Sketches of Disruptive Continuity in the Age of Print from Johannes Gutenberg to Steve Jobs
The invention of offset printing
Turning now to an examination of the available information about the invention of the offset printing method by Ira W. Rubel yields additional hints for untangling the peculiar socio-historical phenomenon of invention by accident.
It is true that little has been published or is readily available about Ira Washington Rubel, the man or the inventor. Rubel began his working life as a litigating attorney after graduating from Northwestern University in 1881 and, in that same year, 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. The Rubel Brothers Paper Manufacturing Company opened a production facility along the Passaic River in Nutley, New Jersey sometime around 1901 and it was at this location that Ira W. Rubel developed the first offset printing press.
Rubel died suddenly from a stroke at age 48 in 1908 while he was exhibiting his offset press invention in London. 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 Lithographer’s Manual took particular interest in the fact that “the origin of the offset press is one of the least discussed subjects in the literature on printing.” 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 obtain a patent for his invention in the US. If a patent application were available, it is likely that details of his work could be before us in black and white. Rubel was not able to obtain a US patent because offset printing on paper was considered by legal experts to be a replication of the tinplate printing method invented twenty-five years earlier. This technique used cardboard as the “blanket” between the printing plate and the tin substrate. It is clear from the records that are available that Rubel’s inability to have his invention patented contributed both to the lack of authoritative historical records as well as his early death.
There are several important original sources available that help explain how the “accidental” attribution came to be applied to Ira W. Rubel’s groundbreaking innovation. The editors of The Lithographer’s 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 Lithographer’s 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.
An anecdotal description of the events in Rubel’s workshop, specifically regarding the accidental discovery made there, 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 press without reference to an accidental invention:
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 (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 to England for the first time in 1906 and there met and established a relationship with Sears. The two agreed to build and sell presses with Rubel’s design in cooperation with a group of engineers in London.
Sears wrote the following tribute to Rubel at the time of his death. It establishes that the man from Nutley, New Jersey was indeed a determined innovator, as well as a gentleman:
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.
Rubel’s death was certainly tragic. He would not live to experience the recognition he was to receive the world over for his innovation and, as far as we know, neither he nor anyone in his family ever benefited 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” by most 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 published in The Lithographer’s Manual, by Greer in his 1931 book Advertising and its Mechanical Production, by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and by Sears in 1908 published in the Penrose Pictorial Annual—is that they establish two important facts about the disruptive technological advancement that parallel the previous biographical description by 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 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 in the early nineteenth century.
One hundred years later—and coming near the end of the mass industrialization of printing—in the case of Ira W. Rubel, a misfeed that was a commonly known error in 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 offset printing press design. Of course, no one could have known at that time how completely the combination of these two breakthroughs would go on to disrupt the domination of the letterpress method and transform the entire printing industry in the twentieth century in the form of offset lithography.