As If By Chance: Part IV

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

Isaac Newton’s own copy of his Principia, with hand-written corrections for the second edition.

Isaac Newton and the falling apple story

The aforementioned tale of Isaac Newton’s discovery of the law of gravitation provides additional information about happenstance as a common experience in technical-scientific achievement and how it has been used by innovators and historians alike to explain them. Much has been written about Newton’s falling apple legend and, according to research by the Royal Society of London, the source of the tale is now well-known to have been none other than Isaac Newton himself. Although he left no written record of it, the English mathematician, physicist, astronomer, theologian and author was twenty-three years old in 1666 when the famous “moment” of gravity’s discovery was to have taken place.

There are at least four known instances in which Newton—who was born on January 4, 1643 in Lincolnshire and died on March 31, 1727 in the London borough of Kensington—told the anecdote toward the end of his life. The most complete account of Newton telling his story is provided by William Stukeley, a younger scientist from Lincolnshire who befriended the old man and published the first biography of the scientist called Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life in 1752. The two men met often as members of the Royal Society and a conversation about the apple took place on April 15, 1726, a year before Newton’s death, as Stukeley recorded it in his handwritten memoir:

After dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden & drank thea under the shade of some apple tree; only he & myself. Amid other discourse, he told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly the notion of gravitation came into his mind. Why sh[oul]d that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground, thought he to himself; occasion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in contemplative mood.

Although Stukeley describes the fruit descending “perpendicularly to the ground” and not upon the scientist’s head, he confirms that the falling apple story—in which “the notion of gravitation came into his mind”—was told to him directly by Isaac Newton. Stukeley goes on to describe how Newton explained the fruit of his contemplation:

Why sh[oul]d it not go sideways, or upwards? But constantly to the Earth’s centre? Assuredly the reason is, that the Earth draws it. There must be a drawing power in matter. And the sum of the drawing power in the matter of the Earth must be in the Earth’s centre, not in any side of the Earth.

Therefore does this apple fall perpendicularly or towards the centre? If matter thus draws matter; it must be proportion of its quantity. Therefore the apple draws the Earth, as well as the Earth draws the apple.

From this account, it appears that Newton used the falling apple tale for two reasons. The first was to explain how he came upon his breakthrough scientific theory of the “drawing power in matter” that later become known as the universal law of gravitation. The second reason was so that he could review the basic principles of his theory in a manner that could be understood by nearly anyone. Since the notion that “the apple draws the Earth, as well as the Earth draws the apple” is—to say the least—counterintuitive, Newton was giving a practical example of how “matter thus draws matter” and that this power in matter is in “proportion of its quantity.”

The historical record contains other contemporary accounts from people with whom Newton shared the apple tale in the final year of his life. One further example to be related here comes from the French philosopher Voltaire, who said he was told about the falling fruit by the husband of Newton’s niece, John Conduitt. According to Voltaire, Conduitt told him the event had taken place in “the country near Cambridge” where the scientist had withdrawn in 1666 because of the plague.

Commenting recently on the falling apple legend, Keith Moore, the Librarian of the Royal Society said, “The story was certainly true, but let’s say it got better with the telling.” Newton’s story was thus embellished over time and the apple “falling upon his head” was most likely added over years of the “better” telling and retelling of the legend. There was a need for both Newton to tell—and his audience to hear—about the theory of universal gravitation and the apple story became the vehicle through which the new discovery was explained, with some degree of scientific detail supported by an explanation in popular form.

In both the displacement method of volume measurement discovered by the mathematician Archimedes and the law of gravitation discovered by Newton, it is evident that the legends of Eureka moments—whether they actually occurred or not—are historically important and that there has been a need for such tales to be told. They have helped fix these events in public consciousness by presenting a twist of fate or seemingly inexplicable series of events as a stroke of luck. Through the “magic” of happenstance, people from the era of Archimedes and Newton—who otherwise had no scientific explanation as to where their ideas came from—could explain complicated ideas and concepts that appeared to contradict common sense.

In his introduction to Serendipity, Roberts quotes an important comment from Nobel laureate Paul Flory upon receiving the Priestley Medal of the American Chemical Society:

Significant inventions are not mere accidents. The erroneous view [that they are] is widely held, and it is one that the scientific and technical community, unfortunately, has done little to dispel. Happenstance usually plays a part, to be sure, but there is much more to invention than the popular notion of a bolt from the blue. Knowledge in depth and in breadth are virtual prerequisites. Unless the mind is thoroughly charged beforehand, the proverbial spark of genius, if it should manifest itself, probably will find nothing to ignite.

