As If By Chance: Part II

Sketches of Disruptive Continuity in the Age of Print from Johannes Gutenberg to Steve Jobs

The invention of offset printing

Turning now to an examination of the available information about the invention of the offset printing method by Ira W. Rubel yields additional hints for untangling the peculiar socio-historical phenomenon of invention by accident.

It is true that little has been published or is readily available about Ira Washington Rubel, the man or the inventor. Rubel began his working life as a litigating attorney after graduating from Northwestern University in 1881 and, in that same year, founded along with his brother Charles, the Rubel Brothers printing establishment in Chicago. Their printing business thrived and, with the support of two more Rubel brothers, expanded into paper manufacturing. The Rubel Brothers Paper Manufacturing Company opened a production facility along the Passaic River in Nutley, New Jersey sometime around 1901 and it was at this location that Ira W. Rubel developed the first offset printing press.

Rubel died suddenly from a stroke at age 48 in 1908 while he was exhibiting his offset press invention in London. He did not, as far as we know, leave behind a written account of his work as an innovator. This lack of resources about Rubel’s accomplishment—even though he is universally acknowledged as the inventor of the offset method of printing on paper—has been taken note of by others.

The authors and editors of The Lithographer’s Manual took particular interest in the fact that “the origin of the offset press is one of the least discussed subjects in the literature on printing.” It is also true that major works on the development of printing—for example S.H. Steinberg’s Five Hundred Years of Printing (1955)—barely mention Ira W. Rubel, offset printing or the circumstances under which the invention was made. Referring to Rubel as “the America printer” who designed the offset press in 1904 in just one sentence, Steinberg does not repeat the story of accidental invention.

One of the challenges in locating documentary records of Rubel’s invention is the fact that he was unable to obtain a patent for his invention in the US. If a patent application were available, it is likely that details of his work could be before us in black and white. Rubel was not able to obtain a US patent because offset printing on paper was considered by legal experts to be a replication of the tinplate printing method invented twenty-five years earlier. This technique used cardboard as the “blanket” between the printing plate and the tin substrate. It is clear from the records that are available that Rubel’s inability to have his invention patented contributed both to the lack of authoritative historical records as well as his early death.

There are several important original sources available that help explain how the “accidental” attribution came to be applied to Ira W. Rubel’s groundbreaking innovation. The editors of The Lithographer’s Manual rely upon an account given by Harry A. Porter, Senior Vice President of the Harris-Seybold Company, in a report to the Detroit Litho Club on December 14, 1950. Porter confirms that Rubel operated “a small paper mill in Nutley NJ” where he manufactured “sulphite bond and converted this paper lithographically into bank deposit slips.”

Significantly, Porter says that at the time Rubel developed the offset press, “lithographic stone presses had a rubber blanket on the surface of their impression cylinder.” The impression cylinder “pressed” the paper against the stone and thereby performed the transfer of ink. The Lithographer’s Manual goes on:

Whenever the feeder, then not a machine but a person, missed feeding a sheet when the press was operating, the inked image was transferred to the rubber blanket from the stone. The following sheet would then be printed on both sides because the rubber blanket transferred the inked image to the back of the sheet. It was generally known that this unintentionally made transfer produced a print superior to that made directly from the stone. Mr. Rubel noticed this fact and decided to utilize it as the basis of a printing press.

An anecdotal description of the events in Rubel’s workshop, specifically regarding the accidental discovery made there, is provided by Carl Richard Greer in his Advertising and its Mechanical Production (1931):

The boy who was feeding the press forgot to send a sheet through, with the result that the image on the stone was transferred, or offset, on the rubber blanket. When the next sheet went through it did not give the effect Rubel desired and he threw it aside. The sheet turned over and on its back, but printed in reverse, Rubel found the design printed exactly as he desired. He asked the boy how this had happened, and was told. For the remainder of the afternoon they experimented, and then Rubel went home and set to work on the design of a press to print indirectly by offset from a rubber blanket.

The Smithsonian Institution possesses at its National Museum of American History in Washington, DC, one of the first presses built by Rubel. The Smithsonian brief describes the press without reference to an accidental invention:

This sheet-fed rotary offset press was built in 1903 by Ira Rubel of Nutley, New Jersey. Its cylinder measures 36 inches in diameter.

The Rubel offset press was the earliest of several rotary, offset machines produced in the first decade of the twentieth century. It was invented in 1903 by Ira Washington Rubel, the owner of a small paper mill and lithographic shop in Nutley, New Jersey. No businessman himself, Rubel formed a partnership early in 1906 with a Chicago lithographer, Alex Sherwood, setting up the Sherbel Syndicate as a monopoly to distribute the press. Sherbel presses were built for the syndicate by the Potter Printing Press Company of Plainfield, New Jersey. The syndicate failed later that year, and the press was redesigned and sold as the Potter offset press, becoming the chief rival to the Harris offset press. Eventually, in 1926, the Potter and Harris companies were consolidated. Rubel himself went to England to promote his machine in 1907 and died there in 1908, at the age of 48.

