Modern-day Gutenbergs

posted in: Art | 0

Four roommates turn their house into a printer museum and it’s, well, exactly what you’d expect…

Photography | Erin Williams, Lauren Hunt and Maggie Graff
Clockwise from left: Nick Saunders, Tim Moore, Thomas Eastman and Tyler Bisson.
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A haphazard display of printers on the museum hearth.
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Live demonstrations with working printers are an integral part of The Harrisonburg Printers Museum experience.
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Bisson, the museum’s resident inkologist, performs an ink extraction during a Friday tour session.
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One of the most prized printers was signed by members of traveling bands who stayed overnight at the museum.
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Bisson illustrates how portable printers can be with a game of catch.
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Story | Lauren Hunt

“I’m sorry we don’t have a complimentary PB&J for you tonight,” Nick Saunders, the curator of the Harrisonburg Printers Museum, says to the visitors in the tour group. “Our intern and PB&J maker is out getting bread right now.”

Saunders lets the group into the museum and leads them through the foyer and into a small den on the right that is packed to the brim with printers. There are Christmas lights strung around the room, giving off just enough light to read the placards beside each printer.

“You’ve caught us a little early,” he says. The scheduled tour doesn’t start for another 15 minutes or so. “If you don’t mind, we’re going to go get ready. Please, have a seat.”

The Harrisonburg Printers Museum is housed in a small house in downtown Harrisonburg which is marked by a printer strung from the roof. The museum is open for tours from 5 to 5:30 p.m. on Friday afternoons.

The house doesn’t only hold a museum, it also provides opportunities for community involvement. It’s housed several alternative bands, including Juan Wauters and Tonstartssbandht, and boasts printers signed by members of both bands.

Tim Moore, Saunders’ roommate, is the president and excavator of the museum. He started the idea for the printer museum in late 2012 when the four roommates were sophomores.

“We were coming up with a name for our Relay for Life team and I decided to name the team ‘Interact With Your Printer,’” Moore, a senior industrial design major, says. From there, the idea developed into the museum. “Our job here is to be a steward and a collector of printers and we do that every single day of our lives. Now we’re proud employees of the Harrisonburg Printers Museum.”

The nonprofit museum showcases printers that have been donated by friends, family and Winchester Municipal Waste. It aims to educate the community about the world of printing.

When the four roommates come back downstairs, the tour group is given some fizzy drinks in lieu of the missing PB&Js. The tour begins; Tyler Bisson, a senior English major and the museum’s inkologist, pops a cassette tape into a boombox that’s set up in the hearth of the fireplace. The room fills with synthesized melodies.

“I’ve made some tunes to accompany the tour,” he says.

One of the first things the guides show the group are the lightweight, “semi-portable” printers.

“This is the arrow display,” Bisson says. Four small pieces of plywood, tied together with rope, are anchored into the wall and hold a printer on each level. “None of these printers are over five pounds.”

He takes a Lexar P707 off of the top of the display and tosses it across the room to Thomas Eastman, a senior quantitative finance major and the museum’s chief financial officer, who then tosses it to Saunders before it’s placed back on the shelf.

“Very portable,” Saunders says. “It just falls right into your arms.”

Looking around the room, there are printers in every available space. Some are in displays on bookshelves, while some are simply stacked on top of each other. There’s a pyramid formation of printers stacked on the mantle of the fireplace in the living room.

“You’re catching us kind of in a transitional period,” Bisson tells the tour group. “Winchester Municipal Waste, just this Thursday, dropped off twelve printers.”

The museum showcases a total of 67 printers, although some are still being certified for use and qualifications.

“Our job here is to be a steward and a collector of printers and we do that every single day of our lives. Now we’re proud employees of the Harrisonburg Printers Museum.”

Saunders explains that the process is long and involves an intern of the museum banging on the printer with a hammer for 20 to 30 minutes straight to test the durability. Bisson then extracts any ink cartridges left in the printers for the ink display that’s located in the next room.

