As If By Chance: Part I

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

Drawing Hands by M.C. Escher, 1948

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

Democritus, circa 400 BC

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

G. W. F. Hegel, 1817

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

It is notable that some inventions in the history of print technology are recorded as having been achieved by chance. In accounts written at the time of the inventions as well as in the historical reviews, major breakthroughs in printing are attributed to accidental events. Much in the same way school children are taught that the natural scientist Isaac Newton discovered the law of gravitation after an apple fell from a tree upon his head, significant inventions in the history of printing are said to be the result of lucky mistakes.

Perhaps the two most well-known examples of this phenomenon are found in accounts of the late eighteenth century invention of lithography by Alois Senefelder and the early twentieth century invention of offset printing by Ira Washington Rubel. In both cases, the technical advances made by the inventors are frequently explained as having been accidental. 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 an incorrect—or, at best, an incomplete—way of understanding the contributions of these two innovators.

Why does the word “accidentally” appear in the above accounts of historic inventions that took place more than one hundred years apart and which, together, established what is known as offset lithography, a technology that revolutionized the printing industry and remains today the dominant method of transferring ink to paper? Why is it that stories of accidental invention—even from authoritative sources like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Encyclopædia Britannica—persist for both men, in spite of ample evidence that Senefelder and Rubel were in pursuit of innovation and striving to improve the printing process through methods of ingenuity, experimentation and science that prevailed during their respective lifetimes?

Finding answers to these questions requires investigative journey. While it may be a fact of popular interest that Senefelder and Rubel are known as much—or even more—for the accidental way they arrived at their achievements than they are for the significance of the achievements themselves, it is also a fact that invention by happenstance has occurred in history more often than is generally known. Since the “accidental” attribution tends to overshadow and mystify the progress attained—in printing as well as other industries—it is instructive to examine these two inventions in their socio-economic context and to locate the place of Senefelder and Rubel within the whole history of printing. Such an examination shows that their accomplishments were absolutely necessary advancements.

To untangle the riddle of accidental invention in the specific cases of Senefelder and Rubel, it is necessary to: (1) investigate the historical record and review the facts of what is known about the men and how they invented lithography and offset printing; (2) look outside print technology and into the prevalence of “serendipity” more broadly in the history of scientific and technological discovery; (3) explore the source of the need for the legends of accidental discovery in human progress; (4) make a theoretical analysis of the two-sided and contradictory content of “accidents” in general; and, (5) return to Senefelder and Rubel and show how their inventions were manifestations of disruptive continuity in the history of printing.

The concept of disruptive continuity applies to the development of printing—as well as all human technical progress—because it acknowledges that each innovation owes its emergence to the accomplishments of others that came beforehand; that significant innovation could not take place without innumerable connections to the past. At the same time, disruptive continuity also recognizes that each new breakthrough represents a sharp departure from the past. It is a transition point forward that expresses the future in ways that were previously impossible and could not have been accomplished but for the spark of genius embedded in the new innovation.

As this introduction will go on to explain, it is at this nexus point of discontinuity from the prior gradual progression and the moment of a leap into the future that the phenomenon of accidental invention occurs. To understand how unanticipated events, which are rooted in antecedent accomplishments, can and do become transformed into significant innovations is to understand the mechanism by which the old era of technology is superseded by that of an entirely new era of progress.

Finally, by developing a socio-historical-technical analysis of nearly six centuries of print communications—based on the theory of disruptive innovation—significant conclusions can be drawn about the future of ink-on-paper media within the new environment dominated by online, mobile, social and streaming content delivery systems.

* * * * *

The investigative journey begins with an examination of the work of the two printing innovators who are frequently remembered as accidental inventors. It is fortunate that, in the case of Senefelder, an account written by the inventor himself is available and, in the case of Rubel, there exists two technical explanations, an anecdotal account 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.”

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 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 both appeared to him as 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 conflicting 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 have come to predominate.

On Benjamin Franklin’s 313th birthday: The continuing public importance of printed books

The following introductory remarks were delivered to the 36th Annual Michigan Printing Week Association Ben Franklin Awards Dinner on Tuesday, January 15, 2019.

A portrait of Benjamin Franklin at his study in London in 1767

Good Evening,

On behalf of the Printing Industries of Michigan and the Michigan Printing Week Committee, I would like to welcome you to the Annual Ben Franklin Awards Dinner.

My name is Kevin Donley and it is once again my privilege to serve as your Master of Ceremonies this evening.