This model was operated in Rubel’s plant in New York in 1904. In 1905 it was purchased by the Union Lithographic Company of San Francisco for $5,500 and shipped to California. It waited out the San Francisco earthquake and fire on a wharf in Oakland, and was put to work in 1907. The maximum speed of the press boasted about 2500 sheets per hour; the sheet size was 28 inches by 34 inches.

Additional information about Ira W. Rubel as an innovator—also minus any reference to misfeeds or accidents—was written by his business associate Frederick W. Sears of New Zealand and published in the Penrose Pictorial Annual (1908-09). After the construction of twelve machines and the failure of the Sherbel Syndicate—later giving rise to the Harris-Seybold Company as the primary manufacturer of offset presses in the US—Rubel traveled to England for the first time in 1906 and there met and established a relationship with Sears. The two agreed to build and sell presses with Rubel’s design in cooperation with a group of engineers in London.

Sears wrote the following tribute to Rubel at the time of his death. It establishes that the man from Nutley, New Jersey was indeed a determined innovator, as well as a gentleman:

There is no doubt, however, that Rubel was the man who showed the world what the off-set machine could do, and although there are several makers of these machines to-day, Rubel’s stands out in front of them all. I met him the first day he arrived in England, some three years ago. I was the first to see his machine run in London, and I joined business with him, and was with him to the last. He was the kindest and gentlest-natured man I have ever known, and everyone with whom he came in contact liked or loved him. Some twelve months ago he had a slight stroke of paralysis at the Derby Hotel, Bury, when we were at tea, but with great care he pulled round, and was able to visit his native land, returning to England in February last. He was never the same man, occasionally he appeared to be himself again, and we all tried to believe the worst was over, but the warning had been given, and our hopes were vain. On Wednesday, the 2nd September, 1908, whilst we were sitting at lunch at the Derby Hotel, the hand of death was laid on him. He dreamily dosed and opened his eyes—we carried him to bed—and he never opened them again. He was conscious only occasionally, and died at 9:10 p.m. on the 4th September, 1908. His body was cremated at Manchester on the following Monday, and the ashes are to go to his native place to be laid at rest in the family vault beside his father, mother and brother. Nobody who is not related to him will miss Rubel more than I do. I cannot yet realize that he is no more. I seem to look for him and his letters which came every day.

Rubel’s death was certainly tragic. He would not live to experience the recognition he was to receive the world over for his innovation and, as far as we know, neither he nor anyone in his family ever benefited from his invention.

It is clear from the above review that: (1) Rubel spent years working on the perfection of the offset press design; (2) the “unintentional” transfer of ink to “the back of the sheet” was “generally known” by most owners of lithographic presses of that era; (3) Rubel’s unique contribution was not only that he experienced this misfeed problem on his rotary lithographic press, but that he decided to exploit it; (4) Rubel noticed that the accidentally reversed and indirect image from the rubber blanket of the impression cylinder onto the back of the sheet was superior to that of the right-reading image printed directly from the lithographic printing surface onto the same sheet of paper; (5) he experimented from this point forward and worked on “the design of a press” based upon the indirect offset method of transferring ink to paper.

The importance of the four descriptions of Ira W. Rubel and his invention of the offset printing method—by Porter in 1950 published in The Lithographer’s Manual, by Greer in his 1931 book Advertising and its Mechanical Production, by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and by Sears in 1908 published in the Penrose Pictorial Annual—is that they establish two important facts about the disruptive technological advancement that parallel the previous biographical description by Senefelder of his invention. On the one hand, something accidental occurred, and then, on the other hand, the inventor foresaw the potential contained within this chance event and used it to bring about a significant technological leap.

In the case of Alois Senefelder, a chance writing of a laundry list upon a limestone revealed possibilities to the determined inventor that he had not previously considered. Further experimentation to exploit the accidentally discovered properties of the stone led Senefelder to invent an entirely new printing process based—not upon the mechanical transfer of ink from a raised surface to the paper—but upon the chemically separative properties of oil and water, i.e., the ink was attracted to the image on the limestone made with an oil-based writing implement and repelled by the surface covered with water. Senefelder’s breakthrough was a critical step in the transition of print technology from the era of handicraft that began with Gutenberg and lasted for more than three centuries into the age of manufacturing that began in the early nineteenth century.

One hundred years later—and coming near the end of the mass industrialization of printing—in the case of Ira W. Rubel, a misfeed that was a commonly known error in rotary lithographic printing presses with a rubber blanket impression cylinder led to a significant discovery. Rubel transformed this “mistake” into the foundation for a new offset printing press design. Of course, no one could have known at that time how completely the combination of these two breakthroughs would go on to disrupt the domination of the letterpress method and transform the entire printing industry in the twentieth century in the form of offset lithography.

As If By Chance: Part 1

Sketches of Distruptive Continuity in the Age of Print from Johannes Gutenberg to Steve Jobs

The understanding that there is no element of chance around or in us, but that all things, both mind and matter, follow an ordered pattern, supports the argument that even the simplest blot or scribble cannot exist by pure chance or without significance, but rather that the viewer does not clearly recognize the causes, origins, and occasion of such a “drawing.”

Adrian Frutiger, 1989

Necessity is blind only so long as it is not understood.

G. W. F. Hegel, 1817

Everything existing in the Universe is the fruit of chance and necessity.

