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Fixing a printer ended with a dozen fire engines in the car park

Where there’s smoke, there’s wet paper

On-Call Welcome once again to On-Call, The Register’s continuing column recounting readers’ tech support traumas.

This week, meet “Rob” who told us about “a late night visit to British Coal to replace a hot-roll fuser on a massive laser printer.’

And not just any massive laser printer but the IBM 3800 printer – one of the first laser printers to go on sale anywhere!

Rob described it to us as “60 foot long, roll fed, would eat a pallet of toner a day” and that’s about right. As this image from the Computer History Museum shows, it was a few metres long. It needed to be because it used continuous feed paper to print 20,000 lines a minute.

Which was pretty hot stuff in the year 1975. IBM’s memorial of the devices says it used “an 18-sided mirror that spun at 12,000 revolutions per minute” to bounce its laser around, making it handy for “preparing bank statements, premium notices and other high-volume documents.”

Enough of the background: Rob replaced the part perfectly, but when testing it “thought I saw smoke coming from the machine.”

Burning laptop

My PC is on fire! Can you back it up really, really fast?


“A minute later the fire alarms went off” so Rob hit the emergency power off button “because I thought that was the right thing to do.”

Of course hitting the emergency button meant that not many minutes later Rob was outside in the car park with lots of other people working that night. They all got to listen to the sound of a dozen fire engines approaching.

And then the sound of those fire engines zooming past, because they’d been called out for a false alarm in another building on the same campus.

Which was a bit confusing: Rob had seen smoke and assumed fire. So why was the alleged conflagration elsewhere?

At this point Rob learned that the batch of paper in the printer had been left in the great outdoors for some unknown period of time and become a little damp. Which meant he’d seen steam, not smoke.

How have false alarms messed you around? Write to On-Call to share your story and might just pop up here on a future Friday. ®

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