Gary Starkweather - Laser Printer Inventor4:20 PM EST Wed. Nov. 13, 2002
|Gary Starkweather is a stubborn man. Like a dog with a bone, Starkweather spent much of his career at Xerox gnawing on the idea of developing a laser printer. The problem was that Xerox kept trying to take the bone away from him.
"Truth be known, it was not what you would call a popular project," Starkweather said of his laser printer idea. "It was considered something that would never make it to the market in any real sense or have any practical use."
Time has shown that Xerox was wrong in that assumption: Printers now are a pillar of the company's growth strategy. Indeed, Starkweather's drive to create the laser printer eventually transformed a small copier company into one of the world's imaging powerhouses,and revolutionized the computer printing industry.
The roots of Starkweather's quest reach back to 1964, when he was a graduate student in the optics program at the University of Rochester in Rochester, N.Y. He went to work for Xerox, then known as Haloid Xerox, after an 18-month stint at Bausch & Lomb.
"I often refer to [the Bausch & Lomb] job as the best-paying graduate school or the lowest-paying real job I ever had. But it was a fascinating place, and I learned a great deal," he said.
Starkweather said he was drawn to Xerox because of the imaging technology the company was developing. "I was very fascinated with what they wanted to do. At the time, I was an optics guy and was in graduate school at the U of R part-time, and Xerox seemed like a fascinating place to work," he said. "So I went over to Xerox and started working on copiers."
Starkweather's initial projects were ahead of the technological curve, with Xerox's blessing. One such effort was the high-speed facsimile machine. Tasked with the problem of getting enough light on the paper and getting the output device to create an image, Starkweather suggested using lasers, which at the time were a new technology. His idea worked.
Starkweather's breakthrough, however, quickly ran into a hurdle: The jump from high-speed facsimile to personal printers was a more far-reaching development than Xerox wanted to take on.
"One day in 1967, I was sitting in my lab looking at all of these big mainframes when I started thinking, 'What if, instead of copying someone else's original,which is what a facsimile does,we used a computer to generate the original?' " he said.
And so the idea of the laser printer was born. The only problem was that lasers were an immature technology at the time and cost about $3,000 each,an issue that proved to be a real sticking point with Xerox.
But convinced that the cost of lasers would drop over time and that there was a market for laser printing technology, Starkweather stuck to his guns. He was met with major resistance from Xerox.
"He was told to stop working on the laser printer project," said Joyce Starkweather, Gary's wife of 41 years. "But he couldn't. He had to go through with this idea. He ended up working on it covertly, convincing people to get different parts for him so he could build it."
Salvation for Starkweather came in 1970 when Xerox announced in its company newsletter plans to build the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in California. "I called [PARC] and said, 'I've got this idea that I'd like to pursue.' So I went out and talked to them. Interestingly enough, they had a group of folks who were looking at personal computing possibilities, and they had been agonizing over what they would do for a printer," he said. "This appeared to be a natural fit into their long-range plans."
So in 1971, Starkweather packed his bags and moved with his wife and two children from snowy Rochester, N.Y., to sunny Northern California.
"Gary never looked back," said Bob Kowalski, a member of the Xerox PARC laboratory and Starkweather's former technician associate on the laser printer project.
Out of "hostile territory" and finally given the freedom to conduct his research without fear of retribution, Starkweather went to work on building the laser printer. In 1971, just nine months after joining PARC, Starkweather completed the first working laser printer.
"After that, things took off, and by 1973 we had working models of this thing at the facility. [Xerox then decided] to transfer some of the technology to pursue a product," Starkweather said.
The result was the Xerox 9700, the industry's first commercial laser printer, introduced in 1977. "It was a wild success," despite projections that few customers would produce the 200,000 to 300,000 prints per month needed for the unit to be profitable, Starkweather said.
"The first units that came out did a million [prints]," which blew away the market projections, he said. "The average on the first 5,000 or 6,000 units was over a million prints a month, and some people were doing 2.5 million, which is as many as you could do running the printer constantly."
Fresh off the success of the 9700, Starkweather shifted his research onto personal laser printers,and again ran into opposition from Xerox. "Xerox was a company that liked large, fast laser printers. They saw departmental units as the profit center for [laser printer technology]," he said.
Xerox failed to connect the dots and realize that the profit wasn't in the printer but in the toner and the paper, Starkweather said. As a result, the company was beaten to market by Hewlett-Packard, which introduced the first personal laser printer in 1980.
"I think HP just sold its 30 millionth laser printer, and at one point I had planners tell me that there was a market for about 300 units," he said. "They were off just a little."
Xerox has a history of such mistakes, Starkweather said, adding that PARC was incredibly prolific when it came to developing new technology that Xerox wanted nothing to do with.
"Xerox had an interesting capability that has always been characteristic of the company, and that is that it always encouraged new ideas but never really liked to pursue them for very long," he said.
"Things like Postscript, the laser printer, the personal computer, the bitmapped screen, the iconic interface, Ethernet, packet switching,all of this came out of PARC. And none of it, except the high-end [technology], ended up as a product of Xerox."
Xerox's nearsightedness has been well-documented in books and historical articles. It's an image that current Chairman and CEO Anne Mulcahy is working hard to change.
"We would like to do a better job of commercializing the technology we develop," Mulcahy told an audience of about 50 journalists and analysts at a recent Inside Innovation technology event. "A lot of [the failure to capitalize on Xerox-developed technology] is in the past. We will be more aggressive and businesslike in looking for partners to share our investments and reap the benefits."
But 20 years ago, when support from Xerox was hard to come by, it's easy to see how Starkweather might have become disillusioned or bitter. But Kowalski said Starkweather always maintained a positive attitude about his research.
"He was a joy to work with," Kowalski said. "He has this bubbly, effervescent personality that spilled over into his work environment. We spent more than a few late nights in the lab, but he was never one to get grumpy or grouchy."
Maintaining a positive attitude is one of Starkweather's finest qualities, said his wife, Joyce. "Gary is just a nice guy. He enjoys every minute of life," she said. "He has a fabulous wit and a wonderful sense of humor. He's just a neat guy."
Starkweather did see the writing on the wall at Xerox, however, and left the company in 1987 after 24 years of service. Following a 10-year stint at Apple Computer, Starkweather joined Microsoft Research in 1997. These days, his main area of research is display technology.
Outside work, building model railroads takes up much of his time, not to mention the third bay of his garage. "He's always dabbling in something electronic," Joyce Starkweather said. "He has this quite elaborate model railroad that he enjoys in his spare time."
Starkweather also is an avid classical music fan and hopes to someday build a pipe organ, Joyce Starkweather said. "He loves to work in the lab," said the self-professed lab-widow. "It was difficult when the kids were younger and Gary wouldn't show up for dinner because he'd forgotten what time it was. But after a while, I realized that that was our life."
Although Starkweather has slowed down a bit after having spent almost 40 years in the world of high-tech, he said he has no intention of retiring anytime soon.
"My creative juices are still there. I don't see any reason to turn those juices off or attempt to do that because it's fun," he said.
Starkweather's creative juices, in fact, earned him a technical Academy Award in 1994 for his consulting work with Pixar to develop new methods of film input scanning. "[Actress] Jamie Lee Curtis handed it to me," he said of his Oscar experience.
Still, Starkweather noted that research isn't all about receiving awards from beautiful movie stars. "Young researchers often think that they have this bright new idea and everyone's going to love it. Don't expect that," he said. "You've got to be tenacious. You've got to be like a bulldog,hang on to it, push it through and champion the idea."