Democritus, circa 400 BC

It is notable that some of the most important inventions in the history of print technology are recorded as having come about by chance. In contemporary accounts and in the historical record, it is said that major breakthroughs in printing were achieved by way of accidental events. Much in the same way school children are taught that the natural scientist Sir Isaac Newton discovered the law of gravitation after an apple fell from a tree upon his head as he sat in his mother’s garden, stories of significant invention in the history of printing have been told and retold as being the result of lucky mistakes.

Two well-known examples of this phenomenon are found in the accounts of among the most significant of modern printing innovations: the invention of lithography by Alois Senefelder at the end of the eighteenth century and the invention of the offset printing press by Ira Washington Rubel at the beginning of the twentieth century. In both cases, the technical advances made by the inventors are often attributed to accidents. Here are two citations:

Lithography was invented around 1796 in Germany by an otherwise unknown Bavarian playwright, Alois Senefelder, who accidentally discovered that he could duplicate his scripts by writing them in greasy crayon on slabs of limestone and then printing them with rolled-on ink.

Department of Drawings and Prints, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2004

Offset printing, also called offset lithography, or litho-offset, in commercial printing, widely used printing technique in which the inked image on a printing plate is printed on a rubber cylinder and then transferred (i.e., offset) to paper or other material. The rubber cylinder gives great flexibility, permitting printing on wood, cloth, metal, leather, and rough paper. An American printer, Ira W. Rubel, of Nutley, N.J., accidentally discovered the process in 1904 and soon built a press to exploit it.

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica, July 1998

Readers of these passages would not be blamed for thinking that Senefelder of Bavaria, Germany in 1796 and Rubel of Nutley, New Jersey in 1904 were the beneficiaries of pure luck or that they fortuitously stumbled their way into print technology history. However, this would be a false or at least incomplete way of looking at the contributions of these two innovators.

Why is the word “accidentally” included in the above accounts of historic inventions that took place more than one hundred years apart and together established what is known as offset lithography, a technology that revolutionized the printing industry and remains today the dominant method of transferring an inked image to paper? Why is it that stories of accidental invention—even from authoritative sources like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Encyclopædia Britannica—persist for both men, despite evidence in the historical record that Senefelder and Rubel went about their work as innovators with deliberation and were striving to improve the printing process through methods of ingenuity, experimentation and science?

Uncovering the answers to these questions requires something of an investigative journey. While it may be a fact of popular interest that Senefelder and Rubel are known as much for the accidental way they arrived at their achievements as they are for the achievements themselves, it is also a fact that invention by happenstance has occurred in the history of science and innovation more often than is generally known. Since the “accidental” attribution tends to overshadow and mystify the technical progress attained—in printing as well as other disciplines—it is instructive to examine these two inventions in detail and to locate the place of Senefelder and Rubel within the whole of printing history.

In untangling the riddle of invention by happenstance, it is necessary to: (1) investigate the historical record and review the facts of what is known about the printing innovations of Senefelder and Rubel; (2) look outside print technology and into the prevalence of “invention by accident” more broadly in the history of scientific discovery; (3) explore the source of the need for legends of innovative serendipity; (4) make a theoretical analysis of the two-sided and contradictory role of “accidents” in technical and scientific progress in general; and, (5) return to Senefelder and Rubel and show how their inventions were manifestations of disruptive continuity in the history of printing.

Sketches of other significant moments in this continuum of technological innovation—from the epoch-making invention of mechanized manufacturing of metal type characters by Johannes Gutenberg in the 1440s up to the present era of electronic and digital media that began with the desktop publishing revolution of the 1980s associated with Steve Jobs of Apple Computer—are found in the biographical posts on this blog.

In examining the inventions of Senefelder and Rubel, it is fortunate that, in the case of the former, an account written by the inventor himself is available and, in the case of the latter, there are three technical reviews and a posthumous tribute to the inventor written by a close business partner at the time of his death.

The invention of lithography

In 1817, at the urging of his colleagues, Alois Senefelder wrote down the story of his life along with a detailed description of how he invented lithography by experimental methods. He also provided a step-by-step technical guide for those wishing to learn and practice the art also known as “printing from a stone” or “stone printing.” Senefelder’s account was published one year later in the German volume entitled Vollständiges Lehrbuch der Steindruckerey (A Complete Course of Lithography). The work was translated into English by J.W. Muller and published by The Fuchs & Lang Manufacturing Company in New York in 1911 as The Invention of Lithography.

The relevant passages from the 1911 English text are found in the first chapter, “Section I: History of Stone Printing, Part I: From 1796 to 1800.” Owing to the challenges associated with the translation of the German-language first person account from 1796 into English, along with Senefelder’s manner of description, it is necessary to quote passages at some length from his text.

As mentioned in the above quote from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the young Alois Senefelder was an aspiring playwright and was motivated to start a printing firm so that he could publish his own works. Senefelder wrote that he was familiar with the procedures of the letterpress printing process of his day, “I had spent many a day in the establishments,” and that “it would not be hard for me to learn.” Senefelder also had a “desire to own a small printing establishment myself” because—having studied both public finance and law for three years at the University of Ingolstadt—he wanted to “earn a decent living” and “become an independent man” by going into business.