We are meeting tonight for the 36th year to acknowledge the contributions of our industry colleagues and to raise money for the education of a new generation of printing professionals.

Tonight, we will be recognizing Admore as Company of the Year and William Kessler as Individual of the Year recipients of the Ben Franklin Award. We will also be recognizing two graphic arts students who are deserving recipients of the Ben Franklin college scholarships.

This year we mark Benjamin Franklin’s 313thbirthday. As always, it is appropriate to take a few moments to look back on Franklin’s life for the benefit of both inspiration and, by connecting our own time to his, for insight.

As many of you know, one of Ben Franklin’s enduring contributions was the establishment of the first public library. At the age of just twenty-five, Franklin and a group of his tradesmen friends—who were members of a debating club called the Junto—established what would become The Library Company of Philadelphia, an institution that exists to this day.

Among other things, Franklin believed that the only way to settle debates during the Friday night Junto meetings was to consult authoritative printed texts. In this way, the Junto library became something of a colonial version of what we know today as fact checking.

Franklin drafted the Articles of Association for the The Library Company of Philadelphia and they were signed by 40 subscribers and dated July 1, 1731

However, at that time, standard English reference works were very expensive and hard to find in colonial America. At Franklin’s suggestion the group decided to pool their resources and signed up fifty subscribers who invested 40 shillings and then agreed to pay ten shillings per year for fifty years thereafter. They bought books and rented the facilities needed to establish and maintain the first American lending library.

If you were a subscriber, you could borrow the books in the library. If you were a member of the public, you were able to come into the library and read the books available in the collection.

For Ben Franklin, who never took credit for the idea, there was much more to the library than settling matters of opinion and debate. From the time he was a teenager and throughout his entire life, Franklin was in pursuit of his own intellectual development and education. He also consistently shared and encouraged the same among his fellow citizens.

As Franklin wrote in his autobiography, “these libraries have improved the general conversation of Americans, made the common tradesmen and farmers as intelligent as most gentlemen from other countries, and perhaps have contributed in some degree to the stand so generally made throughout the colonies.”

In other words, writing these lines toward the end of his life, Franklin saw a connection between the public lending of books to the average citizens, the level of discourse within the colonies and the movement for American independence.

Books. Ben Franklin was talking about the importance of books. We always have to remember that—even though many of us are involved in marketing and promotional printing today—our industry is connected with this history; that our industry is rooted in great traditions associated with literacy and public awareness and the sharing and spreading of great ideas.

Here in Michigan, we know something about books. Despite some challenges we have faced recently in our local book manufacturing capacity, we remain a major producer of printed books for publishers across the country and around the world.

Now, after more than a decade of speculation about the imminent death of print brought on by electronic technologies, trade book sales have increased for five years in a row. Meanwhile, the number of independent book stores has grown by 40% over the past ten years.

What’s more, while the number of printed books has been growing again, sales of eBooks—and especially children’s eBooks—have been declining by double digits every year since 2015.

What does this mean? Are we going back to the days prior to the personal computer and the Internet when going to the library or the encyclopedia was the only way to consult authoritative texts? Of course not. It should be pointed out, for example, that the growth of printed book sales can be traced entirely to one retail company: Amazon.

In any case, there is an ongoing public thirst for printed books. Part of this attraction is reading for entertainment and reading as part of a social experience. It has been reported, for instance, that Instagram is partially responsible for the growth of indie bookstores. Using the hashtag #bookstagram, 25 million photos of bookstores have been shared on Instagram. People are being drawn to these boutique bookshops to find the perfect match for their reading style and subject interests.

Another part of this loyalty to printed books is that people are increasingly today—as in Ben Franklin’s time—looking to settle arguments and answer the big questions of our time.

As for the preference for printed books over eBooks, it turns out that we all have something called “spatial orientation memory” that is hard-wired into our brains. This particular type of memory is the part of human psychophysiology that helps us locate where we are in the broader immediate context.

When we read a book, we are subconsciously relying on the tactile experience of our location on a page and within the chapters of a book. This is one of the key aspects of how we remember what we have read; spatial orientation memory is an enabler of reading comprehension and retention.

What all of this shows is that ink-on-paper print still holds tremendous authority and value with the public. While people are excited about the latest gadgetry, they are also understanding more and more clearly that learning and education, especially the teaching of children, depends upon a full sensory engagement with books. This is an experience that cannot today be, as of yet, duplicated by electronic devices and digital displays.

