Frederic Eugene Ives: 1856 – 1937

Frederick Eugene Ives Frederic Eugene Ives

Frederic Eugene Ives is a central figure in the history of the graphic arts. His inventions and discoveries in the field of visual communications technology—the development of the first halftone reproduction process being the most significant—span six decades and are among the greatest contributions by an individual to the industry.

The son of a farmer-turned-country storekeeper from a small town in rural Connecticut, Ives developed an interest in printing when he found a small hand press in his fathers’ shop. He left school before the age of 12 to find a job and earn a living after the early death of his father from pulmonary consumption. More than a year later, young Frederic obtained an apprenticeship in the printing offices of the Litchfield Enquirer where he earned the state-wide reputation among newspaper printers as “the natural printer.” This was by virtue of the superb quality of his work.

Lacking any formal education, Ives developed a passion for investigation and experimentation in photography and engraving while working late into the night in the attic of a building directly across the village green from the Enquirer office. After completing his apprenticeship at the age of seventeen, he became a journeyman job printer for a printing establishment in Ithaca, New York, some two hundred miles away from his hometown. This was followed a year later with an application for a job running the photographic laboratory at Cornell University. After initially being declared too young and inexperienced for the position, Ives was selected by the university administration for employment on a “trial basis.”

While Ives’ tenure at Cornell lasted just four years, it was during this time that he would go on to develop some of his most important ideas; ideas that would transform the world of printing.

His invention of the halftone photoengraving process in 1881 and later the crossline screen for direct photographic halftone reproduction stand out as a transition period in the history of printing and publishing. Ives had created for the first time the technology and method for reproducing with ink-on-paper printing processes all of the tonal values and richness of detail from an original photographic image. Prior to this discovery, imagery in print was confined to the highly skilled and time-consuming efforts of handicraft wood engravers and resembled works of art more than an actual scene as perceived by the human eye.

In its essential features, the halftone process remains in use today as the most common method for photographic reproduction in print. It is safe to say that the offset lithographic process, the predominant printing technology of the past half-century, could not exist without Ives’ invention. Each day millions upon millions of printed products — newspapers, books, magazines, brochures, calendars, wrapping paper, greeting cards, packaging materials, billboards, to name only a few — are produced by machinery that utilizes what was once known as the “Ives process.”

Simply put, the halftone is an optical illusion: small dots of various sizes that are equidistant from each other create the appearance—at an appropriate viewing distance—of continuous gradations of tone. Due to the fact that many printing processes, can only transfer a solid film of ink to a sheet of paper (or other substrate), the halftone is the most effective method for reliably simulating a continuous tone image such as a photograph. Measured in lines per inch, the halftone screen is the essential building block of the printed page upon which everything else depends.

Ives also made major contributions to the development of color photography and microscopy. Among his 70 patents were the photochromoscope camera, the chromogram and the single-objective binocular microscope. In his later years, when asked how he came to devote himself to the field of optics without what was considered the requisite mathematics and physics training, Ives quoted Robert Louis Stevenson’s remark about his father, the lighthouse engineer, who he said had a “sentiment for optics.”

An unusually gifted man, Ives wrote about himself in his “Autobiography of an Amateur Inventor,”: “… the writer belongs to a period when some of the most revolutionary inventions were made by men not specially trained for such work, but were impelled to undertake it by the possession of what Sir William Abney once termed ‘instinctive genius.’ To this class of men I would apply the term ‘amateur inventors.’ … Some men are as naturally inventors as others are poets, fiction writers, statesmen or merchants and the typical amateur inventor will pursue his course through any amount of poverty and hardship and indifference, thinking much more about his work than about any material reward which it might bring.”

Frederic Eugene Ives is without question one of the great — albeit often unappreciated and rarely recognized — pioneers of graphic and print communications technology.

Thoughts on the newspaper

Much has been written and spoken recently about the fate of the newspaper. As with the rest of the print media industry, newspaper publishing is being altered by a dual reality: 1.) the economic downturn is devastating advertising revenues necessary to maintain financial viability; 2.) the transition of information and news distribution to alternative media such as TV, radio and, most importantly, the Internet.

Major metropolitan daily newspapers are closing or significantly cutting back frequency (The Rocky Mountain News suspended daily print publication on February 26, 2009, just 55 days short of its 150th birthday). Reported quarterly losses at some of the most prestigious publications are dire (The Boston Globe reported a first quarter 2009 loss of $74.5 million).

Clearly, falling readership is a key factor that guides the decision of advertisers to pay for ad space in newspapers. According to the Pew Research Center Biennial News Consumption Survey conducted in 2008:

For more than a decade, the audiences for most traditional news sources have steadily declined, as the number of people getting news online had surged.

While the causes and specifics of this phenomenon are complex, the trend is undeniable: newspapers are a declining source of news for growing numbers of people.

