The great leaps forward

Friday, December 18, 2020

The technology of communication has been a vital element of humankind’s development, and for (perhaps) thousands of years, that has meant print kit

Printing is an ancient and noble technology that is characterised by being both an art and a science, and it is the latter of these – print’s technological breakthroughs – that we are celebrating over the next couple of pages. As a process, printing dates back further than we can measure (with any great claims of accuracy) and so we have drawn a line in the sand and started with Gutenberg, the German goldsmith, inventor, printer and publisher born more than 600 years ago…

Johannes Gutenberg

Around 1440, Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg developed a mass production method for casting movable metal type which could be composited into printable pages and re-used afterward. This was accompanied by the creation of an oil-based ink for paper or vellum, and the adaption of the screw-press into an efficient printing machine. Print existed before Gutenberg, of course, but it’s around this time that printing becomes a proper industrialised manufacturing process, and Gutenberg is responsible for bringing many of its aspects together. The Gutenberg-style hand-pulled wooden ‘Common Press’ was to remain unchanged until the adoption of cast iron and mechanisation in the 1800s.

Newspaper production

From around 1556, the publication of regular periodicals begins when the Venetian government publishes Notizie scritte, a monthly news sheet. An early example of news reporting is Michael Entzinger’s 24-page Cologne newspaper covering the defeat of the Spanish Armada. The oldest newspaper still in publication is the Swedish Post-och Inrikes Tidningar, and the oldest British newspaper still in circulation is the London Gazette, dating to 1665. The Times is a relative newcomer, founded as The Daily Universal Register in 1785 before being renamed in 1788. However, as the first The Times anywhere, that’s its complete name; American attempts to rename it ‘The London Times’ are, well, fake news.

Ceramic decoration

In the 1750s, printed tissue paper transfers for ceramic decoration are first used on earthenware tiles (and later porcelain, and creamware) by John Sadler and Guy Green in Liverpool. Soon after Robert Hancock perfects transfer printing on fine porcelain ware for the Worcester porcelain factory, for blue underglaze and mostly black overglaze decoration. Hand-engraved copper plates are used.

Lithography invented

In 1798, in Munich, in what was then Königreich Bayern, Alois Senefelder, an actor and playwright, invents the process of lithography by accident when trying to develop an acid-etched relief printing block made of limestone. He claimed that when his mother asked him to write a laundry list he grabbed the nearest thing to hand – a lump of black wax – and wrote it on a flat stone. After a couple of years experimenting he found that dampening the stone meant that ink only stuck to the wax, and the ink would then transfer to a sheet of paper pressed on top. He teamed up with Johann André, a composer and music publisher, and gradually perfected the new technology, improving both the chemical processes and the special form of printing press required for using the stones. He called it ‘stone printing’ or ‘chemical printing’, but the French name ‘lithography’ became more widely adopted. Over the next two centuries lithography progresses from being a fine art process to the dominant print process worldwide by the 1970s and 1980s.

The Stanhope Press

In 1800, Charles, 3rd Earl Stanhope, a scientist, inventor and politician, developed the first book press made completely from metal. Others soon followed. Cast iron, a material of the industrial revolution of the 1700s, gave a far more rigid frame than the wooden Common Press. It was still hand-pulled, but levers increased the force. This allowed much larger multi-page section sheets to be printed for books, and also broadsheet newspapers. Stanhope and similar designs (such as the Columbian) bridged the gap between wooden and later powered presses. Stanhope’s design could put out around 480 pages per hour, twice what was possible on a Common Press.

Web paper manufacturing

The first continuous web papermaking machine was commissioned by Henry and Sealy Fourdrinier at Frogmore Mill in Apsley (close to modern Hemel Hempstead) in 1801. The brothers, who were the sons of a papermaker and stationer, and grandson of the engraver Paul Fourdrinier, were the first to use this design, patented in France in 1799 by Louis-Nicolas Robert. The key part was a wire mesh continuous loop conveyor belt where wet pulp was deposited and water drained through. Nearly all modern industrial paper mills use developments of the Fourdrinier process. Frogmore Mill can still be visited today as a working visitor centre, though the original Fourdrinier machine is gone.

