Archive for the Print Media Category

George Baxter (1804–1867): Pictorial color printing

Posted in Color Printing, People in Media History, Print Media with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 31, 2016 by multimediaman
George Baxter: July 31, 1804–January 11, 1867

George Baxter: Jul 31, 1804–Jan 11, 1867

Prior to the invention of photography and photomechanical halftones, the printing of pictures required the handwork of skilled artists. For centuries, craftsmen used various manual techniques—engraving, etching, stippling and drawing—to create original images on wood blocks, metal plates or lithographic stones that could be inked and printed onto paper.

At each evolutionary stage—from relief to intaglio to lithography—pictorial printing became incrementally more productive. However, the craftsmen’s work persisted and the process remained slow. Well into the 1800s, it was common for creative work on pictures such as engraved images on text pages or separately printed lithographic plates to begin a year or two before the date of publication.

Although the artistic work was time-consuming, it often produced striking results. By the time color printing methods were perfected, magnificent pictures began to appear. In the mid-nineteenth century, pictorial color printers—some using RBY or RBYK models and others using “tinting” techniques of up to 20 or even 30 different colors—were producing astonishingly beautiful prints.

As the methods advanced and cost per picture declined, the quantity of color printing grew. This expansion was in part due to the industrialization of printing press machinery. The speed and volume of print was being driven up exponentially by metal cylinders, steam power and rotary printing equipment.

The Coronation of Queen Victoria and the Opening of Parliament (1842)

“Her Most Gracious Majesty Receiving the Sacrament at her Coronation” (1841) is among George Baxter’s most famous pictorial work. It includes two hundred identifiable portraits of individuals who were present at the event.

Another side of the surge in color was that more people than ever before had access to the new low-priced prints. For the first time, average people could buy printed copies of paintings and other items previously seen only in the private collections of society’s elite. The color printer became for the people the disseminator of artistic masterpieces and the chronicler of contemporary events.

A few enterprising printers recognized that industrial society had created an opportunity to produce and sell pictures to the general public. They established companies in cities and employed the available labor—including child workers—to print inexpensive color pictures for the growing urban population. In this environment, the Englishman George Baxter emerged as perhaps the most important figure of the era of pictorial color printing.

George Baxter’s innovation

In some respects, the color work of George Baxter should be considered Victorian-age fine art. Even though he produced upwards of 20 million prints during his lifetime, Baxter’s work exhibits virtuosity in the technical aspects of platemaking and printing as well as extraordinary gifts as an engraver.

It would take many decades after his death for the meaning of Baxter’s accomplishments to be fully appreciated. As C.T. Courtney Lewis explained in George Baxter, Color Printer, His Life and Work in 1908, “His genius was not unrecognized in his own day; yet it seems that it is only now that the hour of his complete triumph has sounded … he was not a printer merely: he was an artist, a pioneer, and a man of many and versatile talents.”

The innovation for which George Baxter is known—and for which he applied for on October 23, 1835 and was granted a patent on April 23, 1836—is a complex one. To produce long press runs of beautiful and economically viability color pictures, Baxter combined two previously existing printing techniques:

  1. Steel or copper plate intaglio printing
  2. Woodblock relief printing

Baxter’s novelty was that the first impression was printed in black or gray ink with an intaglio outline or “key plate” and then subsequent multiple layers of color tinting were printed with relief woodblocks. His convergence of intaglio and relief printing produced pictures that were significantly superior to anything printed with either process independently of one another.

An early example of Baxter’s color printing innovation, “Evening on the sea” (1835), is the frontispiece of Robert Mudie’s book “The Sea”

An early example of Baxter’s color printing innovation, “Evening on the sea” (1835), is the frontispiece of Robert Mudie’s book “The Sea”

As Baxter himself explained in his patent application, “My invention consists in colouring such impressions of steel and copper plate engravings and lithographic and zincographic printing by means of block printing in place of colouring such impressions by hand as heretofore practised, and which is an expensive process; and by such a process producing coloured impressions of a high degree of perfection and far superior in appearance to those which are coloured by hand and such prints as are obtained by means of block printing in various colours uncombined with copper and steel lithographic or zincographic impressions.”

Prior to Baxter, key plates had been used in the more labor-intensive process of color tinting by hand. In the case of the woodblock method (also known as chromoxylography), it was used previously by others without the preliminary step of the key plate. It is also true that a combination of the two methods had been performed a century earlier by the Englishman Elisha Kirkall, but with nothing approaching the level of Baxter’s perfection or economy.