While it is of course decisive to recognize the role of the individual scientist and his or her desires and intentions—the content of Flory’s concept of a mind that is “thoroughly charged” in advance of the accidental moment—there is also the broader technical, social and even political environment that must also be recognized as foundational to the discovery, without which the individual scientist or inventor could not have been prepared and the serendipitous moment could not have been recognized. We see here—with Flory’s reference to “mere accidents” as though they somehow are of secondary significance—an overemphasis on the knowledge, mind and motivation of the individual innovator as the singular primary factor.

In the case of Newton, did the law of gravitation actually come to him both “suddenly” and “all at once” with the fall of an apple in a garden in 1666? As explained by F.E.L. Priestley of the University of Toronto English Department in his 1987 essay Newton and the Apple, “The more vulgar popular versions of the legend feel no qualms about suggesting that the sight of the falling apple suddenly equipped the genius Newton with all he needed to write the Principia, apart from minor details.” Clearly, aside from the broader societal context within which Newton lived, worked and thought—he was part of a generation of what were known at the time as philosophers who were preoccupied with the subject of the paths of falling bodies—he could not have had his falling apple moment.

Priestley goes on to explain that in the 1660s there were various theories being discussed regarding “the paths followed by bodies falling toward the centre of the earth” along with experiments that are “fully illustrated in detailed accounts of the controversies.” The works of Galileo Galliliae, Johan Georg Locher and Johannes Kepler were being studied as the topic was being debated and ideas exchanged. Priestley writes, “Newton himself took part in the discussions so he hardly needed to watch an apple to become aware of the problem of the fall of theories of attraction or the law of inverse squares.” It would take Newton another twenty years of experimentation and mathematical calculations to complete his work on the law of gravitation.

Furthermore, Priestley explains the decisive element in the historical circumstances surrounding the genesis of Newton’s apple tale, i.e., the predominating outlook among the scientific and academic community during his lifetime. Priestley writes:

It is very difficult, in our own secular and materialist age, to recapture the whole intellectual atmosphere of Newton’s world, and it is almost as difficult, in this age of scientific specialization and professionalism, to grasp Newton’s attitude towards science—which he called “philosophy.” … One gets a truer picture of Newton in his historical context by thinking of him as primarily religious and philosophical than by seeing him in terms of a modern professional scientist. … For Newton, spirit is the active substance, matter the inactive, inert substance. … The source of all motion, of all activity, is the active substance, spirit. Both substances are extended in infinite space; matter is finitely extended: spirit, at least the divine spirit, is infinitely extended. … The mathematical, hence rational, order, Newton sees as evidence of the divine creation of the world system, of the divine ordering and dominion constantly active in it.

So, while Newton and his contemporaries were studying the science of the law governed movement of bodies, they had a very limited and unscientific understanding of where the impulse for matter in motion came from. Given that it would be another three hundred years after Newton sat in his mother’s garden to establish by means of observation the source of all motion in the universe, it goes without saying that even less was understood in the late 1600s about serendipity and the source of revolutionary scientific and technical ideas. Some have speculated that Newton’s legendary apple story employs Judeo-Christian symbolism of the Biblical forbidden fruit from the Garden of Eden deliberately. It was far more likely—whether the apple actually did fall on his head or not—that Newton saw his own discovery as a moment of divine inspiration rather than merely a stroke of good luck.

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.

As If By Chance: Part II

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

Ira Washington Rubel with his offset lithographic press as it was presented in the Penrose Pictorial Annual: A Review of the Graphic Arts, Vol. XIV, 1908-09

The invention of offset printing

Turning now to an examination of the invention of the offset printing method by Ira W. Rubel yields additional clues to solving the riddle of the peculiar but significant phenomenon of invention by accident.

It is a fact that very little has been published about Ira Washington Rubel, the man or the inventor. He was born on August 27, 1860 in Chicago to Moses Rubel, an immigrant from Hochspeyer, Rheinland-Pfalz, Germany, and Ellen (May) Rubel, originally from Philadelphia. He was the eldest of six children, with four brothers, Charles, Simon, Nathaniel and Levi, and one sister, Bess C. (Rubel) Marks.

