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What is an Impact Printer?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 16, 2024
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An impact printer is a printing device typically used in conjunction with a computer that allows the relatively rapid and repeatable printing of visual materials. Though most often used in obsolete printers for text, some forms of impact printer, such as dot matrix printers, continue to be used for certain purposes. Replaced by toner-based and inkjet printers in most applications, an impact printer works by literally impacting letters or shapes onto a piece of paper. Similar in function to a traditional typewriter, this process involves needles or letter-shaped heads striking against an ink-soaked ribbon and impacting a sheet of paper on the other side.

Designed to function similarly to old-fashioned typewriters, an impact printer is somewhat simplistic but suffered from many of the same problems that typewriters faced. Users of impact printers had to worry about changing ink ribbons, jammed heads, and the inability for most models to create different typefaces and styles as well as lacking the ability to make images. Bold type fonts and underline could be achieved through overstriking, which is applying two or more impacts to the same region of paper. Since the letters themselves were part of the physical construction of the printer, without changing the heads with the letters on them, a user could not change the style or font of the printed text.

Impact printers also suffered from an inability to print in anything but monochromatic or black. Since the process requires a ribbon that is struck by each head, the same color is used throughout the entire printing process. The advent of toner-based and inkjet printers that use individual cartridges of color and pigment to create the completed image made reliable and affordable color printing much more accessible. Toner-based printers use a laser and electrostatic to apply dry ink to a page, while inkjet printers propel liquid ink directly onto a surface to create an image or text.

Dot matrix printers, which are a particular type of impact printer, allow greater customization of text, and simple image printing as well. Instead of using heads with letters on them, a dot matrix printer uses a small needle to impact ink from the ribbon onto the page in a tiny dot. These dots are combined together, by the eyes and mind of an observer, into small patterns that form letters and images. Similar in appearance to some newspaper images, dot matrix printers are still used in some businesses because the physical impact of the process allows reliable printing of both carbon and carbonless copies.

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Discussion Comments
By julies — On Oct 09, 2012

I think some people might be amazed that dot matrix printers are still in use by some people today. Depending on the type of business they have and printing they do, they can be cost effective for some people.

Whenever I see one of these old printers at a garage sale I don't even look at them. I was at a sale recently where they had one for sale, and a gentleman was very excited about finding one that was in such good shape. This was a classic example of what one person sees as trash, another sees as a treasure.

By bagley79 — On Oct 09, 2012

I remember my dad having a dot matrix printer, but I have never used one. I started out with an inkjet printer, but now like to use a laser one. My newest printer is a wireless one so I can print when I am away from home.

I remember the dot matrix printers being big, bulky and slow, even though at the time, it was kind of fascinating watching the whole process. This was a big improvement over previous things they used to make a reproduction of something.

My dad used to print a church bulletin every week using a mimeograph machine. Now that is really ancient, and compared to one of those, an impact printer would be updated technology.

By honeybees — On Oct 09, 2012

I have used dot matrix printers, but I also remember having an impact printer. This takes me back to the days when I used a typewriter and had to worry about changing ribbons and keys getting stuck and jammed. There is no comparison to this and the inkjet printer I use today.

By John57 — On Oct 08, 2012

The very first printer I ever purchased was a dot matrix printer. At the time I was pretty excited about the possibility of being able to print from my own computer and that I didn't have to rely on going somewhere else to have something printed.

Technology has sure changed a lot in the printing industry, but at the time, it was a major advantage. If I had to use something like this today, I would think it was archaic and wouldn't have the patience to wait for something to print so slowly.

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