As If By Chance: Part III

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

One of the first photographs ever taken by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre in 1838

Serendipity in the history of innovation

The above review of the work of Alois Senefelder and Ira W. Rubel shows that the stories of innovation by way of chance are both true and untrue. There is a paradox in the explanations of the origin of these key advancements that led to the transformation of the printing industry in the form of offset lithography. In both cases, an accidental event occurred while the inventors were pursuing technical progress through the methods of exploration and experimentation. In both cases, the inventors picked up on the potential contained in the inadvertent occurrence and pursued it further.

In order to get a clearer picture of why the accidental element of invention is given prominence in encyclopedia entries and popular reviews on the history of printing—and why they tend to dominate over evidence that the inventors’ advancements were far from pure luck—it is necessary to discuss this phenomenon more broadly, since it has been experienced in scientific and technological progress for thousands of years.

It is not difficult to find examples of “accidental inventions.” Lists have been published on news and science websites such as “Ten Accidental Discoveries That Changed the World” or “The Best Accidental Inventions” or “30 Life-Changing Inventions That Were Totally Accidental: Yes, The World As We Know It Is Predicated On Happenstance.” These summaries cover inventions—including the discoveries that led to consumer product brands such as SuperGlue®, Teflon and Vaseline®—where scientists and inventors were attempting to solve a problem and came upon their ultimate discoveries by accident. For the most part, these publishers treat the accidental breakthroughs as a novelty or trivia. They never get to the nub of the matter or get around to asking or answering the question as to why the phenomena is so common. However, there are others who have taken a more considered approach to the subject.

For example, in his 1989 book, Serendipity: Accidental Discoveries in Science, Royston M. Roberts addresses such occurrences at length by examining more then 70 instances of it. Included in his review are important chance findings such as the discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus in 1492, the discovery of oxygen by Joseph Priestley in 1778 and the discovery of evidence of the big bang by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson in 1964.

Of interest in this review of print technology is Roberts’ examination of the first successful photographic process invented by L. J. M. Daguerre in 1838. Daguerre had been experimenting for about five years on a method for permanently capturing an image projected by a camera obscura—a device originally diagrammed by Leonardo DaVinci in 1519 that today might be called a pinhole camera—on plates coated with metallic compounds when he made his accidental discovery. Roberts describes the event as follows:

Daguerre prepared plates of highly polished silver-plated copper and exposed them to iodine vapor, which produced a thin layer of silver iodine on the surface. Using the camera obscura, he exposed these plates, producing a faint image. He tried many ways to intensify this image, but with little success. One day, he placed an exposed plate, which had only a faint image and which he intended to clean and use again, in a cupboard containing various chemicals. After several days, Daguerre removed the plate and found, to his amazement, a strong image on its surface!

In discussing the history of accidental discoveries, Roberts makes a distinction between those inventions that were sought but made accidentally (pseudoserendipity) and the discoveries made by chance without being sought (genuine serendipity). He explains that the term serendipity was coined by Horace Walpole in 1754 after he read about the adventures of “The Three Princes of Serendip.” Serendip (or Serendib) is an ancient name for Ceylon, known today as Sri Lanka. Walpole wrote that the three princes, “were always making discoveries by accidents and sagacity of things which they were not in quest of …” and he came up with the term to describe his own accidental discoveries.

Roberts also says that most of the individuals who have been “blessed by serendipity” are not reluctant to admit their good luck. He writes “They realize, I believe, that serendipity does not diminish the credit due them for their discovery.” Far from it, the retelling of the stories of accidental invention in some ways ensure that their breakthroughs are never forgotten. In fact, it is this need for a memorable and tellable story that provides an important impulse for the inventors themselves and others who knew them to place an emphasis on the accidental aspect of their innovations.

While not every invention bares the accidental imprimatur, the phenomenon has occurred more frequently in the history of science and invention than many readers may be aware. As Roberts points out in his review, there are dozens of examples of accidental events and outcomes—often observed initially as inconsequential or meaningless—that merged with the persistence of the scientist or inventor and were transformed into intended or unintended discoveries.

