While these days it’s easy for us to buy and replace a toner cartridge for our laser printer or copier, it wasn’t always so.

Copies of documents were originally copied at source, either by using carbon paper or by writing or typing the document over and over. It’s hard to imagine today, but large offices would have a whole department filled with typists  dedicated to typing out documents. Even the smallest office needed a typist to churn out the myriad of letters, receipts, manuals and other documents needed to run a business.

There was one way to copy documents away from the source, which was using the photo-direct method. This method basically involved taking a kind of “photo” of the document, however it required special paper and was susceptible to fading and the copy could be affected by heat. Cost was also high because of the production costs of the special paper.

Early Xerox copier disn't use toner cartridges

The first Xerox copy machine

When the dry copy process (which copiers and laser printers is based on) was invented by Chester Carlson in 1938, he didn’t originally envisage using toner, however by the time the Xerox Corporation (then called Haloid) had a machine ready for production, a powder using carbon, iron oxide and a polymer (still the main ingredients of toner today) was used to form the image on the paper.

In the early days replenishing toner in a copier was very messy. You opened a cover in your machine, opened a bottle of toner and attempted to carefully pour the toner into the hole. In spite of various methods employed by manufacturers to prevent spillage, invariably toner dust would spill out. The fineness, water repellant properties and dirtiness of toner not only caused problems with cleanup, it was also dangerous. Fine toner particles in the air were suceptible to a dust explosion, and attempts to vacuum up a fine powder such as toner particles can cause the vacuum cleaner motor to become fused and cause an electrical fire.

Of course, it’s also pertinent to mention that inhaling toner dust is harmful to your health, even though it is usually non-toxic.

Before toner cartridges toner was sold in bottles.

Toner was sold in bottles to tip into the machine.

As well as these problems with toner, manufacturers faced further complications. Toner also needs developer, which are fine beads which act as a carrier. This also needed to be replenished when depleted. This was carried across by a developer roller or bias roller. A photocopier (and of course printer) needs a drum to create the image to be copied, and a wiper blade to wipe off excess toner created by the process. Finally a waste toner container was needed to capture the waste toner.

All these parts needed to be changed at regular intervals, a labour intensive chore which today is still manifested by the myth that copiers and printers need a “service contract” to keep your machine running.

In 1984, HP revolutionised the laser printing (and later photocopier) market with the release of the HP Laserjet printer. The Laserjet gained widespread acceptance due to it’s mess free all in one cartridge. This cartridge contained all the elements needed for printing in one unit – The toner hopper, the developer, the rollers, the drum and the waste toner container. When your toner was depleted, you simply swapped out the old toner cartridge for the new.

Toner Cartridge

Early HP Toner Cartridge

Now it was easy to replace toner cartridges without mess and without endangering your health. There was also the advantage of lowering maintenance costs – there was no need for a serviceman to come out and replace all those small parts any more as everything was renewed simply by installing a new cartridge. Businesses loved the concept.

Some companies took another route, by selling the toner, drums, rollers and waste toner collectors separately – if only for the reason that they didn’t feel it was necessary to replace everything at once when their useful lives may differ greatly. Traditionally Brother toners and drums have been sold separately, as well as many other brands.

Even though companies may now sell the components separately, the all encompassing feature is that all consumables are easily replaceable by the end user and don’t require a service person to perform maintenance. The philosophy behind making the toner cartridge easy and safe for the end user to replace, and to cut down on maintenance costs.

Be thankful that today we don’t need to get dirty pouring toner from a bottle into our machines!


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