However, it was economic reality—a lack of the financial resources required to become a printer—that drove Senefelder down the path of innovation. As he wrote, “If I had possessed the necessary money, I would have bought types, a press and paper, and printing on stone probably would not have been invented so soon. The lack of funds, however, forced me to other expedients.”

Senefelder gave details of three different approaches he took in an effort to replicate the letterpress method without the ability to purchase the technologies that were readily available to others with the requisite capital resources. These were:

  1. To etch letters in steel and then “impressing them on pear wood, in which the letters would show in relief, somewhat like the cast type of the book printers, and they could have been printed like a wood-cut.” He abandoned the approach, “I had to give up the whole thing through lack of implements and sufficient skill in engraving.”
  2. To purchase “enough types to set one column or folio” and transfer the letters “to a board covered with soft sealing-wax, and reproduce the relief plate thus obtained in stereotype form.” Although this method was a technical success—especially after he began “mixing finely powdered gypsum with the sealing-wax” and “made the latter harder than the ordinary type composition”—Senefelder was unable to move forward because, “even this exceeded my financial power.” He gave up on this plan, “especially as I had conceived a new one during my experiments.”
  3. To learn “to write out ordinary type letters exactly, but reversed” with “an elastic steel pen on a copper plate covered in ordinary manner with etching surface” and these plates would be given to copper-plate printers for the press work. Here, Senefelder had difficulties because, though he learned quickly the skill of writing in reverse, “I could not correct the errors made during writing” because the “accessories of copper-plate engravers, especially the so-called cover varnish, were quite unknown to me.”

Senefelder then “labored desperately to overcome the difficulty” and tried three sub-methods within this “elastic steel pen” approach:

(a) Having “attained much chemical knowledge” during his days as a student, Senefelder began working with “spirits of wine and various resinous forms” and “oil of turpentine and wax” as methods for making corrections on the copper plate. However, he abandoned these materials because the chemical solution frequently became heavily diluted and “caused it to flow too much and dissolve the etching surface, at which time several well-done parts of the engraving were ruined.”

(b) Still determined to work with copper plate, Senefelder experimented with a wax and soap mixture as a material that could be used for correcting mistakes. He used, “a mixture of three parts of wax with one part of common tallow soap, melted over the fire, mixed with some fine lampblack, and then dissolved in rainwater, gave me a sort of black ink with which I could correct faulty spots most easily.” But this path “presented a new difficulty” in that he had only a “single little copper plate,” and, after he “pulled proofs at the house of a friend who possessed a copper-plate press,” he had to spend “hours again laboriously grinding and polishing the plate, a process which also wore away the copper fast.”

(c) To get around the limited copper plate resources, Senefelder transitioned to experimentation with “an old zinc plate of my mother’s,” that was “easier to scrape and polish.” However, “the results were very unsatisfactory,” because the “zinc probably was mixed with lead,” and he did not have a “more powerful acid” that could penetrate it.

Finally, Senefelder moved on to transferring a printed image to paper based on “a handsome piece of Kellheimer stone.” He explained, “The experiments succeeded, and though I had not thought originally that the stone itself might be used for printing (the samples I had seen hitherto of this Kellheim limestone were too thin to withstand the pressure exerted in printing), I soon began to believe that it was possible. It was much easier to do good work on the stone than on the copper.”

He began working “in order to use the stone just like copper” and trying “all possible kinds of polishing and grinding without attaining my purpose completely.” Senefelder wrote that moving from copper or zinc plate to printing from a limestone did not immediately result in the invention of lithography, “I had invented little that was new, but simply had applied the copper-plate etching method to stone.” And furthermore, “I was not the first discoverer of stone-etching, nor of stone-printing; and only after I made this new discovery which I will describe now, which led me from the engraved to the relief process, with my new ink, might I call myself the inventor of an art.”

In the midst of his detailed survey, Senefelder made it clear that he decided to write his account in 1817 in order to set the record straight, “I have told all of these things fully in order to prove to the reader that I did not invent stone-printing through lucky accident, but that I arrived at it by a way pointed out by industrious thought.”

However, he went on to say that his experiments with etched, i.e., mechanical and relief and not yet chemical, processes on stone “were entirely checked by a new, accidental discovery. Until now I had invented little that was new, but simply had applied the copper-plate etching method to stone. But this new discovery founded an entirely new form of printing, which basically became the foundation of all succeeding methods.” [Emphasis added]

Senefelder then recounted his well-known story of accidental invention:

I had just ground a stone plate smooth in order to treat it with etching fluid and to pursue on it my practice in reverse writing, when my mother asked me to write a laundry list for her. The laundress was waiting, but we could find no paper. My own supply had been used up by pulling proofs. Even the writing-ink was dried up. Without bothering to look for writing materials, I wrote the list hastily on the clean stone, with my prepared stone ink of wax, soap, and lampblack, intending to copy it as soon as paper was supplied.

As I was preparing afterward to wash the writing from the stone, I became curious to see what would happen with writing made thus of prepared ink …

My further experiments with this relief plate succeeded far better than my previous ones with etched letters. The inking in was much easier, and hardly one quarter of the force was necessary for making impressions. Thus the stones were not so liable to crack, and, what was the most important for me, this method of printing was entirely new, and I might hope to obtain a franchise and even financial aid.