The Koenig press at The Times

In 1812, German engineer Friedrich Koenig invented the first steam-driven rotary press and installed it at The Times in London, printing the first edition in 1814. He teamed up with another engineer, Andreas Bauer, to build the press, which could print around 1,100 sheets per hour and printed on both sides of the paper in one pass. In 1817 the pair set up their own company, Koenig & Bauer, in an abandoned monastery in Oberzell, near Würzburg in Bavaria. Today, Koenig & Bauer employs thousands of staff and has a turnover of more than €1bn.

First rotary offset litho press

In 1875, the first rotary offset litho press is made by Robert Barclay in England. It was invented to print directly onto metal cans. Originally the offset cylinder was covered in treated cardboard; later this was switched to rubber. In the same year Koenig & Bauer developed the first web-fed rotary letterpress machine.


Georg Meisenbach in Germany patented and developed the first technically successful halftone screen for full-tonal range reproduction of photographs in 1882. He didn’t invent halftones – the idea had been around since at least 1852 when William Fox Talbot patented an earlier concept – he just came up with a method that worked. Meisenbach used parallel lines etched on glass, soon to be followed by cross-line screens, a method used until the development of digital pre-press 100 or so years later.


In 1886, Geman-American inventor Ottmar Mergenthaler, who has sometimes been referred to as a second Gutenberg, perfected the first mechanical typesetting machine for the New York Tribune. This output lines of ‘hot metal’ type alloy (called slugs), hence the name of its manufacturer: Mergenthaler Linotype Company. 10 years later, the Monotype company patented a system to cast separate type characters that allowed corrections. Other major mechanical hot metal typesetting companies followed: Intertype was a Linotype copy, while Ludlow made hot metal display typesetters. Together with Linotype, these machines revolutionised typesetting and lasted until being overtaken by lithography and computerised phototypesetting in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Four-colour process

During the late 1800s the four-colour process for full-colour printing was developed. The dominant method of creating full-colour prints during the second half of the 19th century had been chromolithography. This used multiple prints with a stone for each colour. It was an expensive process and, where the best quality results were required, also extremely slow – depending on the number of colours present, a chromolithograph could take even very skilled workers months to produce. The development of accurate coloured camera filters reduced the required number of inks to just three plus a black ‘key’ layer.


Flexography was invented in Liverpool by Bibby, Baron & Sons in 1890. It uses flexible relief plates (originally rubber, now often photopolymer), liquid inks and latterly anilox (engraved cell) rollers. Originally intended as a low-cost, lower-quality alternative to letterpress, it was widely adopted for flexible packaging after plastics were adopted. It has been adapted successfully for digital platemaking and the past 10 years have seen enormous improvements in plates, inking and presses so it can now rival litho for quality.

The Heidelberg Windmill

In 1925 Heidelberg launched the Original Heidelberg Platen Press, a powered platen press with ‘windmill’ automatic paper feed. Platens date back to 19th-century treadle/flywheel manually operated machines, but the powered Heidelberg was built so well, and for so long, that many survive in printing works today, especially for small stationery, cutting and creasing and/or foiling jobs. The press is both power-driven and power-fed. There are two blades mounted on opposite sides of the roto that rotate from the paper feed, to the platen, to the paper receiver. When one blade is picking up the next sheet, the other blade is releasing the previously printed sheet. The press also automatically inks the rollers. Ink can be added to a reservoir, which is then spread via several rollers before reaching the rollers that make contact with the forme.

Film scanner

Kodak scientists developed the world’s first colour scanner for film, a drum scanner, in 1935. After years of further development the first model was sold to Springfield, a Time Inc subsidiary, and used to produce colour separations for Time and Life magazines. Kodak did not play a prominent role in scanners after that, but it led the way for others such as Crosfield, Dainippon Screen, Hell, KS Paul/Linotype and PDI.