A decisive aspect of what became known as Baxter’s Process was the remarkably consistent quality of the entire color printing run. This was achieved with tight registration—using four pins or “pointers” in the press to hold the paper in position from one impression to the next—and oil-based inks. The advent of improved brightness of pigments and the permanent quality of the oil-based inks gave Baxter’s prints a superior color fidelity.

Among the first examples of Baxter’s method was the frontispiece of Robert Mudie’s 1835 book The Sea. What may seem today as a subtle change, the picture of a boat at sea during sunset carries a degree of precision and detail that was not achievable prior to Baxter’s two-step process.

Early life

George Baxter was born on July 31, 1804 at Lewes in the southeastern English county of Sussex. This area is known to have been a center of the early English printing and papermaking industries.

George was the second son of John Baxter, the proprietor of a typography, printing and publishing establishment in Lewes. George’s father would gain in his lifetime a reputation as an advanced printer who was the first to test and perfect several early industrial innovations in printing press technology.

George attended Cliffe House Academy and went to high school at St. Ann’s in Lewes. After he finished school, he worked in a book shop in Brighton, a seaside town less than ten miles from home. Later, although the record is unclear, he apprenticed as a wood engraver and lithographer.

By the age of nineteen, George was focusing on the artistic elements of printing rather than the mechanical and he began making a name for himself as a gifted illustrator. By 1826, it is known that George Baxter was in Lewes at his father’s establishment identifying himself as a “wood-engraver.”

At age 23, George migrated to London and set up his own business as an engraver and printer. Six months after starting his enterprise in London, George married Mary Harrild, daughter of Robert Harrild, a printing industry innovator and business partner of John Baxter. The record shows that at this time George Baxter began his experiments with color printing.

Greatest works

Once he had demonstrated to himself—if not also to everyone in the printing business—that his patented process represented an important breakthrough, Baxter started on a path that would continue for the next thirty years. During the period of his first patent grant (1834-1849), Baxter had no competitors in England for the process that he advertised as “Pictorial Colour Printing for Book Illustration and Picture Printing.”

“The Pictorial Album, or Cabinet of Paintings for the Year 1837” included eleven color prints by George Baxter. Some consider this to be among his finest work.

“The Pictorial Album, or Cabinet of Paintings for the Year 1837” included eleven color prints by George Baxter. Some consider this to be among his finest work.

At the end of 1836, Baxter produced a volume called The Pictorial Album, or Cabinet of Paintings that was published by Chapman and Hall. This project—which contained ten pictures including reproductions of several works of well-known artists of the day along with a frontispiece—was the first major publication of Baxter’s process. Some have said it was the high-water mark of his craft.

In 1841, Baxter printed two pictures called “Her Most Gracious Majesty Receiving the Sacrament at Her Coronation” and “The Arrival Her Most Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria at the House of Lords to Open her First Parliament” that include 200 portraits of identifiable guests at the event at Westminster Abbey in 1938. These oil-color prints—which are 21-3/4” by 17-1/2”—were prepared in cooperation with Buckingham Palace and gained Baxter direct access to the Queen and other royals in Britain and elsewhere in Europe.

Confident of the superiority of his methods, George Baxter was not shy about self-promotion as he gained a level of notoriety for his invention. However, as Baxter was continually preoccupied with the artistic and technical aspects of his business, he was never successful financially. In 1849, he petitioned the Privy Council and was granted a five-year extension on his patent on the grounds that he had lost money during the previous fourteen years.

Baxter’s print booth at the Great Exhibition

Baxter’s print booth at the Great Exhibition

In 1851, Baxter prints were on display at The Great Exhibition (also called the Crystal Palace Exhibition) in London. Of his work, the official catalog of the expo said, “Mr. George Baxter, the patentee of the process of printing in oil colours, exhibits in the Fine Art Court, upwards of sixty specimens (from the largest size to the smallest miniature), of his choicest productions … The visitors will indeed be delighted with these charming specimens which form the principal attraction in the Fine Art Court.”

Baxter also exhibited prints at the international expos in New York City in 1852 and Paris in 1855. He was awarded medals for these entries. Later, Baxter produced a series of prints called “Gems of The Great Exhibition” which show the grandeur of his vision and the dexterity of his engraving skills.

