PostScript printer drivers

What Is Postscript?

Some of us at How-To Geek might date ourselves and say we remember an important next step in printer evolution—dot matrix printers. These were capable of printing some crude grayscale graphics with rows of pixels, as well as blocky, low pixel depth typography. Although they did have the advantage of creating digital images (although ASCII art sort of counts), the crude typography was a setback for early dot matrix printers. All dot matrix printers took directions on printing images and text in roughly the same way; break it into pixels, printing them in rows as the print head passes along the paper, feed the next bit of paper, and repeat.

Unlike dot matrix printers, plotters are still fairly common, particularly in manufacturing. Plotters move papers, vinyl, or various other materials around on algebraic coordinates to draw, print, or cut smooth, mathematically pure vector shapes with a stylus or knife blade. As we’ve learned, because of the nature of typographic glyphs, vector shapes are vastly superior to pixels for defining abstract, mathematically pure shapes found in type. Because plotters are engineered to move around based on precise math, the instructions on how to create typography and other shapes are fairly easy for a PC to communicate to the device.

The challenge was this: no existing model of PC to print technology could create vector-based, clean typography AND graphics at the same time. What were all the clever geeks supposed to do?

Xerox PARC, and Development Of The First Laser Printer

Xerography, AKA photocopying, was the development printers were looking for. Although Xerography had been invented in the thirties and made commercially available as copy machines in the late fifties and sixties, it wasn’t used in PC printing until Xerox PARC engineer Gary Starkweather designed the first laser printer.

Here’s a graphic and a rough descriptions of how Xerography works: light hits electrically charged areas of the printing drum, the electrons react and those negatively charged areas lose that charge. Toner adheres to the static electricity, and is pressed onto the paper, creating artwork without the use of dot matrix style pixels. And because this printing process was fundamentally different from any of the comparatively crude methods listed above, Xerography was a logical way to print clean type and graphics at the same time. There was one simple engineering problem that had to be solved—how do you create instructions for a printer that can easily do both at once?

17837312_de4a8b1767_zThe Best of Both Worlds: Postscript is the Print Whisperer

Enter Adobe engineers and co-founders John Warnock and Charles Geschke. The pair had worked together at Xerox and had created page description language (or PDL) called Interpress. Interpress solved this engineering problem—it was a system of translating images and complicated shapes into data the printer can use to turn out high quality printed artwork. Interpress was not necessarily the first PDL, and it wasn’t Warnock and Geschke’s last collaboration. Leaving Xerox PARC, the pair developed a flagship product in Postscript, which has remained, even to this day, a graphics industry standard.

Postscript, as the name sort of suggests, is actually a Turing-complete programming language. Directions are written out in a human-readable way, and communicated to the printer, which creates the high quality art from the instructions. Here’s a sample “Hello World” program from

/inch {72 mul} def
/Times-Roman findfont 50 scalefont setfont
2.5 inch 5 inch moveto
(Hello, World!) show

We start to see pretty quickly what kind of instructions Postscript is giving the printer, and just how simple the directions are. Fonts referenced in this program exist in vector form and are called up from separate files—and were a big part of Adobe’s contribution to the digital graphics industry. Here’s a second example, from Mikkel Meinike Nielsen’s page on Postscript:

/Times-Roman findfont 16 scalefont setfont
gsave %save before using translate
105 210 translate %This cordinates places the images on
%the page
%————-The actual image begin———————
76.8 86.4 scale
40 45 1 [ 40 0 0 -45 0 45 ]
ff7fffffffffffffffffffffffffff> } image
%————-The actual image end ———————
grestore %restore the settings from before the translat
0 245 moveto (Text and image, ) show
0 229 moveto (side by side. ) show

This large middle section of gobbledygook is actually hexadecimal code that defines an image. Most Postscript isn’t written by hand like this, but rather by programs. To get an idea of what this Postscript code actually looks like, take a look at this screencap from Mikkel’s page below of the image this code generated. Entire photographic mages can also be re-written as postscript this way—the filetype is called Encapsulated Post Script, or EPS.

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Hewlett Packard HP LaserJet 1320 Laser Printer
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  • 1,200 dpi laser quality
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  • Parallel and USB 2.0 interfaces; PC and Mac compatible
Canon USA (Lasers) Canon imageCLASS LBP6000 Compact Laser Printer
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  • 150-sheet front loading paper cassette, Without USB
  • Windows 7, Windows Server 2008, Windows Vista, Windows Server 2003, Windows XP/2, Mac OS X 10.4.9 & up, Linux
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