A Brief History of Printing
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The 20th century saw the steady development of innovations moving toward mass production, speed, and economy. This began with the invention of the offset technique.

Discovery of offset (early 20th century).

At the same time, lithography was evolving. After the perfection of the first mechanical presses the lithographic process developed along two paths: (1) printing on thin sheets of metal (eg, the tinplate for packaging canned foods) using a transfer process (1878). Here the impression cylinder carrying the metal sheet to be printed did not come in contact with the stone but instead came in contact with an intermediary cylinder covered with rubber, the blanket. The blanket captured the inked image from the stone and transferred that image to the metal; and (2) printing on paper, on cylinder or rotary presses (though used infrequently in the last years of the 19th century).

In 1904 at Nutley, New Jersey, an American printer, Ira W. Rubel, discovered that an image accidentally transferred from the plate cylinder of his rotary to the rubber blanket of the impression cylinder during a paper-feed stoppage could itself be used for printing and in fact produced a superior impression. Rubel and an associate constructed a three-cylinder press, the first offset press, the term since used to describe this increasingly popular printing device.

Dry offset (1920).

A few years later a problem arose in connection with printing the background of checks with a water-soluble ink to prevent forgeries. It was suggested that the lithographic plate of the plate cylinder be replaced with a stereotype plate or with a letterpress wraparound plate, combining the relief of letterpress, which does not require wetting, with the transfer of offset. This process is known as dry offset, or letterset. and has application in all areas of printing.

Since 1950 another process was developed, (used particularly in the United States) combining rotogravure with the transfer of offset for printing wallpapers, plastic floor coverings, paper plates, and other products.

Colour printing.

As early as 1457 a psalter (old testament book of psalms), signed by Peter Schöffer and attributed (by some) to Gutenberg, included, an illuminated manuscript style where the ornamental capital letters of paragraphs were printed in two colours. This was accomplished by the use of two woodcut blocks that fitted one inside the other and could be separately inked, though printed simultaneously.

Experiments to reproduce pictures in several colours from wood blocks were made in Germany in the 16th century. In the 17th century, different colour inks were applied to the different parts of the same engraved metal plate such that all the inks were transferred to the paper in a single pressing. In 1719 a painter, Jacques-Christophe Le Blond, took out a patent in England for a process that used the three primary colours, blue, yellow, and red, and black used for outlining shapes. Using a dense grid, he engraved four metal plates and using the same sheet of paper then went through four successive impressions, each in a different colour.

In the 19th century, the scientific definition of the principles of trichromatism, the fundamental theories of three-colour analysis and the synthesis of colours by photography, the perfecting of coatings sensitive to specific colours, and finally the use of the screen, instead of Le Blond's hand-drawn grid, established the modern trichromatic technique (quadrichromatic when black is also used - 4 Colour)

Automation of composition (after 1929).

The quest to maximize efficiency had from the very beginning raised issues for both the mechanization and the automation of composition. The Monotype system, with its separation of keyboard and caster, had constituted one approach to the solution, since the same caster could work at full speed when fed with perforated tapes produced on several different keyboards.

The perfection of teletypesetter remote-control composing equipment in the United States by about 1929 permitted widespread application of the principle of separation of human function on the one hand and mechanized function on the other. Here the operator produces a tape on which each character and space is represented by a combination of perforations. The tapes are fed into a translator device that reads the tape and, according to each combination of holes, causes the release of the necessary matrices for letters, signs, and justifying spaces. These machines casting one-piece fully spaced lines or slugs are able to produce more than 20,000 characters per hour.

Programmed composition (1950s)

The production of the Perforated tape production remained relatively slow, however, because of the time taken by the operator to decide where to make the division in a word at the end of a line (H&J's - Hyphenation & Justification). Eventually, in the second half of the 20th century, electronics provided the means of automatically making this decision.

In the 1950s the BBR system, named by the initials of three inventors in France, introduced programmed composition. Starting with a perforated tape continuously produced by the operator, a computer assumed the task of determining line length, the places where words break (as determined by grammatical rules and typographic usage), the integration of corrections, and even the presentation of the text according to the layout. The speed at which a final tapes can be produced is limited only by the performance of the perforator, which is the output device of the computer. Operating speeds have exceeded 300,000 characters per hour, or 10 times the capacity of the most modern slugcasting machines.

