Plotters print their output by moving a pen across the surface of a piece of paper. This means that plotters are restricted to line art, rather than raster graphics as with other printers. They can draw complex line art, including text, but do so very slowly because of the mechanical movement of the pens. (Plotters are incapable of creating a solid region of colour; but can hatch an area by drawing a number of close, regular lines.)
Another difference between plotters and printers is that a printer is aimed primarily at printing text. This makes it fairly easy to control, simply sending the text to the printer is usually enough to generate a page of output. This is not the case of the line art on a plotter, where a number of printer control languages were created to send the more detailed information like "draw a line from here to here". The most popular of these is likely HPGL.
Early plotters (e.g. the Calcomp 565 of 1959) worked by placing the paper over a roller which moved the paper back and forth for X motion, while the pen moved back and forth on a single arm for Y motion. Another approach (e.g. Computervision's Interact I) involved attaching ball-point pens to drafting pantographs and driving the machines with motors controlled by the computer. This had the disadvantage of being somewhat slow to move, as well as requiring floor space equal to the size of the paper, but could double as a digitizer. A later change was the addition of an electrically-controlled clamp to hold the pens, which allowed them to be changed and thus create multi-colored output.
For a time in the 1980s smaller "home-use" plotters became popular for experimentation in computer graphics. But their low speed meant they were not useful for general printing purposes, and you would need another conventional printer for those jobs. With the widespread availability of high-resolution inkjet and laser printers, plotters have all but disappeared.
Plotters were also used in the Create-A-Card kiosks that were available for a while in the greeting card area of supermarkets.
Plotters are used primarily in technical drawing and CAD applications, where they have the advantage of working on very large paper sizes while maintaining high resolution. Another use has been found by replacing the pen with a cutter, and in this form plotters can be found in many garment and sign shops.
A niche application of plotters is in creating tactile images for visually handicapped people on special thermal cell paper.
Note that in many of today's environments, plotters in the traditional sense have been supplanted with (and, in many cases, obsoleted by) large-format inkjet printers. Such printers are often informally known as plotters, even though they are not by the definition of this article.
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