Laser printing is the only Xerox research project to generate significant revenue and profit for the company. However, it predates PARC. Subsequently, most Xerox laser printing revenue came from licensing the technology to other firms. Despite their success in the enterprise market and strong brand Xerox never built a widely used Xerox-brand laser printer.
In 1967, Xerox employee Gary Starkweather pondered generating an image rather than copying one from reflected light, the method used in traditional xerography. His idea involved using lasers to create the light on a drum that would subsequently attract toner, similar to a photocopy.
Not surprisingly, given their management skills, Xerox executives hated the idea. Too expensive, too impractical, and who would ever need to create a copy using a laser. Thereupon, they thought up every reason to kill the project, and – demonstrating their only creative abilities – generated a few more.
Starkweather smartly stuck by the idea. A move from the staid Xerox Webster Research Center, in Rochester, to the newly formed Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, Xerox PARC rescued him and his idea.
Xerox Invents Laser Printing
Eventually, his invention came to fruition. The first version was named Scanned Laser Output Terminal, or SLOT. Next came the Ethernet, Alto, Research character generator, Scanned laser output terminal or EARS. Somebody wisely stopped him from trying for a third name and branded it the Xerox 9700.
Despite inventing it, in 1976 IBM beat Xerox to the market with a high-speed industrial printer, the IBM 3800. However, Xerox brought the 9700 to market the next year, in 1977.
Xerox Blows It
Subsequently, Starkweather attempted to pivot to personal laser printers but was stymied, this time successfully, by Xerox management. He argued toner and paper would be more profitable than machines, similar to Gillette’s disposable razor and razor blade approach. Nonsense, argued Xerox executives; Xerox makes money from selling machines, not supplies. Hewitt Packard eventually introduced the first personal laser printer and owned the market.
In 1987, Starkweather quit Xerox to join Apple for a decade and later worked at Microsoft.