How were the screenshots done in the past? Thus was born the eternal PrtScrn


It is one of those “eternal” keys on the keyboards of our computers.One that we do not pay much attention to, but has (or rather had) far more relevance than some might think. The PrtScrn key (or ImprPant, among other nomenclatures) to print the screen solved a few problems in the beginnings of computing.

Legendary keyboards like IBM Model F or Model M adopted this key, which simplified – as its name implies – the task of printing what we had on the screen to a printer. Screenshots have come a long way to the present day, and that makes it hard for many to remember that taking a simple picture of a screen was much more complicated a few years ago.

Almost handcrafted screenshots

The old advertisements of the 70s, 80s and 90s that appeared in computer magazines give a good perspective on how that challenge was dealt with. The solution to show what appeared on the screen was simple: you took a picture of it with a camera, no more.

That, of course, had a trick. The refresh rate of the monitors could make the traditional bands appear in the picture you took unless you adjusted the shutter speed, something that is now easy to correct but had a bit more crumb in those years.

In fact, there were television screens that allowed us to transfer the signal that we saw on the screen of a computer to a television to record that video or capture those images.

Some computers of the 80 did offer RGB output, which facilitated that process of the catchers. The Commodore Amiga, Atari ST or Apple IIgs, for example, had an analog RGB output, and so did various consoles of the era such as the Sega Master System, Super Nintendo or PlayStation.

These video outputs made it possible to connect those computers and consoles to video capture devices that effectively enabled the video signal to be captured and captured, something that in essence could be considered as the service germ like Twitch, in which millions of users share their games in Internet.

However for the first PCs of the time to capture the screen was a small odyssey, and those working in print media used rather craft techniques for the image that appeared on the monitor. In fact they appeared photographic kits like the one of the image that included a great anti-reflective funnel that was coupled to the objective of the camera and got to cover the screen.

Another problem was the type of photographic film used: Polaroid for example had great success with films like the Spectra of 1988 that had an image size of 9.2 x 7.3 inches, much more suitable for the usual aspect ratio 4:3 on CRT monitors of the time.

Image Source: Google Image

And suddenly Prt Scrn was born

These complex methods meant that on some operating systems screen dumps could be made to text files in which only the contents of the screen appeared and not their appearance or the graphics that appeared on it.

This is where the Prt Scrn key started to appear: on operating systems such as MS-DOS the appearance of this key made it possible for the memory buffer containing the text displayed on the screen to be printed on the printer port (usually the LTP1).

That original function was becoming more and more ambitious, and soon the most modern operating systems with graphical user environments allowed to capture the screens without “printing” them in paper.

This did not change the name of the key, however, but its ability, which originally consisted of saving a bitmap of the screen in the clipboard, can then copy that bitmap to edit in editing programs images such as the original Windows Paint.

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Increasingly powerful catches

Nowadays most operating systems rely on different methods to make screenshots. Desktop systems such as Windows, MacOS, or Linux (with their different desktop environments and window managers) have had native tools for years to do so, but mobile platforms have also made it easier.

On Macintosh, yes, there is no Prt Scrn key as such (or any of its variants with different combinations of letters), and instead use different keyboard shortcuts to generate a screenshot or a region defined by the user. In Windows and Linux that function is still associated with that screen because the keyboards used continue to have that key normally, but it is also possible to access different combinations (with or without the Prt Scrn key) so that the capture options are even greater.

In fact, there have been programs specially dedicated to this purpose for some time, and in addition to capturing the screen or a region of the screen offer more options to capture (for example with timer or including or hiding the mouse pointer) and they also give you the option to capture a video (screencast) or edit those images to add all kinds of text and graphic elements a posteriori.

In mobile devices the Prt Scrn key does not exist as such, of course, but there are all kinds of combinations involving the power, volume buttons or home buttons to achieve that screenshot that we want. Tactile gestures can also be used for this function in certain ROMS: in MIUI, the ROM of the Xiaomi mobiles, it is enough to slide three fingers down if we want to take a capture, for example).

That evolution has made this task that was almost unthinkable when we live the beginnings of computing has become something completely natural in our days. Capturing those screens, editing and sharing them is so normal that many times we forget that everything was born thanks to that mythical key that as usual happens nobody imagined that would end up having such an impact.