The 3D printer was originally invented (and patented) in 1986 by Charles Hull who founded 3D Systems. He coined the term “stereolithography,” a name that Hull made up to fit his invention. (Hull also gave us the .stl file format.)  I interviewed Charles Hull at the Bay Area Maker Faire and I wanted to ask him what he meant by “stereolithography.”

3D Systems’ CTO Charles Hull & MAKE’s Dale Dougherty: The Origins and Future of 3D Printing from Maker Faire on

Scott Faber, as an editor for Discover Magazine in the 1990’s, discovered early 3D printers and wondered what they would be called, writing an article titled “Printing in 3D”.  He thought “stereolithographer” was awkward at best. So, with the last name of Faber, Scott decided that these new machines should have a name more similar to his own. He wrote: “The machine is called a stereolithographer (which means “three-dimensional printer”) but to its friends it is a fabber (which is short for “fabricator”).”

Faber was right that “faber” is an interesting word. In Latin, it can mean artisan or craftsman, often used in the phrase “Homo Faber.” It is man who uses tools and makes tools. It is what we mean by maker.

Here’s the top of the Wikipedia entry Homo Faber:

Homo faber (Latin for “Man the Creator” in reference to homo sapiens meaning “wise man”) is a philosophical concept articulated by Hannah Arendt and Max Scheler that refers to humans as controlling the environment through tools. Henri Bergson also referred to the concept in The Creative Evolution (1907), defining intelligence, in its original sense, as the “faculty to create artificial objects, in particular tools to make tools, and to indefinitely variate its makings.”

Given when he wrote the article, Faber was entitled to say that 3D copiers and 3D faxes “are just over the horizon.” He quoted physicist Marshall Burns, who said: “If the scanner and the replicator are far apart, you have a 3D fax machine.” Burns predicted that “within 15 years, fabbers will be inexpensive enough to have at home as well at on aircraft carriers.” Burns wasn’t off by much.

Today, we are using fabricators and replicators from RepRap to [email protected] to the MakerBot Replicator 2. You can find these machines in Fab Labs and just about anywhere. But why do we call these machines “3D printers?” It’s the “printer” part that confuses people who think of prints as paper. Is this amazing extruding machine really printing? Hull thought so, when use he referred to “lithography,” a printing process (Lithos is Greek for stone). Most books are produced using offset lithography. “For offset lithography, which depends on photographic processes, flexible aluminum, polyester, mylar or paper printing plates are used instead of stone tablets.” (Wikipedia on Lithography). There is microlithography and nanolithography.

Are 3D printers a continuation of developments in a modern technology that started over 500 years ago with Gutenberg? Printers use a variety of materials and processes, and now you can print in 3D. Or will we look back one day and think that these fabricators represent the beginning of something entirely new, and we might consider 3D printer such as MakerBot the start, not the end, and that’s there’s generation of 3D machines we haven’t seen yet. Maybe we should have been calling them something other than printers, a better name such as “fabbers.” Scott Faber may have been on to something, at least on paper.

Here is a link to a scanned image of the article Printing in 3D by Scott Faber, which was provided by the author.