During the 1960s, perforated tape began to be replaced by magnetic tape, which is even faster, at a rate of about 1,000 characters per second, or 3,600,000 per hour. Although magnetic tape is useless for mechanical composers casting pieces of type or lines in lead, such speed is practical for other kinds of machines not burdened with the weight of lead and the limitations of their mechanical components.


The use of lead with it?s immense weight in the preparation of cylinders for rotogravure, offset plates, or letterpress wraparound plates is impractical. This led to consideration of machines for photographically composing headings using images of the letters before the end of the 19th century. In 1915 the Photoline, a photographic equivalent of the Ludlow, assembled matrices of transparent letters in a composing stick in order to expose the assembled lines of the heading.

First generation of phototypesetters: mechanical.

The next iteration of this idea involved adapting existing typesetting machines by replacing the metal matrices with matrices carrying the type character images and replacing the caster with a photographic unit. The commercial application of this idea resulted in the Fotosetter (1947), a phototypesetter, and its variant the Fotomatic (1963), controlled by a perforated paper tape. Both of which derived from the Intertype slugcasting machine. The Linofilm (1950), derived from the Linotype; and the Monophoto (1957), derived from the Monotype . All retained the mechanical limitations of machines intended to shape lead, their rates of performance however, did not change significantly. Photocomposition still needed to be rethought of in functional utilitarian terms. This approach was explored in Germany as early as the 1920s with the Uher typesetter, having the photographic matrices attached to a rotating disk.

Second generation of phototypesetters: functional.

The second generation of phototypesetters is characterized by the maximum elimination of inherent mechanical limitation factors. Reducing the number of moving parts to only two, employing a revolving disk or drum carrying the photographic matrices and an optical device of prisms or mirrors allowing directional action on the beam of light provided by an electronic flashtube to further eliminate unnecessary mechanical motion.

The first revolutionary application of this notion was the Lumitype, invented as the Lithomat in 1949 by two Frenchmen, René Higonnet and Louis Moyroud. The first model had an attached keyboard with later models having a separate keyboard producing more than 28,000 characters per hour.

A new Linofilm (1954), functional and electronic, selected matrices by the action of the blades on the photographic shutter, producing 12 characters per second, or 43,200 per hour. This model was succeeded in 1965 by one equipped with a drum and having double the output. The Photon-Lumitype 713 (1957) also performs at the rate of 70,000 to 80,000 characters per hour. But at these speeds the benefits of using a rotary matrix case reach their limit because of the problems posed by centrifugal force. The Lumizip 900 (1959) introduced a further revolutionary change by retaining as moving parts only the lens, which scans in a single movement the fixed series of light matrices so as to photograph whole lines of 20 to 60 characters at a time. Outputs of 200 to 600 characters per second, or more than 2,000,000 per hour were now achieved requiring magnetic tape for this machine.

The first book composed with a Lumizip, the Index Medicus (1964), was as much of a landmark in photoyypsetting as the Forty-two-Line Bible had been in printing. Its more than 600 pages were completed in 12 hours. To produce the same work on a typecasting machine would have taken almost a year.

Third generation of phototypesetters: electronic.

Magnetic tape was still faster than the fastest phototypesetters. To narrow this gap, a third generation of phototypesetters appeared in the 1960s, in which all mechanical moving parts were eliminated by omitting the use of light and therefore omitting the moving optical device responsible for operating in its field.

Cathode-ray-tube (CRT) phototypesetters (RCA, Linotron, etc.) operate on a principle similar to that of television: a narrow stream of electrons analyzes an image matrix of each letter and commands the modulation of another stream of electrons onto a luminescent screen, which in turn leaves an impression on photographic film. Performance exceeding 500 characters per second and even approaching 1,000, or more than 3,000,000 per hour were now obtained.

Digiset, a German development appearing in 1965, pushed the use of the electron to its logical conclusion by suppressing the image matrix of the character and simply storing the binary analysis of its design in its magnetic memory. This is, in fact, all that is needed to modulate the stream of electrons onto the final screen. Phototypesetters of this kind (called alphanumerical) have theoretical performance rates exceeding 3,000 characters per second, or more than 10,000,000 per hour, and should be able to approach 30,000,000 per hour. However, speeds such as these exceed the production rates of magnetic tape; and, to approach this incredibly efficient output, a typesetter must be directly connected to a computer with a similarly high rate of output.