This dependent relationship of the public upon print also extends into the realm of information, marketing and communications. After a decade of enthusiasm and hype about the benefits of digital and social media, the ongoing problems associated with the credibility of these formats is driving renewed interest in print.

Study after study has proven that response rates for direct mail are magnitudes greater than email and social advertising. The public, including old-timers like me as well as millennials, go to the mail box each day with anticipation. We remember what we see there because we engage physically with it, even if it goes within seconds from our hands to the wastebasket.

So, it is on this note of optimism about our great printing industry that we will begin our award presentations this evening. Thank you very much for allowing me to introduce the 2019 Ben Franklin Awards Dinner!

Robert Howard (1923–2014): Dot matrix printer & direct imaging press

Robert Howard: May 19, 1923–December 19, 2014
Robert Howard:
May 19, 1923–December 19, 2014

Apple recently removed the headphone jack from the iPhone 7. Owners of the new model are required to use wireless Bluetooth audio or the Lightning port—the only connector on the phone that also charges the battery—for wired headphones. If the headphone jack is a must, owners can purchase the Lighting-to-3.5mm audio adapter separately for $9.

The missing headphone jack has upset some Apple customers. At the iPhone 7 launch, marketing chief Phil Schiller drove home the company’s reasoning, “Maintaining an ancient, single-purpose, analog, big connector doesn’t make sense because that space is at a premium.” As some tech journalists have pointed out, Apple’s decision comes down to one word: progress.

Analog 3.5mm and ¼” audio connectors
Analog 3.5mm and ¼” audio connectors

Actually, the 3.5mm headphone jack is based on technology that is more than one hundred twenty-five years old. It is a miniaturized version of the phone connector originally developed in the late 1870s for operators to manually connect telephone calls by plugging cords into a switchboard.

The 3.5mm format was created in the 1950s for the transistor radio earpiece and was modified in the 1960s for the Sony portable FM radio and again in 1979 for the Sony Walkman. The fact is that the analog headphone jack has been an anachronism since compact disks and other digital technologies like optical audio became available more than thirty years ago.

As with many earlier decisions by Apple—like eliminating floppy disk and CD-DVD drives, replacing parallel ports with USB ports and adopting Wi-Fi and Bluetooth wireless—the abandonment of the headphone jack, although disruptive, will allow the next generation of technology to develop and flourish.

Centronics interface

The Centronics connectors (25-pin and 36-pin) were dominant in computer peripheral technology for nearly thirty years beginning in 1970
The Centronics connectors (25-pin and 36-pin) were dominant in computer peripheral technology for nearly thirty years beginning in 1970

Interfaces and standards for connecting things together is an important part of electronics and computer history. The adoption of a new format, design or methodology over earlier ones—like USB for SCSI or Thunderbolt for FireWire—is complex and involves a mix of science, engineering, economics and a bit of good luck. In some cases, innovation can fill a void and be embraced rapidly if the cost of adoption is affordable. In other instances, persistent obsolescence can override innovation due to design weaknesses or ease-of-use considerations.

dr-an-wang
Dr. An Wang of Wang Laboratories

Robert Howard—a prolific inventor for seven decades beginning in the 1940s—was among the first engineers to understand that open technology standards were needed to connect computer equipment together. In the late 1960s, along with Dr. An Wang and Prentice Robinson at Wang Laboratories, Howard developed the 36-pin Centronics parallel interface to connect the Centronics Model 101 dot matrix printer to computers.

Although the Wang Labs team could not have predicted it, the Centronics connector took off and became one of the most successful computer connection technologies ever made. One reason for its success was the performance advantages over previous serial interfaces: parallel could carry multiple data streams between devices and could also simultaneously transmit status information.

More fundamentally, however, was the fact that the computer industry in the 1960s was going through a transition. Prior to the Centronics interface, each computer manufacturer used proprietary solutions designed to block customers from buying equipment from competitors. As the computer peripheral business expanded rapidly, however, the lack of standardized connection methods had become a barrier to progress.

As described by Robert Howard in his autobiography Connecting the Dots, the Centronics parallel port was the beginning of a shift in business philosophy among computer companies: “We came to the conclusion that if we developed a very easy, simple interface and gave it free to the world, it might be accepted and used by everyone. Apparently, the practice of creating unique interfaces was so resented by everyone in the computer industry that once IBM accepted our interface, seven other major companies immediately followed suit.” This was not the first or last major technical accomplishment associated with Robert Howard.