Baxter’s series “Gems of the Great Exhibition” (1852) included this image of the exterior of the Crystal Palace in London.

Baxter’s series “Gems of the Great Exhibition” (1852) included this image of the exterior of the Crystal Palace in London.

Legacy

In later years, while still holding his patent, Baxter took to licensing his method to other printers as a means of generating income. Having obtained color printing patents in France, Belgium and Germany as well as Britain, Baxter sold annual licenses to a handful of printers in all of these countries. Some have said that the work of these printers never approached Baxter’s in graceful detail and delicate coloring.

Six years after his process went into the public domain, Baxter liquidated his oil-color printing business and sold off his inventory of prints and intaglio plates and woodblocks to another printer. Part of this arrangement included Baxter’s agreement to provide technical assistance to the new owner.

The reasons for his decision to exit the business are unknown. It is clear that by the 1860s other competing methods such as chromolithography (Engelmann, 1837) and photography (Daguerre, 1839) were challenging the Baxter method in both quality and cost. By 1865, the remainder of Baxter’s printing business went bankrupt.

In late 1866 George Baxter was struck in the head during an accident involving a horse-drawn omnibus. He died at his residence in Sydenham on January 11, 1867 and was buried at Christ Church, Forest Hill in London. A red granite obelisk above his grave bears the inscription “the sole inventor and patentee of oil-colour printing.”

Some believed that Baxter’s significance and contribution had been exaggerated by a cult of enthusiasm built up by clubs and associations organized to collect copies of his works. One such critic, R.M. Burch, wrote of Baxter in 1910, “Had he not been, rediscovered … his name and fame would in all probability have completely passed into the limbo of forgetfulness.”

However, George Baxter is remembered for the lasting impact of his original color printing method and for making color printing popular and viable. Like others before and after him, Baxter’s genius and creative gifts intersected with important changes in the means and methods of printing during his lifetime. It is undeniable that George Baxter played a decisive role in expanding the influence of print upon society during the Victorian era.

The pioneers of color printing

Posted in People in Media History, Print Media, Typography with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 30, 2016 by multimediaman

Red Apple Green Leaves Blue Sky

Color is a perception; it is the response of the human visual system to light reflected from objects in the world around us. We learn as children to associate these color perceptions with names: the red of an apple, the green of the leaves or the blue of the sky. More scientifically, color is the way our eyes, optic nerve and brain receive and process different wavelengths of the visible spectrum of electromagnetic radiation.

It took hundreds of years of thought and experiment—beginning with Isaac Newton’s 1672 idea that white light is the source of color sensation—to arrive at the modern understanding of color and the way we perceive it. In 1802, the visible spectrum of electromagnetic energy was defined by Thomas Young when he measured various wavelengths of light and established their relationship to color, i.e. red is about 650 nm, green is about 510 nm and blue is about 475 nm.

Visible Light as a Segment of Electromagic Waves

The visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum represents all the colors of the rainbow

Later, Young and Hermann von Helmholtz developed the theory of trichromatic color vision. They surmised that the human eye has three types of photoreceptors, each with particular sensitivity to a corresponding range of light waves. In the 1950s it was proved—with advanced measuring equipment—that the three kinds of visual receptors (cones) have the capacity to sense many combinations of light wavelengths and see them as all the colors of the rainbow.

Knowledge of the properties of light and color was a major achievement of the scientific revolution (1500 to 1900) that—alongside the discovery of graphical perspective and other mathematical linear projections—transformed the visual arts. Artists and craftsmen that exclusively relied on their sensibility, talent and experience were able to integrate the principles of science into their works, bringing a degree of realism and accuracy that was previously impossible.

While the history of two-dimensional color representation is most often associated with fine art painting—the fresco, oil and tempera works of the Renaissance masters—the lesser known origins of color printing took a parallel development in time. Starting with the birth of mechanical metal type in Germany during the High Renaissance, a quest was begun to conquer the challenge of practical and high-quality color printing.

Relief color, Fust and Schoeffer (1457)

Page from the Mainz Psalter

A three-color page from the Mainz Psalter printed by Fust and Schoeffer in 1457

There is evidence that Johannes Gutenberg experimented with color during the printing of his famous 42-line Bible. For the most part, however, traditional hand-painted ornamental color lettering was used by Gutenberg alongside the black letter printing type he invented around 1450. Shortly thereafter, relief printing of color type and other ornamental figures was performed remarkably well by Gutenberg’s former collaborators on the printing of the Bible, Johann Fust and Peter Schoeffer.