Toward direct impression

As the number of characters composed approaches the number of characters printed on a press in the same time period, the narrower this gap becomes. The elimination the press itself is the conclusion since the typesetter can be made to deliver each page as quickly as the press would have. To accomplish this it becomes necessary only to replace the photographic film that the photographer imprints in conventional printing with an inexpensive carrier capable of receiving an image in similar fashion without pressure.

Several pressureless printing processes have already been perfected. In 1923 an electrostatic onset system drew the ink of a cylindrical typeform to the paper by means of an electrical charge. In 1948 two Americans conceived another type of electrostatic printing in which the colouring agent is not ink carried on a typeform but a powder or a solution sensitive to the pull of an electric charge describing an image in a plate. This technique gave birth to xerocopy in office duplicating and, commercially, to xerography for producing posters and maps.

Printing without pressure can also be accomplished on papers impregnated with photosensitive preparations and passed in front of a cathode-ray screen of a phototypesetter. The first experiment using this facsimile printing process was carried out in Japan in 1964 by the Mainichi shimbun, a Tokyo daily newspaper. The image of the newspaper page formed on the cathode-ray screen was then transmitted by radio waves, as in television. The finished image was produced using the electrostatic system, which does not require chemical treatment of the paper after its exposure.

Serigraphy and collotype: a renaissance.

Paralleling the evolution of the three major printing processes, letterpress, offset, and lithography, various other processes also experienced a similar evolution, which has allowed them to survive and to establish themselves as viable reproduction solutions in the course of the 20th century

The art of reproducing a design by forcing ink through the mesh of a stretched silk cloth around a frame (silk screen) while having areas of the mesh blanked out with a stencil plate or mask (serigraphy) had been practiced by the Chinese and Japanese long before the invention of letterpress. In the 19th century textile manufacturers of Lyon adopted it for printing textiles. In the 1930s in Great Britain and the United States the most varied materials (glass, wood, plastic) and even the most varied shapes (round objects, for example) were printed by serigraphy. This is another example of a handcraft that progressed to an industrial technique, particularly with the screen prepared by photosensitization and the printing carried out by semiautomatic or automatic machines.

Another process, patented in France in 1855 under the name Photocollography, was modified in 1865 under the name Phototypy (still used in France) and in Germany in 1868 under the name Albertypy (still used in Germany). This process used photosensitive substances not as agents in making plates for printing but to serve directly as the effective surface of such plates. Known elsewhere as the collotype process, the technique was in great favour between 1880 and 1914, was then neglected, and has recently been revived and mechanized for printing posters and transparencies in black and in colour.

Flexography is a letterpress process using rubber plates on the plate cylinder; it occupies a special place in printing on account of the fluidity of its inks. First patented in England in 1890, and perfected in Strassburg a few years later. Flexographic printing is particularly well suited to relatively coarse surfaces (pasteboard, wrapping paper, plastic or metal film) but has also been used in newspaper and magazine printing. It can be applied by sheet-fed machines but is chiefly used on powerful rotaries.

Three-dimensional printing (1960s)

In the 1960s a three-dimensional print was developed, essentially an illustration bearing two views, superimposed, of the same image taken from slightly different angles, on a transparent mount striped with a multitude of imperceptible parallel strips (Xograph process). On account of these strips, each eye, looking at the print from a different angle, sees only one image. The three-dimensional illusion is produced when this binocular vision is interpreted by the brain.

Office printing.

As industry and commerce have developed, in the 19th and 20th centuries, demand for printed information increased enormously. In the area of office printing the first tool was the typewriter, perfected in 1867. Thereafter, machines appeared that would reproduce large or small numbers of copies of typewritten texts and, later, texts or illustrations of every kind. Some of these machines relied on techniques much akin to those of conventional printing; others developed new methods that were eventually adapted into modern printing. In 1881 the stencil duplicator appeared in England, an adaptation of the serigraphic technique. In 1900 a photocopying machine was invented in France opening the way to facsimile printing. The offset printing process found it?s way into business printing with small offset duplicating machines; by simplifying methods used for preparing the offset plates. These methods were eventually were adopted by commercial offset printers.

The application of the electrostatic printing process to xerocopy, perfected in 1938, has since been taken over by industry.

All the different processes of duplication and reproduction of documents make up reprography. This name was bestowed to these techniques during the first congress devoted to these issues organized at Cologne in 1963. Reprography is competing with conventional printing when a medium number of copies are concerned. In response to the increased need for quality reprography, the typewriter has been improved since the 1950s and given the capability of providing justified composition suitable for conventional printing.

Word processing and Desktop printing -

To be continued . . . .


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