrix printers with tractor feeds, such as my own Star Gemini SG-10. These printed text in Portrait mode a line at a time from a small onboard buffer.

At that time, how did text programs, spreadsheets, and other tabular reporting applications output in Landscape to contemporary dot matrix printers?

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    Short Answer, they didn't ;) – Raffzahn Jun 10 at 21:22
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    I remember writing some code to print in landscape: As there was not enough memory to buffer the whole page, I had to recreate and render those parts of the page the were going to be printed strip by strip, and then send it off in graphics mode (and yes, 8 pin mode, not 9 pin). So that's not something you'd do for simple text. Those that really needed landscape had enough money to buy a laserprinter, or a wide printer. – dirkt Jun 10 at 22:06
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    If I remember correctly, the DMPs made for portrait were considered small office or home versions. The heavy duty versions I've seen were for landscape, and often only made in that size. Cheaper marks often had both portrait and kandscape versions, like Epson MX series – UncleBod Jun 11 at 7:08
  • Fun fact, there were an X series of Star Gemeni printers. 10X were portrait, 15X was landscape. Link to manual, print year 1984 google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&rct=j&url=https://… – UncleBod Jun 11 at 7:17
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    My experience was same as @dirkt -- I wrote a utility to print a text file in landscape from a PDP-8 to a LA-50 (60 rows of 132 monospace chars IIRC). – A. I. Breveleri Jun 12 at 15:20
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For the PC there was a specific program called, I believe, Sideways that did exactly this.

It was targeted mostly towards spreadsheets (at least that's how I saw it most used). As I recall it essentially rendered the text output in to a graphic that was rotated 90 degrees, and then printed. Sideways ad

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    Well, there were several such packages for the PC. Beside Sideways, there was the "sideway option" on for Borland Sidekick, or the Printer-Boss package which includes even font emulation and a printer buffer. All of them had severe limitations due buffer size. – Raffzahn Jun 11 at 16:11
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    That plug-in wasn't cheap — the equivalent of $150 in today's dollars. But I suppose for a business that needed wide spreadsheets it would have been worth the money. – AndyB Jun 12 at 18:45
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Basically, there were two options:

  • Do it in hardware: Dot matrix printers were available in wide-carriage versions, so they could print A4 landscape / A3 portrait.
  • Do it in software: Using the printer's bitmap mode, the computer would render the rotated letters in vertical stripes, corresponding to the printer's lines. This doesn't require all that much memory, particularly when using a monospaced font: In theory, you could render just one character, send that to the printer, render the next one, etc. I recall software on the C-64 for doing this, even pre-GEOS (which printed everything in bitmap mode, anyway); but this was more of a novelty until 16 bit machines with GUIs came in and made software rendering the norm.

That being said, the most common solution was probably to stick with a standard (non-wide, portrait mode) printer, and just pick a narrower font on the printer's control panel. On my Star LC-10, "Elite Condensed" would print 20 characters per inch, giving 160 characters per line in portrait mode.

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At that time, how did text programs, spreadsheets, and other tabular reporting applications output in Landscape to contemporary dot matrix printers?

For businesses that needed wide printouts, it was common to buy a wide carriage (tabulator type) printer. For example, Epson not only sold the MX-80, but also the MX-100 with a wider carriage able to handle up to 15 inch paper, allowing up to 256 characters per line (using a condensed font).

Using condensed font was as well up to 132 characters on standard paper, which should be fine for most applications... After all, 132 was also the default format for wide prints :)

While this was fine for most users, after all, a table with more than 132 characters is already hard to handle on screen, there was no way around with early software using ASCII output.

For a printer to turn this on its own into landscape, it would need to store the whole output for a page first and then turn it into a bitmap. This would require a buffer at least large enough to store like 4+ KiB of text plus whatever control characters are needed (all just for ASCII, no graphic borders). So more likely 8 KiB. In addition at least some bitmap line buffer must be present. Consider that the MX-100 had just 256 bytes total buffer. And that was a printer with a price tag close to 800 USD in 1981.

There was also no simple way to do it on the host system, as drivers that could do the job were not part of the OS (at the time) but part of each application.

Nonetheless, some applications did support a few (mainstream) printers during the mid 1980s. But it was a case-by-case issue finding the right combination of program (and fitting computer) and printer. So the average user didn't - and professional users with a certain need simply spent money on wide carriage printers.

For major packages like Visicalc or Lotus, application-specific extensions were offered. Examples for somewhat generic solutions are the "sideway option" for Borland Sidekick, or the Printer-Boss package from Connecticut Software. They hooked the BIOS printer calls, emulating a certain printer (usually Epson MX-80). Data was collected until einter a 'page' was filled or the buffer overflowed, and then printed. The buffer overflow condition happened usually quite fast, so anything wider than 2-3 pages was at risk of failing.


It was again an advantage for Apple that the driver structure for MacOS was better placed. Already with the Lisa it was possible to print in either orientation, as printers were only operated as bitmap anyway.

Windows and GEM offered, a bit later, the same service for PCs.


It's also useful to keep in mind that early (and somewhat affordable) laser printers also didn't have the memory to hold a full page of bitmap. There several third-party companies built add-ons to allow full page graphics.

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    Interestingly, 9-pin dot matrix printers have climbed back up in price, maybe one of the few computer peripherals that has got more expensive over time. – scruss Jun 10 at 23:04
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    They are still useful wherever multiple copies are needed or special forms to be printed. – Raffzahn Jun 11 at 1:22
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    @scruss Simply a matter of (dis)economies of scale (along with the detail that since they're only used in specific scenarios where the impact approach is needed, manufacturers know that buyer really need them and will pay more). – chrylis -cautiouslyoptimistic- Jun 12 at 5:52
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    @chrylis-cautiouslyoptimistic-: Another important factor is that rugged industrial-grade printers were never as cheap as home-use ones. If one wants to buy a newly-manufactured 9-pin printer, one will have to buy a good one. – supercat Jun 12 at 15:10
  • AFAIK, the principal market for dot-matrix printers is for airline passenger manifests, where the regulations still insist on simultaneous printing. In the commercial field, the regulations were relaxed in Europe about 20 years ago. – grahamj42 Jun 13 at 10:38
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I remember at the time, I had a wide-carriage (14") dot matrix printer. I would keep two boxes of continuous feed perforated paper, and change paper as I needed for doing letter size portrait, or "computer paper". "Computer paper", also known as green-bar paper, was called that as it was made for mainframe printers, and each sheet was 11" by 14" wide (after tractor-feed perforations were torn off. So, the answer for me was to change paper to get "landscape".

I do remember SideKick, but if I remember correctly, it only worked with certain apps like Lotus 123. Many of my apps did not work with that.

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  • One thing I've occasionally pondered is that in the 1980s it used to be commonplace to print out banners using tractor-feed paper on impact printers. I can't think of any alternative today with a comparable cost per unit length. – supercat Jun 13 at 16:51

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