Robert Howard’s youth

robert-with-his-father-samuel-horowitz-howard-in-1931
Young Robert with his father Samuel Horowitz (Howard) in 1931

Robert Howard was born Robert Emanuel Horowitz in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, New York to Samuel and Gertrude (Greenspoon) Horowitz on May 19, 1923. Robert’s father worked the midnight shift at the Main US Post Office in New York City. Although he was born three months premature and was afflicted with dyslexia, Robert grew into a very likeable and stout youngster with athletic talent in several sports.

After the family moved to Flatbush, Brooklyn, Robert spent much of his spare time at the Brooklyn Ice Palace where he learned to skate. He played youth hockey and his skills on the ice were noticed by the hockey coach at Brooklyn Technical High School, an elite all-boys public school. Despite his marginal grades, Robert was recruited to attend Brooklyn Tech as along as that he promised to improve his studies.

While at Brooklyn Tech, Robert excelled at machine shop and woodworking. He built a model airplane out of balsa wood and tissue paper and a refurbished gas engine as a school project. His 1937 delta-wing design was ahead of its time and he received an award for it.

Robert was very close to his maternal grandfather, Isaac Greenspoon, who immigrated to the US from Odessa, Russia in 1910. Isaac started a window-shade business on Manhattan’s Lower East Side that became very successful. Robert worked at his grandfather’s company as a teenager and acquired business skills and decision making that would later prove to be a critical part of his own success.

Although no one, including family members, expected Robert to graduate, he not only received his high school diploma but was awarded an athletic scholarship to attend the college of engineering at Columbia University. By the time of his graduation from Brooklyn Tech, World War II was well underway and the Horowitz’s changed their name to “Howard” to avoid the anti-Semitism that was on the rise during that period.

Before attending Columbia, Robert took a summer job working the night shift for the Sperry Gyroscope Company in Brooklyn. He was hired to operate the milling and cutting machines used to produce parts for US military searchlights. He kept the job when college classes started so he could cover his living expenses.

In a stroke of good fortune, Robert was hired as an engineer for a new vacuum tube project at Sperry. Although he was still a student and did not have an engineering degree, the new position required the machine-shop skills that he did have. Robert switched to night school and threw himself into the vacuum tube development program. This was his first experience with electronics and, like so many other innovators of his generation, the field soon became a focus of his work and he stick with it until the end of his career.

Howard’s early inventions

Robert Howard’s sons Larry and Richard with a Howard Television set in 1959
Robert Howard’s sons Larry and Richard with a Howard Television set in 1959

After a brief stint in the army, Robert was hired as an engineer at Sylvania Electric Company in Queens, New York. Starting at the age of twenty, he became involved in a seemingly endless series of projects in a wide variety of pursuits that would establish him as a pioneer of post-war electronics innovation. His accomplishments would include the founding of at least twenty-four different companies and the development of dozens of state-of-the-art inventions.

Robert Howard’s inventions are so numerous and varied that it is only possible to review a few of them here:

  • 1947: Rectangular TV tube
    All early television sets had round picture tubes. This meant that the rectangular broadcast image was either clipped the top and bottom or was reduced in size to fit in the 7, 10, 11 or 14-inch standard diameters of the first TV tubes. While working for Sylvania, Robert Howard proposed a rectangular tube design and convinced the company to manufacture one hundred of these 16-inch television CRTs.
  • 1950: Cable television
    After founding Howard Television, Inc. to build and sell his own design for black and white TVs, Robert secured a contract to create the first cable TV system that was designed as part of the newly constructed Windsor Park apartment complex in the Bayside section of Queens, New York. Later known as the master antenna television system (MATS), the project connected 18 buildings with a total 320 apartments via coaxial cable to a single television antenna with a signal booster and splitter that enhanced the reception for seven TV channels from the New York area.
  • 1961: Improvements in vinyl record production
    Right around the time that the recording industry was transitioning from 78s to LPs, Robert was collaborating with a company that made the machines that pressed vinyl records. He helped to improve the quality of the mass-produced records by introducing zinc plates into the process. He also invented a pressurized steam-based system for controlling the temperature of the molten vinyl as it was extruded into the record press. Known as the “The Boomer,” Robert Howard’s invention significantly increased the volume of phonograph record production while maintaining the highest stereo quality.
  • 1968: Casino computer system
    As a division of Wang Laboratories, Robert Howard founded Centronics to build the first computerized system to prevent skimming at casino gaming tables. Robert’s system tracked the relationship between the amount of cash coming in versus the value of chips going out. The computerized register centrally tracked the amount of each transaction, each table number and each dealer at any time during the day.

