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Prior to the introduction of DOS in 1981 teletype printers were probably the most common hardcopy printer being used - usually in govt, educational or research facilities. When DOS arrived, teletype printers were not embraced, instead attempts to convert electric typewriters were used until mass production of dot matrix printers became standard.

Before the widespread use of dot matrix printers, early issues of Byte and Kilobaud magazine regularly featured articles discussing conversion of electric typewriters for printers.

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Electric typewriter as printer for Apple II in 1981.

For those mentioning that dot matrix existed in the 1970's... The pre 1981 dot matrix where industrial and not priced for small business or home. For example banks, hospitals and insurance companies often used "band printers"; the print head and ink ribbon where 10in tall and printed the entire page with one swipe. Data centers usually used 132col paper. It was not until Centronics and Epson (MX-80) entered the low end market that PC users got inexpensive hard copy. Was there an inexpensive dot matrix in production prior to 1981?

In the answers that have been provided, it seems the cost is being overlooked. In 1977 $840 would be equivalent to about $2000, and $475 would be about $1000. This would be far above the average home budget. The same is true for other printers that have been mentioned.

Also, "The $6,995 LaserWriter, introduced in March 1985 - just over a year after the Macintosh - was the first mass-market laser printer." [which would be about $15,000 today!] (source)

Why were teletype printers not commonly used after DOS became available for business and home use?

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    Do you have any background information or context for the factual claims made in this post? I can't find any information about these attempts to convert electric typewriters, and many of the photos of early PCs I can find are pictured with the IBM 5152 printer. – Random832 Feb 6 '18 at 20:17
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    Time-sharing systems may have used printing terminals, but real computer systems used printers that were at least an order of magnitude faster (often more than two). A typical teletype like the ASR33 prints ten characters/second; many "real" printers could do more than ten lines/second. The performance of printers designed for microcomputer use generally fell somewhere between the performance of terminals and "real" computer printers. – supercat Feb 6 '18 at 21:49
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    The claim about TTYs, Typewriters and other printers seams a bit strange. Dot matrix printers where already rather common way before the PC was introduced. Centronics introduced their model 101 in 1970 and many more thereafter. Not to mention other companies. Similar for daisy wheel printers like Diabolos 630 and so on. TTYs where quite uncommon with microcomputers - maybe except a nice where hobbyists used old TTY as cheap I/O - as there wheren't may computers with a TTY interface in the first place. – Raffzahn Feb 7 '18 at 0:14
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    @jwzumwalt According to Epson global.epson.com/company/corporate_history/milestone_products/… the MX-80 was released in October 1980. That is before 1981. They had others (TX-80) and there were some from other companies previously. Also typically the big printers of the time did not print a page at a time, they typically printed a line at a time. The big printers of the time were NOT dot-matrix printers - they typically had large moving printhead bands with all the characters repeated, looping quickly with timing just right to print the text. Not cheap but not dot-matrix. – manassehkatz Feb 8 '18 at 15:28
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    Before 1980, Commodore had dot-matrix printers for their PET computer. Centronics dot-matrix printers became popular in the 70's (and the famed Centronics parallel interface was in such widespread use that it was considered a standard even before the IBM PC was introduced) – Ken Gober Feb 8 '18 at 15:34
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Speed

Teletypes were not all limited to use over a modem. Many (e.g., the Model 43 - I had one of those) even had an RS232 compatible interface and could easily be used as a regular computer printer. But since most teletypes were designed for communications, and typical modems of the time were low speed, the teletypes themselves were low speed printers. Typical dot-matrix printers of the early 1980s were much faster. For example, the Epson MX-80 could print up to 80 characters per second. The TTY 43 was actually a dot-matrix printer but since the primary market was communications over cheap (for the time) modems, there was no design rationale for more than 30 characters per second (actually I think it went a bit faster to compensate for CR/LF speed). The Decwriter LA36 was similar vintage - and speed - as the TTY43 and actually was in use quite a bit with early microcomputers. The LA120 had a top speed of 120 CPS, more typical of the dot-matrix printers of the early 1980s and was definitely used quite a bit as a printer. However, your typical PC buyer would probably not have a reason to spend extra to get a keyboard with their printer when they weren't going to use it as a console for their computer.

