As If By Chance: Part VI

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

Alois Senefelder and Ira W. Rubel

Disruptive continuity and the history of printing

To return to Alois Senefelder and Ira W. Rubel, it can be stated that these inventors were responsible for two critical and necessary stages in the development of print technology. In the first case, Senefelder was responsible for the transition from the relief-mechanical to the planographic-chemical era of printing. This means that the process developed by Senefelder no longer relied upon the mechanical impression of ink from raised letterforms into the paper but upon the chemically separative properties of oil and water on an otherwise flat surface of lithographic stone for transferring a printing image to paper.

In the second case, Rubel was responsible for the transition from the direct image transfer to the indirect image transfer stage of printing press technology. This means that Rubel redesigned the printing press to include an additional rubber cylinder mechanism that stood between the inked planographic surface from which it accepted the printing image and transferred it to the paper with the assistance of an impression cylinder. Together, these two advancements established offset lithography, the high-speed, mass manufacturing method that overtook letterpress printing and became dominant internationally, especially in the second half of the twentieth century.

These two transformations first manifested themselves in the form accidental events: Senefelder’s chance writing of a laundry list upon a limestone with a crayon and Rubel’s paper misfeed on a lithographic rotary printing press with a rubber blanket on its impression cylinder. As discussed above, that the breakthrough to offset lithography is associated with accidents is entirely consistent with the manner in which human technical progress takes place. The combination of scientific and socio-economic changes that occurred in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries made necessary a departure of print technology away from the letterpress printing processes and into entirely new planographic, chemical and indirect printing processes of the modern industrial era. While the two innovators were working to develop printing methods in their respective lifetimes, the necessary departure from the system associated with Johannes Gutenberg—preconditioned by more than three centuries of societal change—appeared initially as chance events to both Senefelder and Rubel.

If these two individual inventors had not made these breakthroughs, would offset lithography have been invented by others; would this transformation still have happened sooner or later? Had Senefelder been content to become a playwright and Rubel stayed in the paper making business, would the logic of industrial society and the need for a high-speed and mass manufacturing method of print communications in the twentieth century still have resulted in offset lithography? When looking at Senefelder and Rubel within a broader historical context, an affirmative answer must be given to these counterfactual questions.

The role and interaction of the macro socio-economic (objective) and the micro individual inventor (subjective) driving forces of advancement are accounted for within the theoretical framework of disruptive continuity. Beginning with the societal context, the theory first establishes that there are powerful evolutionary trends in human cultural that bind events together in a historical progression, from lower to higher and from simple to more complex forms. This progression of technology is intimately bound up with the forms of social organization and intellectual development of mankind. This is not to say that there have never been reversals of progress or that every technological innovation is a guaranteed contribution to further advancement. As is the case with biological evolution, where some mutations produce traits that are harmful to the survival of a species, some technical innovations have, under certain conditions, represented a step backward or a diversion along a dead-end path.

There is also the matter of technical advancements becoming the means through which society can be destroyed as, for example, would happen in the event of a nuclear world war or in earlier societies that collapsed from the loss of soil fertility due to crop growing and farming practices. This danger arises from a conflict between the increasing sophistication and power of human innovation with the inability of the cultural level and social and political organization of civilization to adequately accommodate the tool-making advancements. However, despite these periodic setbacks and existential threats, the general dynamic of development is one of an evermore complex and greater technical subordination of the properties and laws of nature to the needs of man and an expanding separation of humanity from the blind operation of forces both within the natural environment and society itself, which is also in the end a product of nature.

The topic of the continuous versus the discontinuous view and the role of the individual inventor in the development of man-made implements and artifacts has been the subject of study by historians. George Basalla, a historian of science at the University of Delaware, deals with this question in his book, The Evolution of Technology. Basalla likens the history of technology to biological evolution and correctly objects to those who advocate the view that “inventions are the products of superior persons who owe little or nothing to the past.” He also disputes the position of those who support a theory of innovative discontinuity from what he calls the “more sophisticated formulations” that “scientific revolutions” have rendered technical innovation into discrete phases, each with no relationship to the prior accomplishments.

Basalla says that technology should not be seen in a linear relationship with science and placed in a “subordinate position” to the latter and with the former “erroneously defined as the application of scientific theory to the solution of practical problems.” He writes, “technology is not the servant of science” because it existed long before science and “people continued to produce technical triumphs that did not draw upon theoretical knowledge.” However, Basalla goes on to bend the stick back too far in the opposite direction, writing:

The artifact—not scientific knowledge, not the technical community, not social and economic factors—is central to technology and technological change. Although science and technology both involve cognitive processes, their end results are not the same. The final product of innovative scientific activity is most likely a written statement, the scientific paper, announcing an experimental finding or a new theoretical position. By contrast, the final product of innovative technological activity is typically an addition to the made world: a stone hammer, a clock, an electric motor.

Instead of recognizing that the growth of knowledge and theoretical science developing in tandem with technical advancements, Basalla inverts the false demotion of the product of innovation and says that the artifact stands head and shoulders above science. He finishes by referring to the historian Brooke Hindle who he says argued that “the artifact in technology” is superior to any “intellectual or social pursuits” because it is a “product of the human intellect and imagination and, as with any work of art, can never be adequately replaced by a verbal description.”