In 1947, John Crosfield founded JF Crosfield in London (later renamed Crosfield Electronics). He and colleague Dennis Bent designed an automatic colour registration system for web presses in 1950 (Autotron), followed by a colour scanner (Scanatron) in 1958 and the revolutionary Magnascan 450 enlarging scanner in 1969. Sold to De La Rue in 1974, the company continued until 1989 when the pre-press side was acquired by DuPont and Fujifilm. Today’s FFEI is essentially the former Crosfield research and development operation following a management buyout in 2006.


In 1938, a US physicist named Chester Carlson was researching methods for copying paper that didn’t require special chemicals and paper, as existing processes had required. After some smelly, explosive and occasionally near-fatal experimentation on his kitchen stove, he invented a process for printing images using an electrically charged photoconductor-coated metal plate and a dry powder he called toner. However, he was not able to find financial backing for its development and it would take until 1960 for a commercial xerographic product to emerge. This was the Xerox 914, as manufactured by the Haloid Corporation, and was the world’s first plain paper electrophotographic copier. Haloid renamed itself Xerox and became a major manufacturer of copiers, then laser printers and digital presses, moving from monochrome into colour, refining the xerographic process. Along the way Xerox PARC invented Ethernet, the computer graphical user interface and the first page description language (Interpress, a forerunner of PostScript). In 1977 Xerox launched the first commercially available laser printer, the 9700. Roughly the size of a modern mid-volume digital press, it linked to a computer and output text and graphics at 300dpi onto A4 sheets, at speeds up to 120 sheets per minute.

Thermal inkjet

Canon and Hewlett Packard started working on the principle of thermal inkjets independently in the late 1970s. Canon engineer Ichiro Endo noticed that a soldering iron touched to a syringe needle full of liquid shot droplets out of the end. John Vaught and a team at HP made a similar discovery. The companies decided to share patents rather than fight in the courts. Thermal inkjets cost less than piezo, but don’t last so long and only work with aqueous inks.


PostScript is the forerunner to today’s ubiquitous PDF. The concept was initially conceived of in 1976 by John Gaffney at Evans & Sutherland, a US computer graphics company. But it was Adobe Systems who took the concept and ran with it, after some encouragement from Apple’s Steve Jobs. In March 1985, the Apple LaserWriter was the first printer to ship with PostScript, sparking the desktop publishing (DTP) revolution in the mid-1980s. The combination of technical merits and widespread availability made PostScript a language of choice for graphical output for printing applications. For a time, an interpreter (sometimes referred to as a RIP for Raster Image Processor) for the PostScript language was a common component of laser printers, into the 1990s.

Apple DTP

In 1985, Apple Computer announced the Desktop Publishing System. This and its successors changed the world of publishing, putting on-screen design, typesetting and layout into the hands of designers rather than compositors and film strippers. Apple’s system combined its Macintosh computer with Aldus PageMaker software accessing Linotype outline fonts, outputting to an Adobe PostScript RIP in a Canon-built Apple LaserWriter A4 laser printer. Linotype simultaneously announced a PostScript RIP for its Linotronic 300 filmsetter.

Wide-format developments

There were several manufacturers working on more or less similar wide-format printing machines in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The first larger format inkjets to make much impression on the market were made by Iris in the US from the late 1980s. These were used for photographic, fine art and proofing applications. Iris was acquired by Scitex in 1992 and after that the proofing side predominated. Digitally driven printers for larger formats in signage were largely confined to £100,000, 44in liquid toner electrostatic models from Versatec, which was subsequently acquired by Xerox. In 1992 Encad in the US developed the NovaJet, probably the first wide-format inkjet with a modern configuration of drop-on- demand heads. This used HP heads and water based inks intended for CAD use, driven by the PowerScript RIP for poster work. It was very slow but only cost about £30,000. Subsequent models were faster and saw the introduction of bulk ink feeding, a more suitable ink developed by Lyson and then in 1996, a 50in-wide model, the NovaJet Pro 50. The late 1990s saw Epson and HP introduce their first models wider than 24in.


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