The electric typewriter conversions were generally an attempt at "letter quality" printing. The first generation of dot-matrix printers were no substitute for typewriter quality output, and the teletypes were generally no better. Daisy wheel printers, like the Diablo 630, were actually better suited for computer printing than a typical electric typewriter, but a bit earlier than DOS (or at least MS-DOS/PC-DOS), in the 1970s, electric typewriter conversions may have been a relatively cost-effective alternative to a regular computer printer. You could use a serial printer (with a keyboard) as a console with MS-DOS, but you wouldn't be able to run dBase II or WordStar or any of the other programs that were the selling force behind DOS-based PCs.

  • It may be worth noting that while many teleprinters and line printers used formed characters, even the ones that supported lower case tended to produce output comparable to a badly abused mechanical typewriter than a quality well-maintained electric. BTW, while some electronic typewriters included computer interfaces, and some electric typewriters have been adapted for automated for many decades, a daisy-wheel printer would be cheaper and simpler mechanically than a conversion kit for a type-bar typewriter (a Selectric might be a little simpler to adapt for mechanical reasons). – supercat Feb 7 '18 at 18:19
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The teletype was not only the printer but for some old systems it was the only monitor for standard output. Having a CRT monitor made that function obsolete so that leaves only printing.

The teletype was originally designed for copper line telephone network based text messaging. MS-DOS had no networking capabilities but you could install a modem in early PCs and use modem terminal software to speak directly to a teletype using telephone lines.

Buying a modem and a teletype was more expensive than just buying a dot matrix printer which printed faster and was supported by most software from which you would want to print.

Sending a file to a teletype through a modem is kinda like a fax; which was another technology that was disruptive to the teletype market.

FROM WIKIPEDIA:

Obsolescence of teleprinters

Although printing news, messages, and other text at a distance is still universal, the dedicated teleprinter tied to a pair of leased copper wires was made functionally obsolete by the fax, personal computer, inkjet printer, email, and the Internet.

In the 1980s, packet radio became the most common form of digital communications used in amateur radio. Soon, advanced multimode electronic interfaces such as the AEA PK-232 were developed, which could send and receive not only packet, but various other modulation types including Baudot. This made it possible for a home or laptop computer to replace teleprinters, saving money, complexity, space and the massive amount of paper which mechanical machines used.

As a result, by the mid-1990s, amateur use of actual Teletype machines had waned, though a core of "purists" still operate on equipment originally manufactured in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

Despite the obsolescence of teleprinters by the 21st century, its distinctive sound continues to be played in the background of newscasts on the New York City radio station WINS, and Philadelphia's KYW, a tradition dating back to the mid-1960s.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teleprinter

  • You don't need to buy a modem to use a teletype, e.g. the ASR 33 which was very common with minicomputers like the PDP-8 had a "Computer Control Private Line", which used a current loop, but was otherwise very similar to a RS232 serial link. In fact, the serial controller cards in the PDP-8 supported both modes (RS232 and current loop). So in theory, nothing would prevent a similar card for, say, the Apple II instead of the RS232-only cards that were in existence. – dirkt Feb 7 '18 at 16:40
  • The topic is using a teletype from DOS. Can you plug the ASR 33 in to the serial port of an 80286 running DOS 3.5, for example, and "print" to it? Or would you have to use a terminal program pointed at the COM port as I suggested with a modem? – HackSlash Feb 7 '18 at 17:28
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    @HackSlash - The details will vary depending on current loop vs. RS232, but MS-DOS/PC-DOS can generally print just fine to any device connected to a COM port at a standard bit rate. There are often handshaking issues at higher speeds, but my guess is an ASR33 would always be connected at 110, just like a TTY 43 (which I actually had) would normally be connected at 300 (probably could be connected at 110 too, but no reason to do that) and these devices could print at the full speed with no software or hardware handshaking needed. – manassehkatz Feb 7 '18 at 17:36
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    @HackSlash Why wouldn't you be able to, at least for an RS-232 model ASR33 (which apparently existed)? DOS supported using the serial port as console (ctty com1) or directing ordinary command output to it (echo foo > com1) – Random832 Feb 7 '18 at 17:36
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    People didn't do it because they didn't have a teletype standing around, and didn't need one as the integrated keyboard+monitor was superior. So buying an additional teletype would be throwing money out the window, and computers were expensive enough. BTW, there were plenty of disk operating systems called DOS before MS-DOS on the IBM PC, say DOS 3.3 for the Apple II, and even before the IBM PC was introduced people stopped using teletypes. – dirkt Feb 7 '18 at 21:30
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The assumptions of this question are at best misleading and maybe based on personal experience, but not the situation at the time cited.

As requested I just pulled out the very second issue of Kilobaud Magazin of February 1977 (*1).