In 1457, Fust and Schoeffer printed the Mainz Psalter with three colors—black, red and blue—all at one time. Their ingenious technique of compound printing involved interlocking metal type characters that were inked separately and reassembled for a single impression on the printing press. Although it returned extraordinary results, the process was very time consuming and expensive.

Intaglio color, Teyler ( 1680)

Johan Teyler intaglio color print

Johan Teyler intaglio color print

For most of the next two centuries, limited color printing was attempted as hand-colored pages remained the preferred method of pictorial representation. As various printing techniques spread across Europe, new approaches to color reproduction were tested. Some color illustrations were made using wood blocks.

By the mid-fifteenth century, intaglio engraving emerged as the standard method for printing images in black and white. Around 1680, a mathematician and engineer from Nijmegen, Holland named Johan Teyler developed a means of dabbing different colored inks into the wells of intaglio plates—originally intended for black-only printing—to make a full-color impression all at one time. Like Fust and Schoeffer’s work, Teyler’s color results were artistically beautiful but could not be developed into a viable commercial process.

Three-color mezzotint, Le Blon (1720)

Jacob Christoph Le Blon’s three-color mezzotint of 1722

Jacob Christoph Le Blon’s three-color mezzotint of 1722

Following the publication in 1704 of Isaac Newton’s discoveries regarding the physics of light and color—especially the idea that all colors are made of different combinations of red, blue and yellow (this was later proven to be imprecise for both light waves and pigments)—a few printers began working with techniques in three-color mezzotint printing. By this time, mezzotint copperplates were the favored image reproduction method because they rendered tones more easily than engraving.

In 1711, the Frankfurt-born painter Jacob Christoph Le Blon, basing himself directly upon Newton’s theory, mastered trichromatic mezzotint printing in his Amsterdam studio. Le Blon first tried and failed to commercialize his invention in Amsterdam, The Hague and Paris. He relocated in London in 1720, successfully obtained a royal patent from George I for his process and opened up a business selling printed color copies of oil paintings.

While his technical accomplishment was a significant step forward, Le Blon’s business lasted for three years before bankruptcy forced him back to Paris. Creating an appropriate balance of intensity between the primary color plates and maintaining tight registration between the three press impressions upon the paper was an exceedingly difficult and costly trial-and-error process.

Four-color mezzotint, L’Admiral and Gautier (1736)

Test printing of yellow and blue plates of the human skull by L’Admiral (1738) and the four-color mezzotint of the musculature of the head by Gautier (1745)

Test printing of yellow and blue plates of the human skull by L’Admiral (1738) and the four-color mezzotint of the musculature of the head by Gautier (1745)

It is documented that J. C. Le Blon also invented four-color mezzotint printing by adding black to the red, yellow and blue plates on a few of his prints. However, the perfection RYBK (K is for the key color, black) model was made by others, especially following Le Blon’s death in 1741. Among those who contributed were the Dutch engraver and printer Jan L’Admiral and the French painter Jacques Gautier, who had both been assistants to Le Blon. L’Admiral and Gautier initially produced color plates of human anatomy for medical research publications in Paris in the 1730s and 1740s.

In France, Gautier proved to be something of a charlatan and attempted to take full credit for the invention of four-color printing. He started a periodical in 1752 called Observations on natural history, on physics and painting in which popular sensationalism appears to have been his primary objective. Gautier fabricated a full-color image of a “siren” with the body of a seahorse and a hideous head of a human and reproduced some images that bordered on pornography. Nonetheless, Gautier’s journal proved to be among the first financially successful uses of color printing; it was published quarterly for five years.

Chromolithography, Engelmann (1837)

Godefroy Engelmann 1838 chromolithograph copy and the original oil of Master Lambton

Godefroy Engelmann 1838 chromolithograph copy and the original oil of Master Lambton

The invention of lithography by the Bavarian Alois Senefelder in 1796 brought a fundamentally new approach to printing. While relief letter press and intaglio mezzotint were mechanical printing processes, lithography relied upon the chemical antipathy of oil and water to transfer the image onto paper. The new method enabled artists to draw on the surface of limestone instead of the much more difficult etching or engraving of metal plates. In 1818, Senefelder experimented with lithographic color reproduction and pointed the way forward for others.

