Did the Print Screen Button Ever Literally Print the Screen (and Can It Again)?

By Jason Fitzpatrick on April 24th, 2015

The computing landscape is full of vestigial bits and pieces from the history of computer development. Today we take a peek at the print screen button and answer one reader’s burning question: did it ever actually print the screen and, if so, can it print it once again?

Dear How-To Geek,

I’m far from a hardcore nerd or computer historian so I hope my question doesn’t come across as goofy. On my computer keyboard there is a button labeled PrtScr which, as I understand it, is for “Print Screen.” When I press it nothing happens. I asked a more knowledgeable friend about it and he told me that when I pressed the print screen button Windows copied the screen at that moment as an image file and placed it on the clipboard. Sure enough if I opened up an image editor and used the paste command the desktop (as it was when I pressed the button) was pasted right into the editor.

My real question though is more of a curiosity. Did the print screen ever literally print the screen to a physical printer? Further, whether it did or didn’t could it print the screen directly to the printer? Perhaps it’s a lazy man’s request, but now that I know I can capture the screen with the printscreen button I want to be even lazier and just print what I see right to the printer without actually cutting pasting, or even opening up the print dialog.

Sincerely,

PrtSc Curious

Perish the thought that your question is goofy. We really love answering questions just like the one you posed here; curious questions about computers asked for the sake of curiosity (with perhaps, as you admit, a dash of laziness to boot). To sate your curiosity immediately, yes the print screen button did in fact print the screen, and yes you can have it perform that same function today.

Starting in the early 1980s the print screen button (typically labeled in shorthand to fit on the key, such as PrtSc, PrtSccn, or so on) began appearing on personal computers and served as a valuable link between the digital world of the screen and the physical world of paper print outs.

In command-line driven operating systems like MS-DOS pressing the print screen button took the text contents of the current screen, pulled from the memory buffer, and dumped them over to the computer’s printer port.

Using the print screen button in such an environment would take the text, seen in the screenshot above, and send it directly to the computer’s printer.

You could pull off an even fancier trick by pressing CTRL+PrtSc. With that keyboard shortcut all command output would be simultaneously displayed on the screen and redirected to the printer; thus you could execute a command with a lengthy output (longer than one screen) and as it rolled by on the screen it would also roll off the printer. As you can imagine this technique, in the early days of computing, was invaluable for creating hard copies of command outputs, code, and other on-screen text.

In modern operating systems, however, the need to print exactly what is visible on the screen is greatly diminished. The print screen button no longer defaults to the physical printer but instead captures the screen as a graphic image (typically a bitmap or PNG file). This image resides in the clipboard until, as you discovered, the user pastes it into an image editor or document.

Although there are abundant screen capture tools on the market including both those built into operating systems (such as the Windows Snipping Tool) as well as popular third-party tools like Skitch, the option do exactly what you desire to do (send the file directly to the printer with no preview, editing, or other user interaction beyond pressing the print screen key) is a fairly rare trick.

Fortunately for us rare is not nonexistent and there is in fact a handy little program that has just the feature you’re looking for. Gadwin PrintScreen is a freeware screen capture and printing tool that does exactly what you’re looking for. There’s just a tiny bit of configuration necessary to yield the exact result you’re looking for.

Grab a copy here, run the installer, and you’ll be greeted with the Gadwin interface, as seen below.

Click on the gear icon in the lower left of the navigation wheel to access the options menu.

In the options menu navigate down to the Post-Capture Actions category. By default most of the options are checked. Uncheck all the options and then check “Send Capture to Printer.” It will automatically default to the default printer on your PC. You can click on the printer name and select the “. . .” button beside it to both change which printer the application uses as well as make minor changes to the printer setup (image orientation, scaling, and so on).

With all the items unchecked but the “Send Capture to Printer” button, any time you press the print screen button from here on out the screen capture will be automatically sent to your selected printer.

Now, we’ll forewarn you, that while it works exactly as advertised you may not be entirely thrilled with the results. Even with tweaking the print margins, scaling, and other options you shouldn’t expect that you’ll get razor sharp prints that look like the same crisp image you see on the screen.

This trick is great for printing a general layout of user interface to scribble notes on but not so great for printing block of text for later reading (a task much better suited for direct printing from your web browser or document editor). None the less it’s a neat little trick and a fun throwback to the early days of personal computing.


Have a pressing tech question big or small? Shoot us an email at ask@howtogeek.com and we’ll do our best to answer it.

Jason Fitzpatrick is a warranty-voiding DIYer who spends his days cracking opening cases and wrestling with code so you don't have to. If it can be modded, optimized, repurposed, or torn apart for fun he's interested (and probably already at the workbench taking it apart). You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 04/24/15
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