Right at the beginning there is an ad on page 12 selling ASR33 starting at USD 840. Page 54 shows an ad offering an Olivetti teletype at USD 950, even including RS232. The same ad also features a 100 LPM 132 column dot matrix printer at the same price. So why buy a slow 10 CPS teletype? The same ad also features a thermal printer at USD 475.

Next, page 130 features a rather high quality (compared to an ASR33) IBM Selectric with RS232 at USD 895. It might be useful to remember that the Selectric wasn't developed primarily as a typewriter, but as printing terminal for mainframe usage. It's not their developers' fault that it was also a darn durable office typewriter. They just made a reliable device with no hard connection between the keyboard and print mechanism.

Finally page 49 shows how cheap dot matrix already was in the spring of 1977, with an ad for a printer with a parallel port at USD 425 - when bought as kit (just electronics and print mechanics) it got down to only USD 179. It's also interesting here that a current loop (50mA) version, as a TTY replacement, was rather expensive at USD 575. This would not only mean one has to pay for an additional current loop interface in the computer (not available by default on most computers), but also pay even more for the printer itself. Ok, still less than a full teletype, but why?

Kilobaud was always a magazine directed at the hobbyist, not business or large users, attracting advertisers targeting a low price range. I bet pulling any other magazine from the same time will show a similar result. Even more so after 1977.

Proof#1 - Already in the spring of 1977, at the very start of microcomputer usage, shows that dot matrix printers were not only widely available, but also undercut TTYs by a large amount.

So lets take a peek at the February 1981 issue of the same magazine. That's about 7 months before the IBM PC debuted in August 1981 and thus DOS. Here it is easy to see that dot matrix printers and the parallel port have completely taken over. Page 11 features an ad with Epson's MX-70 at USD 645 and its 'brother' MX-80 for USD 800. Another ad at page 24 (*2) gives a nice comparison. here an MX-80 is only USD 575, while a Centronics 730 costs USD 599.

There are many more featuring various dot matrix printers in the range of USD 400 to 800, but only a single one featuring a (Type 43) Teletype on page 41 - still at USD 989. So while TTY stayed basically the same over this 4 year period, dot matrix printers did not only improve but dropped quite a lot in price. Oh, and a 13 column (!) Selectric with parallel interface is down to competitive USD 659 (p.71).

This is of course only one magazine and two issues, but I'm quite sure this snap sample will hold when checking more data from other sources during the time period.

Proof#2 - By 1981 the dot matrix printer had complete victory and teletypes where merely an outdated and expensive side note.

Of course, there were many articles in these early magazines to convert some TTY, electric typewriter or Etch-a-Sketches to a hardcopy devices. As much as there were even more articles about building your own computer from parts or writing an OS from scratch.

And yes, for hobbyists with too much time on their hands, finding a TTY in a scrap sale was still a feasible idea for the fun alone, but it for sure was never anywhere near mainstream.

Conclusion: The claim of teletypes being the 'most common' printer before DOS never existed in the first place.

Last but not least, considering the above claim, the PC (and DOS) in 1981 was meant for professional use, not as a hobbyist toy. But even with the clearly made for hacking Apple II the first interface was parallel, and the first printer offered by Apple (in 1978), targeted at hobbyists was a (thermal) matrix printer - undercutting any TTY price by far.


Grandpa Story:

Having said all of this, there are special occasions where even in 1980 new development for TTY was a thing. In my case I had already an Apple II (and a cheap dot matrix printer) in Spring of 1980 when I joined the Bundeswehr (German Army). Due to some less than official circumstances it worked out that we used my Apple to improve some bureaucracy during my service - and to produce printout I did build an interface so three(!) TTY could be connected to print in parallel. After all, they were dead slow, so it was better to have three interleaving print jobs and merge the pages later on, than to wait three times as long doing the same on a single TTY. This was also quite some fun to program :))

The reason was less technical or due to budget but rather availability. As part of the staff of a signaling battalion TTYs were available by the dozen :))


*1 - Which is BTW the issue featuring a 5 page Apple 1 review plus the original first Apple ad.