For the next two decades, lithographers from Germany, France and England made strides with color, for the most part printing decorative ornamentations or title pages of relief printed books. The chromolithography during this time was also a return to a multi-color approach of the seventeenth century as opposed to the later and more advanced three- or four-color mezzotint separation process.

Chromolithography came of age with the work of the French-German Godefroy Engelmann of Mulhouse. After becoming a pioneer and master in monochrome lithography, Engelmann made significant progress with four-color lithographs in 1837. He moved to Paris a year later and obtained a patent for his process. His works proved that chromolithography could effectively render lifelike prints of landscapes, flower and fruit arrangements and the most difficult human forms.

Toward modern color printing

The four-color chromolithography of the mid-nineteenth century finally brought color printing to an economically viable balance of quality, time and cost. However, full color printing was still largely a special process that was performed separately from letterpress black-only text print. With the rapid industrial expansion of book and newspaper publishing, color work remained essentially a very slow, craft-based process that required highly skilled artisans.

The production of relief, intaglio and lithographic “prints” and “plates” remained the convention for color work during the balance of the 1800s. These products were most often sold as single items—sometimes for as little a penny each—or bound into books as illustrations. It would require the development and maturity of three major advancements in the graphic arts to integrate printed color together with black text: color photography by Thomas Sutton (1861) and halftone reproduction by Frederic Ives (1881) and the CMYK ink model (1906).

Initially, some black and white halftones were enhanced with synthetically applied color. By the 1920s, improvements in mechanical color separation techniques and the growth of magazine publishing made it possible for some titles to afford full-color pictures and black text to be printed together on sheetfed letterpress systems. Some of these publications, such as National Geographic Magazine, continued with letterpress color all the way up to the late 1970s.

By the late 1950s, offset lithography and electronic color separations had begun their rise as the foremost method of reproducing high quality, inexpensive printed color images. Although the personal computer (IBM, 1981), digital camera (Fuji, 1987) and digital printing (Indigo, 1993) have brought color reproduction to new levels of high quality and low cost—especially for small quantities—the breakthroughs of seventy years ago remain by far the dominant methods of color reproduction today.

Books, e-books and the e-paper chase

Posted in Digital Media, Mobile, Mobile Media, Paper, Print Media with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 22, 2016 by multimediaman

Last November Amazon opened its first retail book store in Seattle near the campus of the University of Washington. More than two decades after it pioneered online book sales—and initiated the e-commerce disruption of the retail industry—the $550 billion company seemed to be taking a step backward with its “brick and mortar” Amazon Books.

Amazon Books opened in Seattle on November 3, 2015

Amazon opened its first retail book store in Seattle on November 3, 2015

However, Amazon launched its store concept with a nod to traditional consumer shopping habits, i.e. the ability to “kick the tires.” Amazon knows very well that many customers like to browse the shelves in bookstores and fiddle with electronic gadgets like the Kindle, Fire TV and Echo before they make buying decisions.

So far, the Seattle book store has been successful and Amazon has plans to open more locations. Some unique features of the Amazon.com buying experience have been extended to the book store. Customer star ratings and reviews are posted near book displays; shoppers are encouraged to use the Amazon app and scan bar codes to check prices.

Amazon’s book store initiative was also possibly motivated by the persistence and strength of the print book market. Despite the rapid rise of e-books, print books have shown a resurgence of late. Following a sales decline of 15 million print books in 2013 to just above 500 million units, the past two years have seen an increase to 560 million in 2014 and 570 million in 2015. Meanwhile, the American Booksellers Association reported a substantial increase in independent bookstores over the past five years (1,712 member stores in 2,227 locations in 2015, up from 1,410 in 1,660 locations in 2010).

Print books and e-books

After rising rapidly since 2008, e-book sales have stabilized at between 25% and 30% of total book sales

After rising rapidly since 2008, e-book sales have stabilized at between 25% and 30% of total book sales

The ratio of e-book to print book sales appears to have leveled off at around 1 to 3. This relationship supports recent public perception surveys and learning studies that show the reading experience and information retention properties of print books are superior to that of e-books.

The reasons for the recent uptick in print sales and the slowing of e-book expansion are complex. Changes in the overall economy, adjustments to bookstore inventory from digital print technologies and the acclimation of consumers to the differences between the two media platforms have created a dynamic and rapidly shifting landscape.

