Gary Starkweather, who defied his corporate boss to invent the laser printer, a revolutionary development that made it possible to print images and text directly from computer terminals in homes and offices, died Dec. 26 at a hospital in Orlando. He was 81.
Mr. Starkweather, who also won an Academy Award for technical advances in filmmaking, was working for Xerox in the late 1960s when the company was the dominant producer of copy machines.
The technology at the time used a photographic lens to copy an image from one sheet of paper to another. Mr. Starkweather wondered whether it might be possible to skip a step in the process — namely the use of a physical document — and send an electronic signal directly from a computer terminal to a printer.
While officially working on a fax machine project, Mr. Starkweather began to experiment in his spare time with copy machines and digital technology, in effect trying to merge the two. In his graduate courses in holography, he studied lasers — a source of intensely amplified light — and wondered whether he could apply lasers to printing.
“It was a radical idea,” Malcolm Gladwell wrote in the New Yorker in 2011. “The printer, since Gutenberg, had been limited to the function of re-creation: if you wanted to print a specific image or letter, you had to have a physical character or mark corresponding to that image or letter. What Starkweather wanted to do was take the array of bits and bytes, ones and zeros that constitute digital images, and transfer them straight into the guts of a copier. That meant, at least in theory, that he could print anything.”
Mr. Starkweather’s supervisor at Xerox discouraged his experiments, calling lasers “toys.” Mr. Starkweather conducted his work in secret in a hidden corner of a laboratory. “I was running my experiments in the back room behind a black curtain,” he told the New Yorker. Gradually, after experimenting with lasers and optical lenses, he began to get results.
His boss still wasn’t convinced and threatened to lay off Mr. Starkweather’s entire staff. In 1971, Mr. Starkweather was able to transfer to a new research facility in Palo Alto, Calif., where he continued work, filing for patents — held by the company, not by him personally — every step of the way.
“I said to them, ‘I’m trying to build a machine that prints everything,’ ” he recalled in a 2010 oral history interview with the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif. He printed charts and graphs and text in different fonts — and could even print images on glass — all with a high degree of clarity. “I just want to make sure I wasn’t in a dream or something here, because it worked so well I couldn’t believe it.”
Xerox had units working on other printers, but in a test of three prototypes, Mr. Starkweather’s experimental laser printer was far and away the fastest and most effective.
Even then, it took some persuasion before corporate executives gave the green light to the laser printer, which finally hit the market in 1977. The Xerox 9700 became one of the most successful products in the company’s history, making it possible to print directly from computers and leading to a revolution in printing technology.
“The laser printer is arguably the greatest invention made in a Xerox research center,” Xerox’s chief technology officer, Steve Hoover, said in a statement on the company’s website.
Gary Keith Starkweather was born Jan. 9, 1938, in Lansing, Mich. His father ran a dairy processing business, and his mother was a homemaker.
An only child, Mr. Starkweather was constantly taking apart clocks and radios and tinkering in the basement. Neighbors sometimes called to complain that his experiments temporarily interfered with television reception.
He graduated in 1960 from Michigan State University, then moved to Rochester, N.Y., to work for the Bausch & Lomb optical company before moving to Xerox. He received a master’s degree in optics from the University of Rochester in 1966.
While working for Xerox in California, Mr. Starkweather became a consultant to the film industry, helping the digital effects team on the first Star Wars movie in 1977. He received an Academy Award in 1994 for his work on color film scanning with Lucasfilm and Pixar. After more than 20 years at Xerox, Mr. Starkweather joined Apple Computer, where he spent about 10 years working on color imaging technology. He worked for Microsoft from 1997 until retiring in 2005. He later settled in Florida.
He was named to the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2012. A quietly religious man, Mr. Starkweather taught Sunday school and Bible study classes throughout his life.
Survivors include his wife of 58 years, the former Joyce Attard; two children; and four grandchildren.
Even when his experimental work was being thwarted during his early years at Xerox, Mr. Starkweather said he took inspiration in a statement reportedly made in 1929 by Albert Einstein: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
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