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Print this file and your printer will jam


Another story from printer-land of 20 years ago: this time about a seemingly impossible bug.

While working on the LPS-20 PostScript software, a bug was filed that said roughly,

Print the attached file. The LPS-20 will jam. You’ll have to open the printer to remove the scrunched up paper.

inside a laser printerWe were no strangers to jammed printers, but a particular file that could jam the printer? Yeah, right. It was crazy.

I printed the file. The printer jammed! I cleared the jam, printed the file again, it jammed again. I printed a different file, it printed fine. I printed a third file, it printed fine. Printed the bug report file again, the printer jammed, WTF!? How can a file reliably cause a printer to jam?

The mystery in this case was solved by the hardware team, because while we software guys were working on the software that fed PostScript files to the printer, the hardware guys were still getting the kinks out of the printer itself.


A laser printer has a drum on which the image is formed, and then used to transfer the image to the paper. In a 20 ppm printer like the LPS-20, the drum rotates once every three seconds. With a PostScript printer, a page could take an arbitrary amount of time to render. If the page takes less than three seconds to render, then the drum will rotate at full speed, with no pauses.

But if the PostScript interpreter takes longer than three seconds to finish a page, then the drum has to stop and wait for the image to be ready. Starting and stopping the drum and all the associated feed machinery is not trivial to get right.

In the case of the bug report file, the page took longer than three seconds, but only slightly longer, so not only did the drum have to stop, but it hadn’t quite totally stopped before it was started again. That mechanical edge case is what made the printer jam. The file had pages that took just the right amount of time to hit a bad timing window in the drive train firmware, and the printer jammed every time. Once the hardware guys adjusted the firmware, the problem went away.

Lessons:

  • Just because a bug seems impossible doesn’t mean it is.
  • Abstractions are everywhere, and they can be broken. As a software guy, I believed that getting the paper into the output tray was a solved problem.

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