As many analysts have insisted, it is difficult to make any hard and fast predictions about future trends of either segment of the book market. However, two things are clear: (1) the printed book will undergo little further evolution and (2) the e-book is headed for rapid and dramatic innovation.

Amazon launched the e-book revolution in 2007 with the first Kindle device. Although digital books were previously available in various computer file formats and media types like CD-ROMs for decades, e-books connected with Amazon’s Kindle took off in popularity beginning in 2008. The most important technical innovation of the Kindle—and a major factor in its success—was the implementation of the e-paper display.

Distinct from backlit LCD displays on most mobile devices and personal computers, e-paper displays are designed to mimic the appearance of ink on paper. Another important difference is that the energy requirements of e-paper devices are significantly lower than LCD-based systems. Even in later models that offer automatic back lighting for low-light reading conditions, e-paper devices will run for weeks on a single charge while most LCD systems require a recharge in less than 24-hours.

Nick Sheridon and Gyricon

The theory behind the Kindle’s ink-on-paper emulation was originated in the 1970s at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in California by Nick Sheridon. Sheridon developed his concepts while working to overcome limitations with the displays of the Xerox Alto, the first desktop computer. The early monitors could only be viewed in darkened office environments because of insufficient brightness and contrast.

Nick Sheridon and his team at Xerox PARC invented Gyricon in 1974, a thin layer of transparent plastic composed of bichromal beads that rotate to create an image

Nick Sheridon and his team at Xerox PARC invented Gyricon in 1974, a thin layer of transparent plastic composed of bichromal beads that rotate with changes in voltage to create an image on the surface

Sheridon sought to develop a display that could match the contrast and readability of black ink on white paper. Along with his team of engineers at Xerox, Sheridon developed Gyricon, a substrate with thousands of microscopic plastic beads—each of which were half black and half white—suspended in a thin and transparent silicon sheet. Changes in voltage polarity caused either the white or black side of the beads to rotate up and display images and text without backlighting or special ambient light conditions.

After Xerox cancelled the Alto project in the early 1980s, Sheridon took his Gyricon technology in a new direction. By the late 1980s, he was working on methods to manufacture a new digital display system as part of the “paperless office.” As Sheridon explained later, “There was a need for a paper-like electronic display—e-paper! It needed to have as many paper properties as possible, because ink on paper is the ‘perfect display.’”

In 2000, Gyricon LLC was founded as a subsidiary of Xerox to develop commercially viable e-paper products. The startup opened manufacturing facilities in Ann Arbor, Michigan and developed several products including e-signage that utilized Wi-Fi networking to remotely update messaging. Unfortunately, Xerox shut down the entity in 2005 due to financial problems.

Pioneer of e-paper Nick Sheridon

Pioneer of e-paper, Nicholas Sheridan

Among the challenges Gyricon faced were making a truly paper-like material that had sufficient contrast and resolution while keeping manufacturing costs low. Sheridan maintained that e-paper displays would only be viable economically if units were sold for less than $100 so that “nearly everyone could have one.”

As Sheridon explained in a 2009 interview: “The holy grail of e-paper will be embodied as a cylindrical tube, about 1 centimeter in diameter and 15 to 20 centimeters long, that a person can comfortably carry in his or her pocket. The tube will contain a tightly rolled sheet of e-paper that can be spooled out of a slit in the tube as a flat sheet, for reading, and stored again at the touch of a button. Information will be downloaded—there will be simple user interface—from an overhead satellite, a cell phone network, or an internal memory chip.”

E Ink

By the 1990s competitors began entering the e-paper market. E Ink, founded in 1998 by a group of scientists and engineers from MIT’s Media Lab including Russ Wilcox, developed a concept similar to Sheridon’s. Instead of using rotating beads with white and black hemispheres, E Ink introduced a method of suspending microencapsulated cells filled with both black and white particles in a thin transparent film. Electrical charges to the film caused the black or white particles to rise to the top of the microcapsules and create the appearance of a printed page.

E Ink cofounder Russ Wilcox

E Ink cofounder Russ Wilcox

E Ink’s e-paper technology was initially implemented by Sony in 2004 in the first commercially available e-reader called LIBRIe. In 2006, Motorola integrated an E Ink display in its F3 cellular phone. A year later, Amazon included E Ink’s 6-inch display in the first Amazon Kindle which became by far the most popular device of its kind.

