Star Wars and the man who gave lasers to wannabe typographers

The story of an unassuming inventor whose ideas changed the world is just another tale from the catalogue of missed opportunities that was Xerox's Paolo Alto research centre.

Better known is the story of how Steve Jobs was entertained at Xerox PARC and came away with the WIMP - windows, icons, mouse, pull-down menus - concept which soon formed the basis of his Apple Mac.

And even though they had a better crack at it than the company's Webster research centre in New York state, Xerox still initially grasped the opportunity created for them by Gary Starkweather, who died last Boxing Day aged 81.

Expensive to start with, the laser printer was a concept like the desktop publishing it aptly complemented, that could only come down in price as it moved from the industrial to the consumer space. Forget that most users created dog's-breakfast typography, even when limited to the standard 35 fonts which were part of the Postscript package, and bitmappy quality which was not much better than the screen resolution of the day, this was going to change the world.

Only Xerox didn't see it, at least at first.

Starkweather had come to Xerox Webster from Michigan state university, where an idea he had to image graphics as well as text was so poorly received that he had to pursue it in a little-used corner of the lab. A proposal that Xerox buy a laser to pursue his research also got short shrift.

Then came an opportunity to move across the country to Palo Alto, where young researchers were being encouraged to "think outside the box". His first laser was bulky and expensive to build but showed what was possible, and with the launch of the Xerox 9700 seven years later, industrial-scale production brought the price down... as well as the size.

By the time Apple had brought its Macintosh to market in 1984, the laser printer - which Apple marketed as the LaserWriter - was desktop-sized, albeit significantly more expensive than the much-smaller Mac.

Today you can buy a colour laser printer, based on the same technology, for A$200 (US$140).

Starkweather moved on to research at Apple and Microsoft, and even won an Oscar in 1994 for his technical contribution on the scanning of colour film - with Lucasfilm and Pixar - on films including the original Star Wars.

Xerox lauded the technology from which they made millions, at celebrations to mark the fortieth anniversary of the Xerox 9700, with chief technology officer Steve Hoover describing it as "arguably the greatest invention" to come out of its research centre. But as former PARC member Doug Fairbairn remarked, "He never got a lot of publicity or credit for what he did."

LA Times columnist Michael Hiltzik, who wrote a book about Xerox PARC, recalls how the unassuming Starkweather wangled a place there and then called his wife to see if she was up for the move from Rochester to California: "I'll have the furniture in the street before you get home," she told him.

Peter Coleman

Pictured: Starkweather at Apple - the prototype laser printer he built at Xerox PARC is now on display at Computer History Museum (CHM/Facebook photo)

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