It would take further experimentation with the stone by Senefelder to finally arrive at the invention of lithography, “Even this method, new in 1796, still was purely mechanical in its purpose, whereas the present printing method, which I began in 1799, may be called purely chemical.”

The following can drawn from the above summary of Senefelder’s own account of his invention: (1) Senefelder began in 1796 by experimenting and practicing with multiple materials and chemicals as he sought to develop an affordable mechanical printing process that was less capital intensive than the letterpress method; (2) he insisted that he did not invent lithography “through a lucky accident” but by way of “industrious thought”; (3) he stated that his efforts to come up with an alternative mechanical method to letterpress “were entirely checked by a new, accidental discovery”; (4) he told the story of how, while working with a limestone as a mechanical image transfer base, he wrote a laundry list upon the stone and from here new possibilities then occurred to him; (5) it would take three more years of further experimentation with the limestone before the “purely chemical” printing method was discovered in 1799 that become known as lithography.

It is highly significant that in his own account Senefelder presented two different and internally contradictory explanations for how he made his breakthrough. In one sentence, he wrote that he did not invent lithography by “lucky accident” but by “industrious thought” and, in another sentence, he contradicted himself and said his experiments with mechanical methods on limestone “were entirely checked by a new, accidental discovery” that subsequently led to his invention of the “art” of the purely chemical method of printing.

This shows that Senefelder was perplexed in his attempt to explain the two opposing determinations that appeared to him as simultaneously true. Since he could not have expressed the genuine relationship between accident and necessity in the invention of lithography in a clear and scientific manner, Senefelder instead gave two separate and mutually exclusive explanations for how it happened.

It becomes plain from this that it is Senefelder himself who is responsible for two different stories: one stating that he invented lithography by an “accidental discovery” and another that he arrived at stone-printing not “through lucky accident” but by deliberately experimental methods. While this explanation appears to confound rather than clarify matters, Senefelder’s contradictory elaboration provides an important clue to solving the riddle of why stories of chance discovery in the history of printing have come to be the predominant ones.

Football lessons from the ‘71 Point Boro Dust Bowl

The 1971 Point Pleasant Borough High School Varsity Football team

When I was a little kid, I learned about the game of football from my father, Loren Donley. Among my earliest memories are watching NFL games with him on a black and white TV with rabbit ears in Point Pleasant, New Jersey in the mid-1960s. We watched the Green Bay Packers beat the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL championship game on January 1, 1967. Then, two weeks later, we watched the Packers win the AFL-NFL World Championship Game against the Kansas City Chiefs. This was before that game became known as the Super Bowl. 

I also watched The Ohio State University Buckeyes on Saturdays with my dad. He taught me about Coach Woody Hayes and what it meant to be a Buckeye like he was. This is something that kind of gets into your veins and doesn’t ever come out. Even though I graduated from Rutgers and have lived in Detroit for almost 40 years now—and attended my share of games at the Big House in Ann Arbor—I will always be a Scarlet and Gray Buckeye.

However, there was nothing like the thrill of going with my dad to the Point Boro high school football games on Saturdays as a little kid. Although I didn’t really understand all the rules, I knew when I heard the Panther marching band play “Hail to the Varsity” the Boro had scored another touchdown. As I recall, this happened seven or eight times a game every week in the 1960s.

By the time I was eight years old I was wearing the Black and Gold in my home town. I still recall the smell of those warm autumn afternoons during football season and what it felt like to drive home with my dad after another Point Boro win.

Like all the kids in my neighborhood, I was proud to be associated with a high school football program that went three complete seasons in a row without losing a single game. And, also like them, I was disappointed when the Panthers lost to Manasquan in 1970 and ended their winning streak at 34-0. We learned that being “undefeated,” like everything else in life, must eventually come to an end. 

Naturally, when I was old enough, I wanted to play competitive tackle football. I wanted to put on shoulder pads, pants, cleats and a helmet more than anything, so I practiced as much as I could. I played touch football in the street in front of my house with the other kids from the neighborhood. My dad would throw the ball with me and the other boys in the back yard. I wanted to be a running back like Cleveland’s #32 Jim Brown or the Packer’s #23 Travis Williams. Most of all, I dreamt of one day carrying the ball for the Panthers. 

In the summer of 1971, at age eleven—between the fifth and sixth grades—I tried out for the Point Pleasant Golden Elks Pop Warner Pee Wee football team. The program had two squads: 10-12 year old Pee Wees and 12-14 year old Midgets. The Golden Elks included kids from Point Beach and Point Boro and, since the number of players trying out exceeded the number of available spaces, the coaches had to make cuts.

Playing football as a youngster teaches you many things. For one, you get to figure out how tough you are and see quickly if you really have what it takes to play the game. Sure, you need athletic skills like speed, quickness and vision. You also need ball skills like throwing and catching a spiral. If you have size and strength, these are a big plus. But more than any of these other things, if you have heart and can handle the contact, you can compete. This is a quality that you cannot fake. You don’t get to make excuses; you can either take and make the hits or you can’t, period.

Anyway, on the final day of Pee Wee tryouts, my name was not called among those who made the Golden Elks team and I was completely crushed. It was a long drive home that evening in mid-July from the Point Beach Antrim School practice field, staring out the car window with tears running down my cheeks.

