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 available information about the invention of the offset printing method by Ira W. Rubel yields additional clues to solving the riddle of the peculiar but significant socio-historical 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. 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, 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 records existing 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 coming near the end 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.

Ira W. Rubel: 1860 – 1908

Illustrator and painter Robert Thom’s depiction of the invention of the offset printing press by Ira W. Rubel and his assistants in Nutley, NJ in 1903.

Ira Washington Rubel

Walter E. Soderstrom, the noted authority on print technology, wrote in the Photo-Lithographer’s Manual of 1937: “The origin of the offset press is one of the least discussed subjects in the literature of printing.”

In preparing this brief sketch of the life of Ira Rubel and his invention of the offset printing press—an extraordinarily important event in the history of modern print technology—it is evident that nothing much has changed since Soderstrom’s time. To this day, there is little accessible and authoritative information about Ira Washington Rubel: his work or his life. In fact, most of what is easily found either trivializes Rubel’s contribution—as bumbling or happenstance rather than the work of an earnest inventor—or glosses over its historic significance. There is currently no biographical Wikipedia entry on the man and his accomplishment; photos of Ira Rubel are very hard to find.

Ira Washington Rubel was born in Chicago on August 27, 1860. He attended Hayes and Division West High Schools in Chicago. He graduated from the University of Chicago in 1881. Rubel then attended Northwestern University in Evanston where he was a classmate of William Jennings Bryan and graduated with a Bachelor of Law in 1883. He litigated cases as a practicing attorney for a short time in Chicago.

The printing firm Rubel Brothers—which Ira founded along with his brother Charles in 1881—is listed in the Lakeside Annual Directory of the City of Chicago of 1887. During the 1880s, Ira became known for having been a pioneer in the manufacture of loose-leaf systems. Promoting the systems for the maintenance of business transactions records, the Rubel Loose Leaf Mfg. Co. was established on Superior Street in Chicago.

Advertising by the Rubel Company in a Chicago business publication.

By 1899, the Rubel brothers’ firm acquired both a six story building on Wabash Street in Chicago as well as a paper mill. At some point, Ira Rubel and his three brothers expanded to the east coast and established an office on Broadway in New York City. They also opened a lithographic printing and paper mill facility in Nutley, New Jersey.

By 1901, the Rubel Brothers Paper & Manufacturing Co. on Kingsland Street in Nutley, NJ experienced significant growth and expanded its facilities. It was at this plant that Ira would conduct his experiments, discover the offset printing method and build the first offset lithographic printing press.

Offset printing is also known as “indirect” printing, i.e. the printed image is not applied directly to paper from the printing plate or inked image carrier, but is first transferred to a rubber blanket and then to paper. Although indirect ink transfer had already proven its importance for at least 25 years in tinplate (canned goods) printing, the concept was not obvious in paper-based lithographic printing due to the dominance at the time of the letterpress technique especially in typographic reproduction.

Perhaps one of the reasons for the lack of literature on Rubel’s discovery is the fact that the offset method was the result of more than fifty years of seemingly disconnected technological developments in both typographic and pictorial reproduction. In 1875, Robert Barclay of Barclay & Fry obtained an English patent for the very first offset press that transferred the printed image from the lithographic stone to a cardboard surface and then to sheet metal (used in making biscuit tins). The discovery of halftone photographic and process color reproduction in the 1880s was also a factor that motivated the invention of offset.

In 1903 and 1904 Rubel experimented at the Nutley facility with photo reproductions transferred onto lithographic stone through a screen. Although the testing did not yield significant results, Rubel’s work on a stop cylinder press led inadvertently to an important breakthrough. When his assistant miss fed a sheet and the rubber impression roller came into contact with the lithographic stone, the reversed image was transferred this roller. When the next sheet was fed, it had an image on both sides: one that was product of the direct contact with the stone image carrier as intended and the other with a wrong-reading image from the “indirect” rubber roller.

Once the “indirect” image was found to be superior in quality to the direct one, Rubel and his collaborators expanded their testing along these lines and perfected the technique. This included a complete redesign of the press based upon the offset principle.

One of the first process color prints produced on an offset press. It appeared in Penrose’s Annual Pictorial in 1910.

As Ira was convinced of the importance of his discovery, he returned to Chicago to seek the technical assistance of lithographer Alexander B. Sherwood. The two also enlisted the financial support of Andrew Kellogg of New York as a venture partner. Although the arrangement did not last, three presses were built and each man took one of them as their share of the achievement.

Court rulings made it impossible for Rubel to obtain a US patent for his discovery because the pre-existing use of the offset method by tinplate printers was legally invoked. Therefore, each of the partners—Rubel, Sherwood and Kellogg— went their separate ways with the new invention. The Kellogg Offset Press was built in New Hampshire, Sherwood joined the Potter Printing Press Company of Plainfield, NJ and Ira Rubel took his idea to England where he thought he might obtain a patent for it. In 1906, Rubel met the New Zealander Frederick Sears and together they launched what became known as the Sears “Highlight” process.

Rubel and his family never realized any fortune from his invention. He died of a stroke at the age of 48 while at the Derby Hotel, Bury, Lancashire, according to relatives, from “the worry and work occasioned in seeking to protect his patents and marketing his inventions in Europe and America.”

An obituary published in the September 19, 1908 edition of The American Stationer reported, “Ira W. Rubel, pioneer manufacturer of loose leaf systems and inventor of the offset printing press which did much in the progress of lithographic development, died suddenly in London of apoplexy. Mr. Rubel was formerly connected with the Rubel Brothers’ Company, which was succeeded by the Rubel Manufacturing Company. Mr. Rubel left Chicago ten years ago, and took up his residence in New York. His remains will be buried in Chicago in Graceland cemetery, by the side of his wife.”

There is no doubt that Ira Rubel’s invention—and the independent and concurrent work of Charles and Alfred Harris of Niles, IL—came to transform the printing industry worldwide. The offset lithographic process was greeted initially within the industry with mixtures of enthusiasm, skepticism and opposition. As with many previous and future breakthroughs in the graphic arts, there were those who could see offset’s potential and those who were advocates of the dominant letterpress of the previous technology generation.

It would take fifty years before the superior quality, speed and economics of offset overtook letterpress as the dominant printing method internationally. By 1960, the majority of printed matter was being produced on offset equipment. Today, with digital printing systems advancing rapidly in recent decades, offset still represents more than half of the $800 billion of worldwide annual printing shipments. More than a century after Ira Rubel’s invention, the dominance of offset printing will continue for many years—some even say decades—to come.