Contributions to printing

Robert Howard’s work with the casino industry led to plans for a printing device that could produce multiple hard copy records of gaming transactions. The available technologies of that time were either too expensive and large or too small and slow for this purpose. Working with Dr. Wang at Centronics on a new computer printing device, Robert’s curiosity and sense of entrepreneurship put him on a path toward innovations that helped bring the printing industry into the digital age.

Model 101 Centronics Dot Matrix Printer
Model 101 Centronics Dot Matrix Printer

  • 1970: Dot matrix printer
    Electronic impact printers with ink-soaked cloth ribbons like typewriters had been developed by IBM in the 1950s for printing from mainframe computers. These machines used a chain with a complete set of characters passing horizontally across the paper at high speed. As the paper moved vertically line-by-line, type hammers struck from behind and drove the accordion folded, tractor-fed paper against the ribbon and type characters on the chain. The IBM line printers had the speed that Robert needed but they cost about $25,000 and were the size of a large piece of office furniture.

    While at Wang Labs, Robert developed a self-contained impact print-head could be made to produce type characters on paper from a matrix of one hundred dots. His invention used wires or “pins” that could print up to 185 characters per second and hit the ribbon and paper hard enough to print all four copies of a multi-part form. The core technology of his invention was an electromagnetic switch that could make each pin strike the printing surface one thousand times per second, more than enough to satisfy the performance required for the gaming reports, and at a cost that was affordable.

    Following the formation of an independent partnership with the Japan-based Brother Industries, Robert Howard’s dot matrix technology was deployed in the Model 101 Centronics printer. Although there were competing dot matrix devices on the market, Centronics became the most successful mass production printer of the early computer industry. By the mid-1970s, sales grew exponentially and reached tens of thousands of units internationally. It was the popularity of the printer that made the above-mentioned Centronics interface into an industry standard for connecting peripherals to computers that lasted for decades until it was replaced by the Universal Serial Bus (USB) in the 1990s.

  • 1991: Direct imaging press

    Prototype of the Heidelberg Quickmaster DI press that was designed with integrated Presstek direct imaging technology
    Prototype of the Heidelberg Quickmaster DI press that was designed with integrated Presstek direct imaging technology

    Robert Howard made what is certainly his most enduring contribution to the printing industry toward the end of his career. In 1986, he founded Presstek to develop the first ever direct imaging offset printing technology. As he explained in his autobiography, “The problem at that time was that offset color was a slow, costly process. It took at least ten days to two weeks of what was called ‘prepress’ preparation before a color print job could even be put on a printing press, and because of this expense, it was both impractical and costly to print less than 10,000 copies of anything. I wanted to apply our knowledge of computers and imaging to the color printing business.”

    Robert’s breakthrough concept was to image the printing plates on the press itself and eliminate the darkrooms, film and chemistry associated with prepress processes. By 1991, a Presstek laser imaging system was added to a Heidelberg offset printing press and sold as the Heidelberg GTO DI (for direct imaging). At the center of the Presstek system was a set of four-color thermal laser heads that imaged plates on press. Aside from the novelty of the on-press plate imaging, the Presstek technology was waterless and was easily retrofitted onto the existing Heidelberg GTO design because it took the place of the unneeded dampening system.

    Beginning in 1993, Presstek and Heidelberg developed the Quickmaster DI press, a printing system that was designed from scratch with the on-press laser imaging technology. Launched at DRUPA in 1995, the Quickmaster DI became one of the most popular Heidelberg offset presses ever with 5,000 machines sold within the decade. The press included design innovations that made it easier to operate than previous offset systems. With this innovation, Robert Howard invented a technology that was both disruptive to the prepress industry and also enabled former prepress companies to enter the short-run color printing market.

Robert Howard died on December 19, 2014 at the age of 91. Although he is not a well-known figure in the history of printing—perhaps because of the variety of businesses and disciplines where he left his mark—Robert made critical contributions to the industry, especially in the final decades of the twentieth century. His exceptional talents as an engineer and entrepreneur were essential to the transition of offset printing from an exclusively analog process to one that uses a host of integrated digital technologies.