Kindle Voyage (2014) and Kindle Paperwhite (2015) with the latest e-paper displays (Carta) from E ink

Kindle Voyage (2014) and Kindle Paperwhite (2015) with the latest e-paper displays (Carta) from E ink

Subsequent generations of Kindle devices have integrated E Ink displays with progressively improved contrast, resolution and energy consumption. By 2011, the third generation Kindle included touch screen capability (the original Kindle had an integrated hardware keyboard for input).

The current edition of the Kindle Paperwhite (3rd Generation) combines back lighting and a touch interface with E Ink Carta technology and a resolution of 300 pixels per inch. Many other e-readers such as the Barnes & Noble Nook, the Kobo, the Onyx Boox and the PocketBook also use E Ink products for their displays.

Historical parallel

The quest to replicate, as closely as possible in electronic form, the appearance of ink on paper is logical enough. In the absence of a practical and culturally established form, the new media naturally strives to emulate that which came before it. This process is reminiscent of the evolution of the first printed books. For many decades, print carried over the characteristics of the books that were hand-copied by scribes.

It is well known that Gutenberg’s “mechanized handwriting” invention (1440-50) sought to imitate the best works of the Medieval monks. The Gutenberg Bible, for instance, has two columns of print text while everything else about the volume—paper, size, ornamental drop caps, illustrations, gold leaf accents, binding, etc.—required techniques that preceded the invention of printing. Thus, the initial impact of Gutenberg’s system was an increase in the productivity of book duplication and the displacement of scribes; it would take some time for the implications of the new process to work its way through the function, form and content of books.

Ornamented title page of the Gutenberg Bible printed in 1451

Ornamented title page of the Gutenberg Bible printed in 1451

More than a half century later—following the spread of Gutenberg’s invention to the rest of Europe—the book began to evolve dramatically and take on attributes specific to printing and other changes taking place in society. For example, by the first decade of the 1500s, books were no longer stationary objects to be read in exclusive libraries and reading rooms of the privileged few. As their cost dropped, editions became more plentiful and literacy expanded, books were being read everywhere and by everybody.

By the middle 1500s, both the form and content of books became transformed. To facilitate their newfound portability, the size of books fell from the folio (14.5” x 20”) to the octavo dimension (7” x 10.5”). By the beginning of the next century, popular literature—the first European novel is widely recognized as Cervantes’ Don Quixote of 1605—supplanted verse and classic texts. New forms of print media developed such as chapbooks, broadsheets and newspapers.

Next generation e-paper

It seems clear that the dominance of LCD displays on computers, mobile and handheld devices is a factor in the persistent affinity of the public for print books. Much of the technology investment and advancement of the past decade—coming from companies such as Apple Computer—has been been committed to computer miniaturization, touch interface and mobility, not the transition from print to electronic media. While first decade e-readers have made important strides, most e-books are still being read on devices that are visually distant from print books, impeding a more substantial migration to the new media.

Additionally, most current e-paper devices have many unpaper-like characteristics such as relatively small size, inflexibility, limited bit-depth and the inability to write ton them. All current model e-paper Kindles, for example, are limited to 6-inch displays with 16 grey levels beneath a heavy and fragile layer of glass and no support for handwriting.

The Sony Digital Paper System (DPT-S1) is based on E Ink’s Mobius e-paper display technology: 13.3” format, flexible and supports stylus handwriting

The Sony Digital Paper System (DPT-S1) is based on E Ink’s Mobius e-paper display technology: 13.3” format, flexible and supports stylus handwriting

A new generation of e-paper systems is now being developed that overcome many of these limitations. In 2014, Sony released its Digital Paper System (DPT-S1) that is a letter-size e-reader and e-notebook (for $1,100 at launch and currently selling for $799). The DPT-S1 is based on E Ink’s Mobius display, a 13.3” thin film transistor (TFT) platform that is flexible and can accept handwriting from a stylus.

Since it does not have any glass, the new Sony device weighs 12.6 oz or about half of a similar LCD-based tablet. With the addition of stylus-based handwriting capability, the device functions like an electronic notepad and, meanwhile, notes can be written in the margins of e-books and other electronic documents.

These advancements and others show that e-paper is positioned for a renewed surge into things that have yet to be conceived. Once a flat surface can be curved or even folded and then made to transform itself into any image—including a color image—at any time and at very low cost and very low energy consumption, then many things are possible like e-wall paper, e-wrapping paper, e-milk cartons and e-price tags. The possibilities are enormous.