Ira Rubel began his working life as a litigating attorney after graduating with a Bachelor of Law from Northwestern University in 1883 and, in that same year, he founded, along with his brother Charles, the Rubel Brothers printing establishment in Chicago. Their printing business thrived and, with the support of two more Rubel brothers, expanded into paper manufacturing and also opened an office on Broadway in New York City. The Rubel Brothers Paper Manufacturing Company then opened a production facility along the Passaic River in Nutley, New Jersey sometime around 1901 and it was at this location that Ira developed the first offset printing press.

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

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

One of the challenges in locating documentary records of Rubel’s invention is the fact that he was unable to patent his rubber roller-based offset printing method in the US. If a patent application were available, it is possible that details of his work would be in front of us in black and white. However, Rubel was blocked from obtaining a US patent because offset printing on paper was considered by lawyers to be a replication of the tinplate printing method invented in 1875 by Robert Barclay. This technique used cardboard as the “blanket” between the printing plate and the tin substrate.

The existing records do show, however, that Rubel’s inability to patent his invention in the US contributed both to the lack of information about him as well as to his death at a relatively young age. In an obituary published after he died, a family member said that his stroke was caused by “the worry and work occasioned in seeking to protect his patents and marketing his inventions in Europe and America.”

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

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

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

The editors of The Lithographers Manual also referenced a description by Frank Heywood in the book by F. T. Corkett, Photo-Litho and Offset Printing (1923) that makes clear that Rubel was a determined inventor. He took an offset press that he designed to England in 1906 and, “The manufacture of this machine was undertaken by a firm of Lancashire engineers, and although for various reasons—the principal being Rubel’s somewhat untimely death in 1908—it failed to make good, his efforts must be recognized as beneficent and a distinct contribution to lithographic offset print.”

An anecdotal description of the events in Rubel’s workshop around 1904—and the accidental way he made his discovery—is provided by Carl Richard Greer in his Advertising and its Mechanical Production (1931):

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

The Smithsonian Institution possesses at its National Museum of American History in Washington, DC, one of the first presses built by Rubel. The Smithsonian brief describes the machine and the business relations that he established with others to develop his design and build presses for sales and distribution in the US. Smithsonian does not make reference to Rubel having arrived at his invention by way of an accidental discovery, although it does relate that the press was operated at his facility in New York in 1904 and sold one year later to a printing firm in San Francisco. The Smithsonian published the following description of Rubel’s press in 1996:

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

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

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

Additional information about Ira W. Rubel as an innovator—also minus any reference to misfeeds or accidents—was written by his business associate Frederick W. Sears of New Zealand and published in the Penrose Pictorial Annual: A Review of the Graphic Arts, Vol. XIV 1908-09. After the construction of twelve machines and the failure of the Sherbel Syndicate—later giving rise to the Harris-Seybold Company as the primary manufacturer of offset presses in the US—Rubel traveled for the first time to England, as mentioned above, in 1906. It was then that he met and established a relationship with Sears and the two men agreed to build and sell presses based on Rubel’s design in cooperation with the group of Lancashire engineers.

Sears wrote the following tribute to Rubel at the time of his death. It establishes that the man from Nutley, New Jersey persevered through great difficulties in his work as an innovator and that he was a fine gentleman as well:

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

Ira Rubel’s remains are interred near a marker that includes both his name and that of his wife Sarah, at Jewish Graceland Cemetery (Hebrew Benevolent Society Cemetery) in Chicago. His did not live to experience the recognition he would later receive the world over for his innovation and, as far as we know, neither he nor anyone in his family ever benefited financially from his invention.

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

The importance of the four descriptions of Ira W. Rubel and his invention of the offset printing method—by Porter in 1950 and Heywood in 1923 as published in The Lithographers Manual, by Greer in his 1931 book Advertising and its Mechanical Production, by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in 1996 and by Sears as published in 1908 in the Penrose Pictorial Annual—is that they establish two important facts about the disruptive advancement that parallel the previous autobiographical description from Senefelder of his invention. On the one hand, something accidental occurred, and then, on the other hand, the inventor foresaw the potential contained within this chance event and used it to bring about a significant technological leap.

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

One hundred years later—and playing a critical role in the completion of the mass industrialization of printing—in the case of Ira W. Rubel, a commonly known misfeed error of a sheet of paper on rotary lithographic printing presses with a rubber blanket impression cylinder led to a significant discovery. Rubel transformed this “mistake” into the foundation for a new printing press design. Of course, no one could have known in 1796 or in 1904 how completely the combination of these two breakthroughs would go on to displace the previously dominant letterpress method and transform the entire printing industry in the twentieth century in the form of offset lithography.