My dad understood my disappointment, especially since his parents did not let him play football when he was a kid growing up in Ohio. Just like many parents today, my grandparents were worried that my dad might get hurt. They didn’t want him to end up like his older brother Dale who broke his arm so badly playing high school football that he could no longer straighten it out … for the rest of his life. 

My dad Loren Donley and Coach Al Saner in 1971-72.

‘71 Panthers manager

So, my dad—who was the vocal music teacher at Point Boro High School—had a conversation with Panther head football coach Al Saner about my situation. Somehow, between the two of them, they hatched this idea that I should be a manager (a.k.a. water boy) for the Panther varsity squad in the upcoming season.

Well, that’s how I ended up, from early August to late October 1971, with Coach Saner and his staff—Mr. Spincola, Mr. Gilmore, Mr. Vancardo, Mr. Russell, Mr. Anderson and Mr. Leibfried—and became part of another Panther championship season. For me, this turned out to be an opportunity of a lifetime.

I remember those three months like they took place yesterday. I learned so many things—mostly to do with football that I can talk about and some other life stuff that I can’t really bring up because, well, they’re not PG—that have stayed with me to this day. It all took place in the team meetings, at the preseason scrimmages, in the locker room and equipment room and during the home and away games, including the bus rides to and from the other schools and especially on the practice field at Memorial School known as the Dust Bowl.

The players I remember most were the ’71 Panther seniors (front row, left to right in the team photo above): Butch Gordon (33), Ron Stone (46), Michael Swigon (32), Paul Ridge (86), Ken Stahlin (44), Jim Williams (14), Rich Leibfried (18), Tony DiVanno (95), Frank Bomenblit (61), Craig Bessinger (51), Geoff Lee (94) and Tom Chadwick (64). While there were many other players on the team that I got to know, these guys really took a liking to me.

Since nearly everyone on the team had a nickname, on the first day of summer practice they gave me one too: they started calling me “Harry.” This was because my last name was very similar to that of Harry Donnelly, the former Point Boro offensive coach who had left the district after the previous season. I’m not certain who gave me that name, but it stuck. They would say, “Hey Harry, go get me the ball bag” or “Harry, I need a mouthpiece” or “Harry, can you fix my chin strap?”

In addition to being at their side for every practice and running water bottles out to the field during game time-outs, I carried equipment kits, I fixed helmets and shoulder pads, I moved blocking and tackling dummies and other practice equipment and I made sure the water hose was running and available on the practice field (when they were allowed to drink from it).

Most of the senior backs and receivers had their own locker room up front next to coaches locker room. Although Coach Saner didn’t want me hanging around there—mainly because he thought I might hear some stuff that wasn’t meant for the ears of an eleven-year-old kid—I’d go in there anyway and listen to the conversations taking place. 

Sometimes there were rivalries like when Ron Stone and Paul Ridge debated who had more receiving TDs on the season. Other times, they talked about injuries like the time QB Rich Leibfried got knocked out with a rib injury in the dog-fight-of-a-game against Wall Township. And, of course, they also talked about their high school sweethearts.

Other times they would tell jokes. I remember a couple of these—although I can’t say who told them or how they went exactly—other than to recall that one was about a lady football player who got knocked out during a game and the other had to do with a field inspection of British Commandos. 

Anyway, when summer practice began, the first team meetings took place in the gym. The players all sat in one section of bleachers as the coaches introduced themselves. There was a chalk board where things were sketched out and gone over in detail.

When he took attendance, Coach Saner sometimes had a hard time with last names, especially those of the new JV players, and there were some laughs when he botched them up pretty good. While there were quite a few funny moments here and there, those meetings were dead serious, all about football and all about getting ready for the ‘71 season.

Three yards and a cloud of dust

There were also squad meetings in different classrooms in the high school to teach the offensive and defensive schemes and plays. Anyone familiar with those early Point Boro football teams knows that Coach Saner had a preference for the run game. My dad referred to it as “three yards and a cloud of dust.” The offense was not complicated and was based on grind-it-out strength and power strategy. Coach Saner was not a big fan of passing the ball and he was known to say, “When you throw the football, only three things can happen and two of them are bad.”

On most plays, the Panthers used the I-Formation with a wing back off the tight end and with one wide receiver on the opposite side of the power. The playbook consisted mostly of running off-tackle or between the guard and tackle with the fullback as a lead blocker. The QB would hand the ball off to the half-back who followed the fullback through the hole.

On the ’71 team, the fullback blocking responsibility was assigned to Ken Stahlin. He was probably the fiercest football player I had ever seen. I remember seeing him regularly take out linebackers left and right to clear the path for halfback Mike Swigon. Plus, when he got the chance to carry the ball, he did not try to go around would-be tacklers. Wham! 

Anyway, the Point Boro offense also had the occasional pitch to the halfback from the Wing-T. In those days, there was no shotgun, and the QB was always under center. On very rare occasions, the wing back would take an inside reverse hand-off with a pulling guard making a trap block or the wide receiver would come around on a reverse. This wide receiver reverse worked very well for the ’71 Panthers with Ron Stone taking the ball and sprinting down the sideline like lightning. Wow!

