2020-01-11 - ImageWriter II

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Nostalgia is a powerful cultural force. Used for ill, it sells regurgitated products frighteningly well, and its impetus to go to some historical period "again" is a key component of resurgent fascism in the 21st century. But, just as we sometimes contract colds, we're all susceptible to a manic bout of nostalgia from time to time.

Enter my recently acquired Apple ImageWriter II dot matrix printer.

My Apple ImageWriter II (1986-1990 version)

The venerable ImageWriter II sat at the end of every late-'80s/early-'90s public school computer lab table, usually joined to a LocalTalk network configured by people who are now mostly retired. No elementary school classroom was complete without at least one dot matrix banner printed from The Print Shop. Students were often sent home with tiny greeting cards they'd made by double-folding a single-sided print. The novelty (to say nothing of the utility) of desktop publishing hadn't yet worn off.

These things originally retailed for upwards of $1000 in 2020 dollars, but I got this one, tested and fully functioning, on eBay for $85 including shipping. Black ink ribbons for it, as well as tractor feed paper, can still be had on Amazon. It's sturdy as hell; despite the plastic case, there's none of the flimsy, hollow, plasticky feeling one might expect. This is an artifact from an era prior to the ubiquity of planned obsolescence and throwaway culture, a least as it relates to tech gizmos.

Also, the sound it makes is pure, nonsarcastic, music to my ears.

My original intent was to refurbish an Apple Power Macintosh 9600 that was gifted to me in exchange for simply helping the guy get rid of a bunch of contemporary electronic waste. It was a nice one, having been upgraded with a G4 (!) CPU, an ATI GPU with an actual VGA port, a USB/FireWire card, and several other goodies. In its previous life, it had served as a very expensive video editor. In its new life, I added a PCI PATA apdater, a PATA/SATA adapter, and a spare 128 GB SSD I had lying around. I successfully loaded Mac OS 9.2.2 after painstakingly stalking the Internet Archive for the various drivers, utilities, and hacks needed to support all the extra bells and whistles. It was many hours' effort, but it paid off; the printer worked great with it, and the system was stable. Mostly.

I wanted to run the system headless so that I could use it as a sort of automated print server that would print various RSS feeds on some kind of schedule, using a combination of AmphetaDesk (a Perl/XML-based reader) and AppleScript. The idea here being that screens are terrible, and internet news sites are terrible, but both could be made more tolerable by printing out the day's news every morning, like my own little customized newspaper.

But there was a persistent filesystem error preventing the system from booting, which hampered headless operation. No worries! I still have a very old copy of Micromat Techtool for systems of this era. Sort of the Mac equivalent of Norton Utilities (if anyone still remembers that). So I booted to that, ran the filesystem repair, and...the volume would no longer boot. After several hours of tinkering with it, I was unable to revive it. I actually made matters worse by failing to reset the PRAM in the way it preferred, causing it to not boot at all, even with the new PRAM battery I'd purchased for it.

The Power Mac 9600 went back into the storage room, and I fumed.

Fortunately, I'd also gotten an actual G4 from this same gentleman—a Power Mac G4 "Quicksilver 2002" to be exact. This system is about six years newer than the 9600, and much more capable. Sure, with the G4 CPU in the 9600, I could have technically loaded some version of Mac OS X, but it was much less of a chore to get Leopard on the G4. The G4 came with a third-party serial port add-on called a Griffin gPort, for which I found the driver here. Once installed, I followed these excellent instructions (ignoring the bits about the USB/serial adapter he used) to get the ImageWriter II set up. It works great!

Wikipedia article printed from Mac on ImageWriter II

Getting more ambitious, I tried sharing the ImageWriter out on the network, where my other devices could see it. My Windows 10 laptop picked it up and offered to install it! But of course, it wanted a driver. There's some record of the Windows Server 2003 64-bit "C.Itoh 8510" driver working for it under Windows 8.1. This makes sense, because the original ImageWriter was more or less just a rebranded 8510, and the ImageWriter II still uses a C.Itoh printhead. I grabbed a Server 2003 64-bit ISO through illicit means and was able to point Device Manager to the correct driver, but alas, it would not install. There have been some significant driver architecture changes in later versions of Windows 10, so perhaps it would work in 1511 or 1607.

What did work, though, was using the generic text printer driver!

Windows 10 test page in text mode

Have you ever seen a Windows printer test page in text-only mode? I sure hadn't, even going back to Windows 3.1!

Getting a little more bold, I was curious to see what would happen if I printed a page with both text and graphics.

Wikipedia article printed from PC on ImageWriter II

Surprisingly, the driver is smart enough to filter out anything that isn't text. I can't imagine I'll print much from the PC directly, but it amuses me to no end to print things from my Windows 10 laptop on a printer released in 1986.

As for the whole automated-custom-newspaper-from-RSS-feeds thing? I dunno, my mental health has been better since I stopped paying attention, and I'm not eager to start again. That'll probably be a project for another day or another year.