*2 - On a side note, page 25 features an intriguing ad :))

  • I stressed "inexpensive". Folks seem to be overlooking the cost. In 1977 $840 would be equivalent to about $2000, and $475 would be about $1000. All the sited "cheap" printers are at or above $1000 dollars in today's money. This would be far above the average home budget. The same is true for other printers that have been mentioned. The ribbons for thermal printers were VERY expensive. – jwzumwalt Feb 9 '18 at 20:11
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    @jwzumwalt And your point is? You stated that TTYs where most common. The example does prove that already in 1977 dot matrix did undercut any TTY available. So why should they be more common? Facts don't change by a play with some hypothetical 'equivalent' numbers. Even some rich uncle would have donated a TTY to you back then, it still would have been more expensive than a dot matrix printer - and more ss in 1981. For a serious exchange, it might be helpful to come up with valid data supporting your claim, not personal asumptions. Or prove, how using the media you suggested, is wrong. – Raffzahn Feb 9 '18 at 20:34
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    @jwzumwalt "inexpensive" is a very relative term, particularly when it comes to computers. According to Wikipedia's article on the Altair 8800, the computer itself was USD$439 in kit form ($639 assembled) with no additional memory; a Model 33 ASR TTY was $1500. It doesn't appear that TTYs were cheap even then! – ErikF Feb 9 '18 at 21:11
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    @jwzumwalt The cheapest IBM 5150 you could buy at introduction would set you back something like $1600, in 1981 dollars. A practically usable configuration (a bit more RAM than 16 KiB, a floppy disk drive or maybe even two, a monitor, and a few other useful bits and pieces for a useful computer) could easily cost several thousand dollars, again in 1981 dollars. Also, don't forget that the market was much smaller then. PCs at the time were still a new technology with only a few years of maturation under their belt. All of this combined to make the general price level much higher than today. – a CVn Feb 9 '18 at 22:56
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    "the Selectric wasn't developed primary as a typewriter, but as printing terminal for mainframe usage." Sorry, but per e.g. Bob Bemer (who was "in the room"), the opposite is true. It was developed by the Office Products Division, they did not believe that it would ever be used as a computer terminal or printer, and it was only adapted for that later - with considerable difficulty because the mechanism was not designed with such use in mind. web.archive.org/web/20110620213445/http://www.bobbemer.com/… – Jamie Hanrahan Jan 13 at 10:05
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Most of you guys sound like you've read a few things but weren't around at the time. Not a complaint, just an observation.

I worked for General Electric Information Services [GEIS] (Div. of GE that sold mainframe time-sharing globally). In the late 70s through the 80s, we used Genicom TN-200 and TN-300 printing (dumb) terminals as text only printers via their RS-232 (serial) port. 300's printed at 75/150/300 BAUD. As I recall, you can just keep up with reading at 300 BAUD. 200's printed at 300 to 1200 BAUD and you could bump it to print at 2400 BAUD but we had to bolt them to the floor because they'd walk all over the place.

We also had several IBM Selectric typewriters which we hacked and added RS-232 ports to use as printers for PCs. The Selectrics we had did not have an RS-232 interface. This did not seem to be real common at the time but there were a few hacked units around. Exec secretaries liked them as they had to give up their typewriters for PCs and WordStar, but they wanted to keep the typewriters text quality for memos and letters.

Daisy-wheel printers were also available but again it was a cost. They also knew getting the techies to convert them was a way to keep the typewriter as it could be used both ways. Eventually someone came out with a upgrade for the IBM typewriter to adapt it as a printer as I recall the kit cost about $30. Damn thing sounded like a machine gun while in use but it did a great job and looked MUCH better than the 9 pin dot-matrix printers of the time did. I can't remember what year they started coming out but 24 pin units were too expensive at the time. Especially when we had a excess of the Selectrics laying around.

As for using the printing terminals as printers, they were indestructible! No sense in trashing them and buying something that produced something that looked no better. Particularly for printing boxes and boxes worth of mainframe logs and things that we were required to print but rarely got looked at. In addition the ribbons on those units lasted much longer than the newer dot matrix units did.

  • That confirms that it was expensive and difficult to use. People who were not working at GE at the time may not have had one. (I never saw one but I was a kid so my experience is with home equipment) – HackSlash Jan 17 at 17:58
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    It would have been more expensive to replace them with new printers. As for working at GE. I also saw this type of reuse in many larger companies such as IBM, AT&T, Ford, General Dynamics, Westinghouse, Lockheed, and of course the military did to a limited degree as did several schools such as Penn State and Carnegie Mellon. As for level of difficulty, machines that had a RS-232 port (serial port) it was just a matter of plugging it in to use as a ASCII text printer. The IBM Selectric hack was not for the novice but the development of a kit made it easy to add the RS-232 port. – Jeff Jan 24 at 14:08

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