On every play, the QB Rich Leibfried always faked a bootleg after the handoff and, every once in a while, he would fake the handoff to the half back and bootleg around the right or left edge, usually for a long gain, since no one was expecting it. This could be tried once or twice per game because the defense always adjusted and started looking for it.

As I mentioned, football is a very hard game. The practices in those days were nothing short of agonizing, especially for the linemen. I remember how, after what seemed like hours of blocking drills in the Dust Bowl over by the trees next to Memorial School, the white practice uniforms of the linemen would be covered from top to bottom in dirt, blood and mud.

Those line drills were run by Coach Vincent Spincola. I think you could say Coach Spincola was a Jersey Shore Italian, but not the fake kind that was later made popular by reality TV. No, he was a real New Jersey Italian with a noticeable North Jersey accent and a vocabulary to go with it. He had slicked back dark hair with an M-shaped receding hairline. He smoked and his voice was really gruff and harsh.

Coach Spincola had this laugh that could be very embarrassing for a player who might be the object of his humor. He would drop his jaw wide open and a little bit to the side and release a deep and massive “Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha” from his diaphragm, kind of like the way Ray Liotta laughs in the movie “Good Fellas.”

Anyway, those linemen drills were probably the most grueling and violent thing I had ever witnessed. Coach Spincola was relentless. He saw his job as making a lineman tough or making him cry. Let’s just say it probably wouldn’t be considered politically correct today the way he coached those boys back then. On the other hand, he coached some of the greatest offensive and defensive lines to ever play Jersey Shore high school football.

I found myself staying over there with the linemen quite a bit because that’s where I was needed the most in terms of busted equipment and first aid gear. Plus, I got to learn some new words hanging around Coach Spincola. For example, I found out what “gonads” were. Although I didn’t know it at the time, it turns out this is a completely legitimate biological term. Coach Spincola illustrated the concept by placing his hands in a “V” shape in front of his groin area and explaining that this is where a lineman is supposed to put his face when properly making a block or a tackle.

“Hail, hail”

During those drills, Coach Spincola had this cadence he would call out that is something I will never forget. I am sure that those players will never forget it either. Coach Spincola used it to signal the linemen that it was time to come off the ball and make contact with each other in the drills. It was a two-word, rapid-fire thing with no space in between.

You might normally think of it as “hut one, hut two,” but instead with Coach Spincola it went something like this: “hail, hail.” Come to think of it, I’m not really sure if he was saying “hail” or “hell.” Either way, it was absolutely terrifying because immediately after this verbal command, all you could hear was the crashing of helmets and shoulder pads and some grunting noises.

Coach Spincola was extremely hard on those players. I heard him say many things during those sessions that I really can’t repeat. However, I also know in my heart and believe to this day that he really loved those boys like they were his own sons. He was always the first to congratulate them when they got their job done on the field during the games. In those situations, you were “perfecto” in Coach Spincola’s eyes. That is, of course, as long as you weren’t out there crouching around on your hands and knees at the line of scrimmage like you were “picking up quarters.”

One day—after the linemen had carved a pit on their side of the Dust Bowl from the one-on-ones, two-on-ones and three-on-twos for what seemed like hours—Coach Spincola gave these guys a breather. This break consisted of being allowed to remove their hats (he always referred to helmets as “hats”) and take one knee. Then, after a whistle blow from Coach Saner on the other side of the Dust Bowl, I remember how everyone looked up and saw the offensive backs and receivers come jogging by to take a lap. Seeing not even a single grass stain on their pristine practice uniforms, Coach Spincola shook his head and said, “There go the white knights!”

Although I was eleven and the Boro players looked like men to me, they were teenage boys who were often pushed to physical and emotional extremes during those practice sessions. Back then, there was no such thing as “hydration” and the manager staff didn’t have any Gatorade. Water was a luxury and a reward. If a player even asked for a drink before the approved water breaks as a group—usually from the end of a sprinkler hose—they were considered weak or worse.

In 1971, there was also no such thing as what we know today as an athletic trainer. If a player was hurt during practice, it was the job of the manager staff to provide instant ice-packs, tape, gauze, butterfly band-aids or whatever. We also had ammonia capsules to wake players up after they had their “bell rung,” we had salt tablets for guys who were suffering from dehydration. We had Atomic Balm for bruises and contusions. Meanwhile, we prepared ice baths and hot tubs in the locker room for players to soak in, especially after the games.

I saw enough blood, black and blue wounds, cuts and gashes for a lifetime during those few months. I witnessed more broken noses, shoulder and neck injuries, gouges that required stitches, severe bruises and limb joint and finger dislocations than I care to remember. I can still hear Coach Saner hollering out “manager” in a loud Tarzan-kind-of-way when one of the players needed attention from the staff. To the best of my ability, I was always right on it.

The first scrimmage of the season was held on one of the practice fields at the high school. I think it was on a Saturday. The players from Point Boro and the other team—I can’t remember who it was—wore their practice uniforms with no numbers on them. One side always wore colored bibs so you could tell which players were on what team.

