~dbalan/blogng unlisted

aa854a7618989ddc7d960b3406edb2ee0d76dc61 — Dhananjay Balan 1 year, 10 months ago c3c45a2
Draft for plotter post.
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layout: post
title: "Resurrecting an HP 7440A plotter"
date: 2019-02-23
comments: true
tags: plotter, art, python, hardware, recurse

I finally decided to give in to the FOMO of
[#plottertwitter](https://twitter.com/hashtag/plottertwitter?lang=en) and bought
an old plotter off ebay. Me being in batch at [Recurse
Center](https://recurse.com) helped a lot, from the decision to get one to
[nerdsnipe](https://xkcd.com/356/) Alex into collaberating with me. All of this
work below is done with him.

## What is a plotter anyway?
Plotters are devices that can transfer vector graphics onto to a physical
medium. Core of a plotter is the arm that can move in 2 axes around the medium,
and ability to put the pen "Down" (draw) and "Up", to position before starting
to draw. Versions of plotters exist where paper is replaced with other flat
materials like vinyl and pen with a knife to cut rather than to draw.

I like to think plotters as the naive solution to the problem that computers
should be able to draw. Smaller, expensive memory chips (or [magnetic
cores](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magnetic-core_memory)) in earlier computers
made working with raster images hard.

## HP7440A 
HP was on top of the plotter game when they were popular, so much
that other manufacturers started to support
[`HP-GL`](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HP-GL) (short for `HP Graphics
Langauge`) as the way to talk to their plotters as well.

HP7440A _"ColorPro"_ was an affordable plotter produced by HP, it can hold 8
pens at the same time and switch between them automatically and draw on surfaces
as large as A4. [HP Museum has a longer post about this

Ours came pretty unscathed, with the original manuals!

First thing we did was to open it and clean it. I was quite surprised by how
easy it is to open, take that 2018 tech!

![7440 open](/images/7440a_open.jpg){ width=600px }

Internal mechanism is pretty simple, There is two servos. One for moving paper
back and forward, and one for moving the pen left and right. There is also a
solenoid based lever to put the pen down and up. 

## Talk To Me

![7440 interface](/images/7440a_interface.jpg){ width=600px }

However, our plotter didn't come with any cables to either power it or to send
commands. Power was the biggest mystery <power picture>

After digging through the manuals, and the [hand drawn schematics from HP
Museum](http://hpmuseum.net/exhibit.php?hwdoc=80), we managed to identify power
supply to be a `10-0-10` AC to AC. Luckily someone was selling one in ebay, but
we couldve built one ourselves if not.

Communication turns out be standard serial, however our plotter has a `DB-22`
adaptor, so we had to use a `DB-22` to `DB-9` and `DB-9` to `usb` adaptor.

.. and finally our plotter moves!

<video width="600" height="450" controls>
  <source src="/images/7440a_printing.mp4" type="video/mp4">

## Gooo faster.

HP7440A has a limited amount of buffer space (about 60 bytes), so if we send a
longer command list to the interface, it will just drop the overflow bits and
stop to respond.

Our first naive solution was to add `1s` sleep between sending subsequent
commands, however this made drawings really slow and there was ink bleeding on
the paper when the plotter is waiting for the next command.

Another recurser Francis pointed us at the wait [function in

It is a clever hack, the idea is to send the HPGL command `OA` as a marker, `OA`
sends the current pen position back from plotter, so we batch a bunch of
commands, suffix it with `OA`, and as soon as we see the position on the line,
we know that the current set is consumed and we can send the next batch again.

The code for it looks like this
import serial

# combine command together with maxlen buflen and expose as an iterator
def stitch(body, buflen=40):
    start = ["IN;PU;", "SP1;"]
    end = ["SP0;"]
    final = start + body + end

    ## read in 20 bytes at a time or boundary
    count = 0
    buf = []
    for ins in final:
        if count + len(ins) >= buflen:
            yield "".join(buf)
            buf = []
            count = len(ins)
            count += len(ins)

    # send rest of the code
    yield "".join(buf)

# cmds is a list with semicolon attached to the command
def exec_hpgl(cmds):
    port = "/dev/cuaU0"
    speed = 9600

    body = stitch(cmds)
    with serial.Serial(port, speed, timeout=None) as plt:
        for ins in body:
            # size (Esc-B) returns bufferlen
            # For block sent, end with OA, which reports back current
            # position on the pen
            c = ""
            data = ""
            while c != '\r':
                c = plt.read()
                data += c
                print("read: {}".format(map(ord, c)))
            print("OA return: {}".format(data))
            # We got data, mean OA got executed, so the instruction buffer
            # is all consumed, ready to sent more.

This made the plotter super fast!!!

## Everything's a line anyway!
After initial success we quickly realized our plotter does not respond to any
commands that involved HP-GL instructions to draw basic geometry, like `CI` for

A re-reading of the manual made us realize HP sold these functionality as an
[hardware adaptor board that plugs in the
bottom](https://support.hp.com/us-en/document/bpp01354), which we don't have.

But everything in computer graphics is a line anyway right? With some [roots of
unity](https://support.hp.com/us-en/document/bpp01354) we came up with a circle
drawing routine.

<video width="600" height="450" controls>
  <source src="/images/7440a_circle.mp4" type="video/mp4">

## This is only the beginning

Hardware wise, the only thing remaining to fix is our pens, which expired in
1996! We are yet to come up with a strategy to refill/replace them.

![Plotter Pen](/images/7440a_pens.jpg){ width=600px }

I am also going to leave this plotter at RC, so that other recursers continue
hacking on it, and get another one for me and actually to some generative art.

## Notes
1. Big thanks for Amy and Francis and Alex S for their help at various points.
2. All of our python code is here: [https://github.com/dbalan/plotter-scripts](https://github.com/dbalan/plotter-scripts)

A images/7440a_circle.mp4 => images/7440a_circle.mp4 +0 -0
A images/7440a_interface.jpg => images/7440a_interface.jpg +0 -0
A images/7440a_open.jpg => images/7440a_open.jpg +0 -0
A images/7440a_pens.jpg => images/7440a_pens.jpg +0 -0
A images/7440a_printing.mp4 => images/7440a_printing.mp4 +0 -0