Another factor impacting newspaper revenue is the loss of money from classified advertising caused by eBay, Craigslist and other online services that provide similar services. These online resources are often less expensive (or free) and are more effective at selling or finding the product or service being bought or sold.

I think the future of newspapers is dependent upon form, content and cost. I am a weekday subscriber to The New York Times. The paper is delivered to my home at around 5:00 am each day. I can and occasionally do read the NYT online, however, I find the physical qualities (size, weight, portability, disposability) of the printed paper advantageous. This costs me about $25 per month.

I have considered purchasing a Kindle (which offers automatic daily download of the NYT). Besides the size of the upfront cost ($349 for the device and $99 for an annual subscription to the paper), I am hesitant to give up the other attributes of the printed paper (I don’t count ink smudged fingers and the occasional rain-soaked copy in the front yard among them).

There is one more important consideration: environmental impact of the printed newspaper vs. an electronic edition. I do not have the data to back up this assertion, but I would suggest that an electronic subscription to the daily newspaper (device production and delivery, publication content production, electronic delivery to the device, power to operate the device) would result in a net decrease in carbon impact versus the same for the print edition (publication content production, print production, newspaper delivery).

Newspapers will continue to exist well into the future, albeit in altered state of being. Their future is not guaranteed. When a genuine electronic “paper” is developed (the Kindle is about as close as it comes today), I believe the newspaper and other kinds of print publishing will be displaced The key to the continued existence of newspapers is finding the appropriate relationship between the use-function-cost of their print and online editions. What do you think?

Day 1: Thermal inkjet press takes center stage

My plane touched down at 11:30am in Düsseldorf and I decided that I felt good enough to go straight to Messe Düsseldorf (this is the name of the exposition center where DRUPA is held) despite the fact that I had almost no sleep and it was actually 5:30am for me … I was feeling a second wind coming on. Once I got my bags I went about finding my way to the show.

There was a DRUPA information booth in the airport and the attendant was very helpful in directing me to the underground railway to the Messe. After a cup of coffee (a good one, too) I was on the platform and shortly thereafter arrived at DRUPA at about 12:30pm. Wow, the place was mobbed with people on a Saturday afternoon!

I selected digital printing as the first order of business because I knew from the pre-DRUPA literature I had been receiving that this was an important area of development. According to the directory there are 55 exhibitors with digital printing presses. The term “press” is being used very loosely here. In fact, that is one of the problems with technological development, printing or otherwise: the advancements are stressing the concepts and words that we have used historically.

Broadly, I would define digital printing presses as printing machines that are capable of (1) accepting a digital file directly into the system and (2) producing full color pages. These systems can be categorized into three groups:
1. Offset lithographic presses that digitally image plates on press
2. Toner-based printing presses (similar to office color laser printers)
3. Inkjet-based printing presses (similar to desktop inkjet printers)

I decided to focus on the last of these as this is the technology that is the newest and is showing significant advancements … I must say I wasn’t disappointed. The DRUPA directory lists 57 exhibitors of what they categorize as “ink jet printing systems.” This didn’t really help me very much, so I went looking and I found what I would call inkjet printing presses at the following booths:
1. Hewlett-Packard
2. Agfa
3. Kodak
4. FujiFilm
5. Screen USA

The most striking thing about this list is that the latest and most exciting area of development in the process of putting ink-on-paper does not include any of the traditional manufacturers of lithographic press equipment. Where is Heidelberg, KBA, Komori, Mitsubishi, etc.? I don’t have an answer to this question yet … but I will find out.

By far, the most important piece of equipment at DRUPA is HP’s Inkjet Web Press. This is a thermal inkjet device that, according to the product literature, “enables fast, four-color double-sided printing at 600 dpi with speeds of up to 400 feet per minute and inline process control. With roll-to-roll production at widths of up to 30 inches you can get high speed, high volume color print production in quantities up to 70 million per month.”

Now this is something entirely new. This machine is capable of a continuous stream of variable copy in a web press-like configuration. The implications of this machine for printing and publishing are significant. According to Andy Tribute, an industry expert: “The HP Inkjet Web Press is a ‘transition press.’ By that I mean it is a press that will be a major agent for change within the industry. It will be the first digital press that really will challenge offset color printing in areas other than short run color printing. … I think it can have the same level of market impact on offset printing as desktop publishing had on changing the structure of the prepress business in the 1980s and 1990s.”

The device is aimed at the following markets: direct mail, transaction printing, books and newspapers. Some may say that the quality isn’t there yet, that 600 dpi is not sufficient to compete with lithography. I remember a time when some said desktop publishing software couldn’t compete with phototypesetting because it lacked kerning of type. Well, desktop software is kerning type now and phototypesetting doesn’t exist any more.

May 31, 2008