One of the most well-known of these stories covered by Roberts is that of the Greek mathematician Archimedes, who lived in the third century BC. Archimedes discovered how to measure the volume of an irregularly shaped object by submerging it in water and measuring the volume of liquid displaced by it. The story goes that Archimedes—who had been asked by King Hiero to determine if his crown was made of pure gold—came to his discovery when he saw water run over the top of the tub as he stepped into a public bath in Syracuse. He became so overwhelmed by the excitement of his chance discovery that he ran into the streets completely naked and declared, “Eureka! Eureka!” (“I found it! I found it!”)

While there is no written record of the legend of Archimedes’ Principle—other than its first appearance in an introduction by Vitruvius in his ninth book of architecture some 200 years after the event was to have happened—the story has staying power and is, at the very least, entertaining and memorable. These features have ensured—despite some critics who assert that Archimedes would never have uttered the word Eureka at that time—that the story has been repeated countless times over the past 2,100 years.

While Roberts does a fine job of explaining the circumstances that led up to the “Eureka moments” in so many examples of accidental innovation, he does not examine the prevalence of these experiences as a necessary phenomena or a natural but disruptive moment in the continuum from old to new ideas and technology. For Roberts, the accidental is purely accidental and nothing more. Meanwhile, he does not attempt to give a reason for the overemphasis on the accidental element—and, in many cases, the mythologizing that arises therefrom—in accounts of significant scientific and technical discoveries by way of happenstance.

Karel Vaclav Klíč (Klietsch): 1841 – 1926

Everyone is familiar with National Geographic magazine. Published monthly and now celebrating its 125th year, National Geographic has a worldwide circulation of more than 8 million copies and appears in thirty-six languages. Widely known for the yellow rectangular border of its cover and the use of dramatic color photographs of world geography, history and culture, it is one the most popular magazines ever printed.

National Geographic

The name National Geographic is used occasionally as a printing industry euphemism. Someone might say, “It’s not National Geographic” when speaking of color reproduction expectations of other projects. What most are unaware of, however, is that National Geographic achieves such beautiful and spectacular color printing largely because of the gravure method used in the printing of its editorial pages.

The gravure printing process
The gravure printing process

Although less common in publication printing than offset lithography, gravure printing is typically associated with magazines that have very large circulation. According to Hans Wegner, VP of Production Services at National Geographic, gravure printing provides superior color saturation and consistency, a more photographic look as well as cost advantages.

The gravure process—a form of intaglio printing—involves engraving an image carrier, typically a metal cylinder, with recessed cells. The cylinder is immersed and rotates in fluid ink. As the cylinder turns, ink fills the imaging cells and, before making contact with the paper, a doctor blade scrapes the excess ink off the cylinder in the non-image area. The paper is brought into contact with the inked cylinder by an impression roller and the ink is drawn out of the cells onto the paper by capillary action.

The high quality reproduction of gravure printing is the result of the following attributes:

  1. Very fine halftone dot sizes that emulate the grain of continuous tone photography and can reproduce greater image detail than offset printing.
  2. A CMYK color gamut than that is often wider than that of offset printing because a greater amount of ink pigment is transferred the surface of the paper.

The history of gravure printing is complex and poorly documented. Dealing with the lack of reliable historical information in his History of Industrial Gravure Printing up to 1920, Otto M. Lilien wrote, “More and more of the technical development is described with only sketchy details and it is noticeable that the references are often missing. Frequently the information contradicts itself regarding the person credited with inventions and technical improvements.”

The manual gravure printing process was created and perfected in the nineteenth century and the earliest inventions are associated with photography. In 1826, Joseph-Niécephore Niépce developed the first photomechanically etched printing plate that was made of zinc and used to print portraits. In 1852, William Henry Fox Talbot developed a method for making gravure printing plates that could transform a continuous tone picture into a halftone.

According to Lilien, Paris publisher Auguste Godchaux took out the first patent for a gravure printing press that used cylinders and printed on a web of paper in France, in 1860. Godchaux built the press and it ran for 80 years in a printing facility in Paris on Boulevard Charonne until the Nazi’s occupied the city in 1940.