The wide variety of printers provides a wide variety of learning opportunities.

“What do a printer and a baseball have in common?” Saunders asks the group. “Besides the fact that they can be thrown around, like we just demonstrated. Any ideas?” 

The tour group exchanges confused looks and shrugs.

“Okay, we’re talking speed here,” Saunders tells the crowd. Surprised laughter rings throughout the room. “Now, you can throw a 106 mile per hour fast ball right down the strike zone with a baseball, but here, we have a wide range of ppm, or page per minute.”

“Pages per minute,” Bisson chimes in. “That’s how we measure speed here in the printer world.”

“It’s the name of the printer game,” Eastman adds.

Next, the tour moves on to a display of printers on a bookshelf on the other side of the room.

“Let’s talk about the archeology of these printers,” Bisson walks over to the display and places a hand on the printer on the top of the display before turning to the crowd.

“How old do you think this printer is?” he asks. Various answers between 20 and 40 years are shouted out and he nods. “All of those are pretty good guesses, but the actual answer is that this printer is as old as time itself. Because matter is neither created nor destroyed. “

The answer is met with laughter and some groans from the audience.

“I just like to bring this up because people think about printers as just this junk thing, just objects,” Bisson explains. His passion for printers is apparent. “But someday your great, great, great, great grandchild, maybe, will have matter in his or her body from this printer when it goes back into the ground and is reabsorbed and recycled by the Earth.”

Located in a living room across from the printer room, the ink display is a glass case set into the wall and filled with several ink cartridges from different printers displayed in numerical order.

The true gem of the museum is Bisson’s favorite is a transparent ink cartridge from Staples.

“[The cartridge] is a bit of a mystery because we really don’t know what printer this would go to,” Bisson says. “Because as far as we are aware, Staples never made printers.”

The newest edition to the museum is a wall of USB printer cords, which hang around the ink display.

“The printer USB cable is one of the only universals in the printer world,” Bisson explains. He carefully removes one of the cords from the wall and holds it up for the tour to see.

After the ink room, the tour group is in for a real treat: a live demonstration of an ink extraction.

Bisson snapps on a pair of gloves, pulls a pair of goggles over his eyes and walks over to a large printer on a table in the middle of the room. He begins prepping for the extraction. The back flap is taped back with clear packaging tape to reduce the chances of him losing a fingernail because of it falling, he explains. He gives a demonstration of the flap falling. It slams shut with a decisive clack, which is met by gasps from the audience.

“Sometimes the ink is hard to grab because you don’t have much grip,” he says as he begins working on getting the cartridge holder out from its resting place so that he can work on the ink. “Because if your hand slips it’s going to get stuck in the gears.”

He works on the cartridge holder with a knife, and after a few seconds of struggle, the cyan cartridge pops out of its place.

“There we go!” he says. “Look at the fat on that!”

He holds it up to the light and examines it before checking the opacity by banging the cartridge on a piece of paper to shake out some ink. He then spreads it out on the piece of paper.

“If [the ink is] at 70 percent opacity, then it’s usually good,” Moore explains. “This one actually is not looking good.”

The ink cartridge is then placed in a bag to be arranged in the ink display later. Bisson returns to his work of extracting the other cartridges. He pulls out the three other standard ink cartridges, yellow, magenta and black. But this printer holds a surprise.

“So this is actually really interesting, this is the first time we’ve seen this at the Harrisonburg Printers Museum,” Bisson says as he turns to face the members of the tour sitting on the couch. “What we have in this printer is photo black. Now, that the deepest black you can get. It’s true black.”

Surprises like these are why the four love to run the Harrisonburg Printers Museum. It’s really opened their eyes to how most people interact with their printers.

“They take them when they’re old and just put them in the basement,” Bisson says. “But they don’t get rid of them and that says a lot to me. It says that printers have a lot of sentimental value.”