Gary Starkweather, an engineer and inventor who designed the first laser printer, bringing the power of the printing press to almost anyone, died on Dec. 26 at a hospital in Orlando, Florida. He was 81.
His wife, Joyce, said the cause was leukemia.
Starkweather was working as a junior engineer in the offices of the Xerox Corp. in Rochester, New York, in 1964 — several years after the company had introduced the photocopier to American office buildings — when he began working on a version that could transmit information between two distant copiers, so that a person could scan a document in one place and send a copy to someone else in another.
He decided that this could best be done with the precision of a laser, another recent invention, which can use amplified light to transfer images onto paper. But then he had a better idea: Rather than sending grainy images of paper documents from place to place, what if he used the precision of a laser to print more refined images straight from a computer?
“What you have to do is not just look at the marble,” he said in a talk at the University of South Florida in 2017. “You have to see the angel in the marble.”
Because his idea ventured away from the company’s core business, copiers, his boss hated it. At one point Starkweather was told that if he did not stop working on the project, his entire team would be laid off.
“If you have a good idea, you can bet someone else doesn’t think it’s good,” Starkweather would say in 1997 in a lecture for the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.
But he soon finagled a move to the company’s new research lab in Northern California, where a group of visionaries was developing what would become the most important digital technologies of the next three decades, including the personal computer as it is known today.
At the Palo Alto Research Center, or PARC, Starkweather built the first working laser printer in 1971 in less than nine months. By the 1990s, it was a staple of offices around the world. By the new millennium, it was nearly ubiquitous in homes as well.
“We still use the same fundamental engine to print billions of pages a day,” said Doug Fairbairn, a staff director at the Computer History Museum who worked alongside Starkweather at PARC. “It was all Gary’s idea.”
Gary Keith Starkweather was born on Jan. 9, 1938, in Lansing, Michigan, the only son of Richard and Crystal Starkweather. His father owned a local dairy; his mother was a homemaker. Their home was near a junk shop, where Gary would bargain for old radios, washing machines and car parts that he could tinker with in the basement, taking them apart and then putting them back together.
“As long as I didn’t blow up the house, I was allowed to do whatever I wanted down there,” he said in a 2010 interview with the Computer History Museum.
While studying physics at Michigan State University, he met Joyce Attard, a nursing student two years behind him. They married in 1961 and moved to Rochester so that he could join Bausch & Lomb, which at the time made lenses for eyeglasses, cameras, microscopes and other equipment.
After several of his colleagues were laid off, they moved to Xerox, and he followed them.
His move to PARC came after he read about the lab in the company’s newsletter. After visiting PARC in 1970, he phoned his wife in cold Rochester and asked how she felt about moving to sunny Palo Alto. Her response, he recalled, was, “I’ll have the furniture in the street by the time you get home.”
As he developed his printer, his new colleagues built a personal computer that could drive it: the Alto, a machine that eventually gave rise to the Apple Macintosh and Microsoft Windows PCs.
“One of the goals of the Alto was to build a computer that could work with images that were as flexible as those made with all the tools of graphics arts that had been developed over the previous 500 years,” Butler Lampson, who founded the Alto project, said in an interview. “We made it possible to do that on the screen. And Gary made it possible to take the information on the screen and put it onto paper.”
By the mid-1970s, Starkweather’s printer could plug into an entire network of Altos, printing documents from across the lab at a rate of a page a second. After the lab split into two buildings, he and a colleague built a system that could transmit print jobs across the street wirelessly. It was, in many ways, a blueprint for the office of today.
“A 60-page document could be printed in the time you spent walking to the printer to get it,” Alan Kay, another key PARC researcher who helped design the fonts used by the printer, said in an interview. “No one had ever experienced that before.”
In addition to his wife, Starkweather is survived by their daughter, Amy Beth Oosterhouse; their son, Keith; and four grandchildren.
After leaving Xerox, Starkweather moved to Apple and then Microsoft, the two biggest companies of the computer age. In 1997, while still at Apple, he gave a speech about the rise of the laser printer.
The first successful product sold by Xerox in the late 1970s cost more than $5,000 to manufacture, he said. He then held up a circuit board that drove the printers of the late 1990s. It cost just $38, making his product accessible to nearly any home or business.
That was not something he had ever imagined.
“A little work takes you a long way,” he said. “Even as technologists, when we think we are on the edge, we are not on the edge.”