One thing that really sticks out in my mind from that hot summer day, was the first offensive series by the Panthers. I was standing on the sideline with the coaches and the play was a handoff up the middle to Mike Swigon. He made it past the linebackers and broke to the outside along the sideline where I was standing and came running past me with a defender on his tail.

I saw the look on Swigon’s face up close and the look on the defenders face too. I could hear both of them breathing heavily out of their mouths and noses. There was this cloud of dust being kicked up behind them as they ran down the sideline. Swigon beat that other guy all the way to the end zone and everyone on the Panther sideline was really thrilled.

It was in that one moment, all at once, that I understood for the first time what football was really about; I realized that the players were basically fighting—like their life depended on it—with every ounce of energy and determination in their souls. To be a football player, you had to give everything you had on every play and this is what it took to be a winner.

Pregame speeches

Once the season started, I looked forward to the pregame talks from Coach Saner. Sometimes, he wouldn’t let me in the locker room because the speech he was about to make was meant for the team only. To my memory, Coach Saner had this way of addressing and connecting with the players at the deepest level.

His talks were always genuine and straight to the point. He would start off quietly and slowly and his intensity would build. He would periodically pause to let things sink in. And, on occasion, when you thought he might be finished—sometimes he even turned away like he was getting ready to walk out of the locker room—when, all of a sudden, he’d swing around and start right back up again. 

Even though Coach Saner earned a reputation for malapropisms and mixed metaphors, he always made a connection between football and life in general. His speeches were exceptionally inspirational and he got the players—and anyone else around there who heard him—fired up to the point where they would go out on the field and give everything they had regardless of who the opponent was.

Coach Saner was genuine and did not have a pretentious bone in his body. Somehow—even though you knew how important it was to him that the team win the game—you also knew that Coach Saner always had the bigger picture of life beyond football in mind during his talks. 

I also remember several speeches given by team captains in the locker room before the games and at halftime. In one instance, I recall Craig Bessinger’s talk before a home game (I believe it was the Manasquan game). He was unable to play due to a neck injury and he talked to his teammates about how important it was to him that they fight to the last. This was a game that he had been preparing for all season and he wasn’t able to participate. This was very emotional and inspirational; I learned first-hand about what it takes to be a leader in the face of challenges and disappointments.

During the home games, one of the Point Boro ambulance squads was always on hand in the event of a major injury that required hospital attention. We also always had the presence of Dr. Duwlett who would examine players after an injury with a peculiar kind of dispassion. His evaluations would almost always end with an agreement that the injured player was OK to go back into the game. There was no “concussion protocol” in those days and players regularly returned to the field even though they more than likely shouldn’t have. 

I remember the first game of the ‘71 season. It was a home game against Keansburg and it was a very hot day. There were a couple of kids around my age who showed up in the locker room that Saturday morning expecting to jump in front of me as water boys because they had done it before. However, Coach Saner knew that I had been there since day one of summer practice and he made sure I was first in line. It was a real thrill for me to walk out behind the team onto the field and hear the band playing and crowd cheering. Point Boro won that game 60-0.

The second game of the season against Central Regional was a different story. The Class D Panthers were routed by the Class C Golden Eagles by a score of 36-0. This was a shock and the team had to bounce back. The Boro won the subsequent three games 50-0 (Keyport), 60-8 (Point Beach) and 16-15 (Marlboro).

The biggest game of the season was, of course, against Manasquan. This was the opportunity for Point Boro to avenge the loss from the previous season that ended the Panthers 34-game winning streak. It was time for pay-back and the Panthers came out ready to play. However—due to some lousy calls on the field, in my opinion—we came up short and lost the game 14-12. The Boro finished out the season with three more wins against Wall (8-6), Tom’s River North (18-7) and Jackson (30-16) and were the undisputed Shore Class D champions with a record of 7-0 in the conference.

When the 1971 football season came to an end, as the weather got colder as fall turned to winter, I became a 12 year-old and moved on to the other things that kids in middle school do. I started spending time with my friends riding bikes, playing with HO cars and chasing after the beautiful young ladies in the sixth grade with my heart in my hand.

The next summer I tried out again for the Golden Elks Pee Wee squad. I made the team this time. I became a running back and got to wear #32 just like Jim Brown. I played one more season as a Golden Elks Midget the next year and, shortly thereafter, my football days also came to an end. Eventually, when I got to high school, I did get to wear the Black and Gold … as a member of the Panther marching band.

As I look back today on those months from August to October 1971, I realize now that my time with the Point Boro Panthers really turned out to be something of a coming of age experience for me. I have my father and Coach Al Saner to thank for making it possible.

Also, as I think back upon the experience, I realize that the summer of ’71 was something of a turning point in the world beyond high school football and the Dust Bowl in Point Pleasant. As the 1970s rolled on, somehow, it seemed like things started turning upside down everywhere and it was becoming clear that life would never go back to the way it was in the 1960s.

While football continued to be an important part of my relationship with my father over the decades, especially as my own boys played the game, I can’t help think that the lessons I learned during those few months in 1971 actually helped to prepared me for some of the harsh realities of life that I would face later on. Among these are: the necessity of hard work to achieve success, the importance of nurturing your natural gifts and talents, the life-long desire for self-improvement, the ability to always get back up when you are knocked down and the ultimate significance of being a team player. Hail, hail my friends!