Karel Klíč
Karel Klíč (also known as Karl Klietsch), May 31, 1841 – November 16, 1926

Karel Klíč (Karl Klietsch) is the recognized inventor of modern gravure printing. Although it is sometime stated that Klíč developed all of the complex gravure processes without knowledge of the work of others, he was actually the first to bring all of them together. According to Lilien, Klíč brought together the crossline screen and the transfer of gelatine pictures to metal plates for cylinder production.

Karel Vaclav Klíč was born on May 31, 1841 in Hostinne, in the foothills of the Krkonose Mountains in the present-day Czech Republic and about 35 Kilometers from the border with Poland. The town has been known as a center of papermaking.

Klíč showed interest in the arts and at the age of fourteen was admitted to the Art Academy in Prague where he was expelled for nonconformance in 1855. He later returned to complete his studies. As a young man, Klíč worked as a draughtsman, a painter, illustrator and cartoonist. With his latter skills he worked at newspapers in Prague, Brno (Moravia) and Budapest before opening a photographic studio in Vienna, Austria in 1883.

While in Austria, Klíč joined the Photographic Society of Vienna and was exposed to many of the new developments in reproduction methods. His early attempts at photogravure techniques were exhibited with much acclaim at the annual society exhibitions in 1879 and 1880. During these years, Klíč did not reveal anything publicly about his methods. Recognizing the monetary value of the process he had perfected, Klíč sold the process to others in Vienna and London.

In 1880 and 1881, several of Klíč’s photos were published in an Austrian journal Photography Correspondence. In 1882 a heliogravure portrait of Mungo Ponton—a Scottish pioneer in photographic techniques and an amateur scientist—was reproduced as a special insert to the British The Yearbook of Photography and Photographic News Almanac.

Mungo Ponton
Klíč’s heliogravure photo of Mungo Ponton published as a special insert in the “Yearbook of Photography and Photographic News Almanac in 1882”

Writing about the significance of the image of Ponton, the editor of the almanac wrote, “We ought to say a word about our portrait of Mungo-Ponton, an Englishman who may well be termed the discoverer of permanent photographic printing, for he it was who proposed, in 1839, the employment of bichromate in photography. Klic’s is an etching process upon copper, an imprint from a carbon diapositive being secured upon that metal. The mode of preparing the copper is a secret, but we may mention that the process is so quick, that within four or five days an engraved plate may be produced of considerable dimensions. Of the quality of the printing our readers can judge for themselves. Suffice it to say, the process is an inexpensive one, and that during the past year alone, no less than three hundred photo-engravings were produced.”

Samuel Fawcett
Samuel Fawcett, a process worker at Storey Brothers, was co-inventor with Klíč of the industrial gravure printing method in 1895.

After one of his business associates by the name of Leonard published the details of his process in an Austrian technical journal in March 1886, Klíč left the country in frustration and traveled to England. It was during this trip that Klíč came into contact with Samuel Fawcett, a process worker at the Storey Brothers, a calico-printing firm located in Lancaster.

It is known that Klíč’s vision for gravure reproduction extended beyond single sheet photographic prints. Fawcett had been working independently in 1890 on a series of gravure experiments and his contact with Klíč was the catalyst for the development of entirely new industrial printing system.

Klíč and Fawcett, beginning in 1895 with formation of the Rembrandt Intaglio Printing Company, jointly developed the rotogravure process—modern gravure printing. The men experimented with screens of 150 and 175 lines per inch and printing on paper with machines owned by Storey Brothers and designed for printing on textiles.

The process developed by the Rembrandt Intaglio Printing Company remained secret for ten years, giving the firm lucrative monopoly on the process before any competitors emerged in the market. In 1897, while technical director of the company, Klíč left England and returned to Vienna to continue with further experimentation and invention. He came back for a short time in 1906 after he perfected a method for three-color gravure process with fine halftone screens. Karel Klíč died in Vienna on November 16, 1926.

Digital trends: Where’s your camera?

In June 1994, I bought my first digital camera: an Apple QuickTake 100. It was the first consumer-level digital camera and cost about $695. Developed jointly by Apple and Kodak, it was a fascinating breakthrough device.

