Classic Kit Number Seventy Something: Lichtenberg’s Figures

I have to tell you that I’ve been thinking about printers of late. I know. This risks being one of the most boring posts of all time, but humour me and read on.

I’ve been thinking of printers in part because I sit on UCL’s Environmental Sustainability Steering Group. But also because I’m puzzled by the psychology of the printer. Why DO people have printers on their desks? To print documents, of course, you will answer. But if you ask people how much they print a day many report that they print only a dozen pages at most. So while it’s convenient there has to be more to it than that.

Habit plays a large role. When you start as an academic you are often given some basic office stuff to get you going – a computer, a screen and a printer. But that doesn’t explain why, in our General Office, where our support staff and the Head of Department, Deputy Head etc. live, there are eleven printers of nine different models. It occurred to me that owning your own printer has nothing to do with convenience and everything to do with status. Putting a printer on someone’s desk allows them to say “I am Master of my own Destiny”. “Look! I don’t even have to stand up to produce an object that would make Gutenberg drool”. It’s a bit like buying yourself a Mercedes. It doesn’t matter that it doesn’t get you anywhere faster than the clapped out Trabant next to it. Nor that fact that it spends 95% of its life sitting by the kerbside gathering dust and bird poo. It says “I’ve made it”! And that’s enough. Same with printers.
This made me wonder how many printers there were round the Department, and what kind of energy and support load they impose on us. It turns out we have at least 108 printers spread across five stories, we use about 1 millions sheets of paper a year, and need to keep 35 different models of printer cartridges in our stores. Take a look at the panorama below. As far as I can make out we stock more printer supplies than we stock chemicals. Whoever thought Chemistry was our core business?


It’s madness.  And just in time comes UCL’s Print@UCL scheme for pull printing. We hand over our individual printers and in return get strategically located printers operated on a centrally managed service contract that we don’t have to worry about. If we site them “a la Google” in strategic locations to act as condensation points where people will meet and chat, perhaps ideas will flow. Maybe pairing the printers with a cheap coffee machine would help too. Above all, I expect that thousands of pounds of savings will result from the change. I can say that confidently because that is what has been seen elsewhere in the College. And friends who work in “the private sector” are rather astonished that we even allow individual printers.

The project which is now underway with the first shared printer due for delivery in a couple of weeks time. Will that create a stink? Probably. I fully expect opposition. But I’d be surprised if I don’t win the argument within six months.

But it made me ask the question what is the most important piece of shared equipment in a chemistry lab. It’s nothing to do with science. What all of our scientific tools share is a printer to record our results. Photocopiers and printers – at least those for high volume work – use electrostatics to distribute the toner and the history of electrostatic printing is quite fascinating.

I happened to be on set last summer during the recording of BBC Science Club for which I was Mark Miodownik’s understudy. One of the things they recorded was truly astonishing. I”ll probably get into trouble for uploading this video but until they force me to pull it down here is the snippet:

It is a piece of perspex which has been bombarded with electrons. The stored charge is then discharged using an earthed nail. It’s a spectacular demo and the video barely does it justice. In fact, not only do I dream of being able to do the demo for myself, I want one of those trees (in fact you can buy them on eBay). You’ll find lots of information on the Captured Lightning page (thanks to Andres Tretiakov for the link).

The discoverer of this phenomenon, albeit in a somewhat tamer form was Georg Christof Lichtenberg one of those incredibly romantic polymaths of yesteryear. I only wish my German were better so I could make more of his writings.

So in the latest episode of Classic Kit, I give you Lichtenberg’s Figures.


About Andrea Sella

My name is Andrea Sella. I teach and do research in chemistry at UCL in central London in the UK. I also spend a lot time doing public science, cycling with ballast in my panniers, and worrying about how to keep my family's energy consumption down.
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