Dot Matrix

Image by LUEK

Angelo Pricolo reflects on noisier and more frustrating times in community pharmacy… and a new, intrusive menace

The pharmacy has become a quieter place as technology has improved conditions. The most exciting progress for pharmacy was the death of the medieval-looking dot matrix printers. The noise created by this hardware was enough to boil your brain in its own cerebrospinal fluid.

Dot matrix printing uses a print head that moves back-and-forth, or in an up-and-down motion on the page and prints by impact, a bit like a wrecking ball on a demolition site. These early printers strike an ink-soaked cloth ribbon against paper, similar to the print mechanism on a typewriter. Ribbon malfunction was a common cause of frustration.

We were lucky enough to need at least two or sometimes three printers to handle medicine labels, repeat forms or invoice paper. What a joy when all were printing together. It sounded like a group of kindergarten kids had taken over the percussion section in the orchestra pit.

Some days it felt like there was a little spinning steel ball with all the alphabet’s letters, colliding directly with my forehead. The printer incessantly obeyed the server and spat out page after page, label after label.

Even though it may sound like I had it in for them, the advent of the dot matrix printers was revolutionary and appreciated. Starting my working career as a first year student in 1984 at Markov’s Pharmacy in Elgin Street, Carlton, my early relationship with the dispensary typewriter, our main form of communicating instructions, was not amicable.

And the typewriter was just for the medicine label itself, whereas repeat authorisations were handwritten. In fact, my successful job application was due to how neat and legible my handwriting was! So when computers and printers arrived on the scene, by comparison, it was party time.

But eventually the noise from the printer’s head, like bouncing metal balls, created a rhythmic melody that could even trigger an epileptic fit (just my theory with no evidence, but if a kaleidoscope can do it…) Often you didn’t realise until you had cause to go outside. Even at the other end of the shop there was no escaping the bada bing bada boom.

The added bonus was the alignment challenge of the little holes on the specially designed paper with the sprockets on the paper harness. Surely paper’s greatest fear was to end up on this torturous track.

The faster you typed the more likely the inevitable paper jam and subsequent reprint would result. Stress and perspiration mounted as patients stared and waited. We were a slave to the dot matrix printer but had to stay calm. It was the master and we were there to serve it.

In an office setting where background noises drowned out the printer, there was really no issue. But the pharmacy dispensary, with its confined space, telephone ringing and simultaneous customer queries, made you feel locked in battle.

Only those that have survived the dot matrix era can relate. A bad printer day is worse than a bad hair day but in those days it was all amplified.

So whoever invented the laser printer and the thermal printer should receive pharmacy’s highest honour and then some. The change in the workplace was like blonde to brunette. Now every night after work I glance lovingly at my machines and reflect on the silent service they have delivered on this day.

The revolution was complete. The old ways were banished to the archives, remembered and recounted to the young graduates only around the water cooler.

I try to convey my appreciation to the lasers and the thermals in the hope that they and their toners will live forever (a bit of financial love in there too). I have true affection for them and always protect them in the event of any rough treatment witnessed or even suspected. Beware belligerent, pugnacious staff!

The harsh jerky dot matrix clamber was replaced with the cosmic hiss of the laser. We entered a new era with huge printers that were almost silent workers. Reams of blank paper were converted into perfectly legible text and spat out effortlessly in seconds. The nemesis of the paperless environment was born.

But somehow, as we enjoyed the dulcet tones of the wonder printers, a new noise has entered the lexicon. It is somewhat individual but repetitive and it follows you like a bad smell… there is no escape.

The mobile smartphone has replaced and taken over the airwaves and created a different musical theatre. One that requires your constant attention, instant reaction and it has legal jurisdiction to interrupt any conversation.

That is, unless muted with the silent button, but then you risk instant isolation from social happenings. For some this can be a fate worse than death itself.

The smartphone is not content with saturating and devouring just the one sense. It demands you look at it and touch it like a love struck partner and it vibrates even if you choose to ignore it… for a while.

It has created applications that demand you attend to it with one finger in a rhythmic and hypnotic flicking manner. A bit of a teaser really. You stop only when interest is heightened, and then it demands the touch of a second finger to enlarge the focus. It really is a smart device.

We look forward to the next installment in our technological world where progress is measured by its direct impact on our life and sometimes can feel like it comes at a price.

Angelo Pricolo is an addiction medicine pharmacist and former National Councillor of the Pharmacy Guild of Australia.

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  1. Paul Naismith

    Thanks Angelo for the memories of the dreaded dot matrix noise machine. In the early days of development of Fred Dispense back in the 90’s my prime aim was for a silent dispensary. Much experimentation with the help of trail blazing pharmacists testing early model mega expensive laser printers and silent thermal laser printers that used ink films. It took a while for the technology to deliver what we needed with the breakthrough thermal printer from Eltron (now owned by Zebra) and great Kyocera lost cost lasers. Job done! Now we move to remove the paper completely with electronic scripts and reduce the waste, cost and complexity of printing all together. Just like the dot matrix the days of lasers printed repeats and reports will come to an end, fully replaced by the trusty phone, ipad and computer screen.

    • Ex-Pharmacist

      Thanks Paul, and when that day arrives (100% e-scripts) you can retire fully satisfied with the wonderful contributions and indeed revolutions that PCNU/FRED has made to the Pharmacy industry. Such a pity the PGA have shared in your success.

  2. Angelo Pricolo

    Thanks Paul, yes silence can be bliss especially when you are trying to think! Thanks to the FRED team for striving to make the life of a pharmacist more comfortable as this serenity is reflected in our relationship with patients. Agreed, e-scripts are the long awaited new frontier!

  3. Joanne Byrne

    I remember the dot matrix printers well!! The frustration of trying to line up the box at the top of repeats so everything printed in the right place, each printer seemed to align slightly differently & the paper would always run out when you were alone in the dispensary with 20 scripts to do! Now the annoying noise makers are barcode scanners!!

  4. Pete Tzimos

    I remember working Saturday nights when we would print out the hot-seal Douglas foils for a nursing home. 300 something packs to be printed on that thermal paper using an Oki-data dot matrix. The job would take over an hour. God forbid you weren’t watching it every 30 seconds to make sure the roll hadn’t jammed and the printer just kept printing over the same bit of foil over and over again. But how good was the paper that the repeat forms were mounted on re used as note paper in the dispensary. At least for now we have the little squares from the bottom of scripts to use.

  5. Geoffrey Timbs

    what about the reams of paper that needed to be ordered, stored, processed and stored again for 2 to 5 to 7 years, then security shredded……needed a whole room. A stocktake printout could take an hour, stocktake was transmitted to the wholesaler from a PDE via a cuff attached to the phone speaker (handpiece attached to base attached to wall) accompanied by high pitched beeping. PDEs (portable data entry) for stock control was the size and weight of a brick, six digit product codes had to be entered manually before barcode readers arrived.
    The PDE unit had large buttons and a red digital diplay like the early digital watches. Data had to be entered precisely and certain buttons like F for Function were pressed in correct order to stocktake or create or send an order- I remember one team member repeatedly pressing buttons and mumbling F’n’C, F’n’C, F’n’C to the surprise of waiting clients.

    Everything required constant attention to avoid disaster- rebooting the one dispense terminal could take 15 minutes


    I always had fond memories of dot matrix printers, this background white noise would often provide welcome relief from whining customers and (sometimes) staff!

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