On the day I bought the camera, I connected it via serial cable to my Mac, installed the QuickTake 1.0 software (from a floppy disk) and downloaded the first digital photos I had ever taken. I brought the pictures into Photoshop and started editing them; these were images that did not come from film and did not require scanning. Wow, I thought, how much time am I going to save with this nifty little camera.

Well, not so fast. The images had a resolution of 640×480 pixels (about one third of a megapixel in today’s terms) and were not very useful for print reproduction. But they were perfect for standard definition video display and I could see how they could be used in presentations and slide shows.

Over the next few years, while I was fiddling around with the novelty of digital photography, I continued using my Canon 35mm SLR to shoot film negatives and transparencies. I’d shoot rolls of film and drop them off at the local camera store for processing and print making and continued to do this for many more years. It wasn’t until 2000 that I made the transition permanently to digital photography.

Fast forward to 2012 … Last weekend, for the first time I deposited a check into my bank account using the mobile banking app on my iPhone. I also shot a video and took photos of a family picnic in my back yard and posted the photos and video to my Facebook page immediately. I was even able to assemble and edit my video clips using the iMovie app on my iPhone.

And, on the same weekend, I saw someone using an iPad to shoot video of a football scrimmage … they were using the iPad screen as a viewfinder as they followed the players down the football field.

Needless to say, in the 18 years between these different experiences, camera technology has undergone a transformation. The last two decades have seen the replacement of conventional film photography with digital photos, but also more recently, the displacement of single purpose digital cameras (both video and still) by smartphones.

The pace and magnitude of these dual transformations are seen clearly in the answers to the following questions:

When did digital photography eclipse film photography?
In 1990 100% of photography was analog/film based. Ten years later, in 2000, just 99% of photography was still analog while 1% was digital. The big change took place over the past decade. By 2011, 99% of photography was digital and 1% film.

How many photos are being taken?
It has been estimated (by 1000memories blog) that since photography was first invented in 1838, there have been 3.5 trillion pictures taken. Today, every two minutes, we snap as many photos as were taken by all of humanity in the entire 19th century. In 1990 there were 57 billion photos taken, in 2000 there were 86 billion taken and in 2011 there were 380 billion taken.

Are mobile and smartphones replacing cameras and camcorders?
It has been estimated (by NPD Group) that in 2010 camera phones accounted for 17% of all images while point and shoot and camcorders accounted for 52%. In just one year, these numbers changed to 27% by camera phones and 44% by point and shoot and camcorders. The balance of the imagery is still dominated by higher end digital photographic and video equipment.

Where are all the digital photos being stored?
The biggest library of online photos is Facebook. It has been estimated (by pixable blog) that over 100 billion photos have been uploaded into Facebook its by users. The following is a list of the top photo sharing sites and their image volumes:

  • Photobucket: 10 billion photos
  • Picasa: 7 billion photos
  • Flickr: 6 billion photos
  • Instagram: 400 million

Instagram is the fastest growing online photo sharing technology and it was purchased by Facebook earlier this year for $1 billion.

The ubiquity and ease of use of cameras on smartphones—capable of shooting high quality color photos and video—combined with social networking and photo sharing have led to an explosion in digital photography. Almost anyone can capture a scene at any time and people are doing it, all the time.

As with other developments in our digital world, a transformation of one kind—the replacement of film by digital photography—is not fully completed when a transformation of another kind—the replacement of digital point-and-shoot cameras and camcorders by camera and smart phones—accelerates the entire process and evolves in an unanticipated direction.

It is these sudden and unexpected twists that make navigating the business environment such a complex task. The challenges facing Kodak, which filed for bankruptcy reorganization last January, is an expression of the way these rapid changes can impact companies and entire industries. Once the king of analog photographic equipment and supplies as well as an originator of the digital camera revolution, Kodak announced on August 23 that it was selling off its film division.

The ability to see and understand the convergence and successive waves of digital transformation, and the way these impact the behavior of our customers, is the only way to keep pace in our rapidly changing world and make plans for the future.