These are indeed peculiar ideas being advanced by someone who is opposing the standpoint of the discontinuous theory of technology evolution. While Basalla insists upon the theory of continuity, his presentation becomes entirely one-sided. The dichotomy between science and technology, between the individual artifact and the social environment, between discontinuity and continuity in human innovation and between the practical and theoretical sides of invention are all conceived of as fixed categories that never touch each other, are incapable of interpenetrating and cannot be understood in thought as existing simultaneously. In Basalla’s concept of technical innovation there are no breaks or disjunctions in human progress. Instead technical history moves along ever so smoothly, morphing from one object to the next without any abrupt dislocations or transformations.

The preoccupation with continuity to the absolute exclusion of discontinuity and singular focus on the primacy of the individual artifact means that one cannot account for the living relationship between disruptive advancements in society and how they drive revolutionary leaps in technology. In the search to find evidence of antecedent developments for major artifacts in human history—such as stone tools, the cotton gin, steam power, the electric motor, the light bulb, etc.—Basalla is forced to suppress the really existing discontinuity that occurs in the progression from one innovation to the next. In the end, however, he betrays his initial statement against the role of the “superior persons who owe little or nothing to the past” by embracing the idea that the “human intellect and imagination” and “work of art” are the penultimate expression of technical progress.

Even if it were possible to trace every object of human ingenuity backward in time, there would be a point at which one would arrive at the first man-made thing ever created. Then, like the chicken or egg dilemma, how does the notion that every artifact has a precursor hold up? Outside of a recognition that there was a discontinuous vault in man’s earliest development—a phenomenon that has been repeated throughout history—the first product of man would never have been created and technical progress would never have gotten started. Thus, the theory of a purely continuous evolutionary development of technology does not stand up to scrutiny.

Disruptive continuity, on the other hand, is a theory within which it is possible to understand both the interconnection of every new invention with the past as well as its separation and elevation above the limits of prior artifacts, driven by the increasingly complex accumulation of man’s productive capacities, social organization and intellectual accomplishments. Given the interrelationship of human communications—and especially print communications—with the practical, technical, intellectual and scientific development of society, there is perhaps no better example of the validity of the theory of disruptive continuity.

All forms of human communication have existed as both byproducts of and engines for the advancement of social existence from the earliest primitive civilization to the modern information age. During the early Stone Age, when speech and language—the first form of human communication—emerged somewhere between 1.75 and 3 million years ago, prehistoric man in the Lower Paleolithic was crafting Acheulean stone axes, coordinating hunting and gathering and engaging in other complex social practices that depended upon verbal communications. While these primitive peoples had speech, they had no repository for recording their thoughts or words. As Harvey Levenson of California Polytechnic State University explains in Understanding Graphic Communications:

Early peoples left little information about themselves, as they had no way to transform spoken words into written languages, to pass on their heritage to future generations. Their history and their wisdom died with them. It was not until fairly recently in human history that people figured out ways to record simple events and ideas through pictures and symbols.

The earliest forms of visual communication, such as the cave paintings at Lascaux in southern France, were created by anatomically modern humans somewhere between 17,000 and 35,000 years ago during the Upper Paleolithic (late stone age). By this point, humans had migrated to all inhabitable areas of the earth and these primitive tribal peoples were engaged in what is known as “behavioral modernity.” The use of pictorial communication proceeded along with abstract thinking, planning depth, fishing, burial practices, ornamentation, music, dance and other cultural activities connected with more advanced blade technology and tool making practices.

Although we do not know precisely the meaning of the pictures at Lascaux Cave, it is clear that the nearly 6,000 painted figures are representations of the animals—including bulls, equines, stags and a bear—that existed in Europe during that era. The paintings also include representations of humans and other abstract symbols indicating a high degree of self-awareness and ingenuity. Significantly, the people who made the cave paintings used scaffolding to reach the ceilings and created the colors of red, yellow, and black from a wide range of mineral pigments including compounds such as iron oxide and substances containing manganese. In some instances, the color is thought to have been applied by suspending the pigment in either animal fat or clay as a primitive paint. The colors were swabbed or blotted on, and it appears that the pigment was applied by blowing a mixture through a tube. All of these facts help to build an understanding of the manner in which the technical level of society corresponds with the development of increasingly complex human communications from strictly verbal to visual and pictorial forms.

There are no records of who the individuals were that uttered the very first words of speech or the first sentence containing a noun and a verb or who painted the first picture on a cave wall or who developed the first paint used in cave art. While the location of these occurrences and the anonymous people involved came about in a seemingly random fashion, there is no doubt that these advancements were conditioned by objective material circumstances and became necessary steps in the development of human culture. They were both a contribution to and the consequence of the social and technical environment of the early and late Stone Ages.

Similar connections can be deduced from the stamp seals used to identify ownership in Mesopotamia in 4500 BC—the earliest forms of writing called cuneiform—that employed pictographs to communicate syllables and sounds by Sumerian scribes and were pressed into clay with a wedge-tipped stylus in 3300 BC. These relationships can also be seen in the hieroglyphics written on papyrus, a precursor to paper, developed in Egypt in 3200 BC. All of these advancements in graphic communications—developed in an apparent unplanned and haphazard manner—are rooted in the socio-economics of ancient civilization, especially the expansion of commerce and the need for record keeping. These events represent critical chapters in the prehistory of print communications.

In examining the history of printing, it is rare to find surveys that trace the interactions between the evolution of the broader technical foundations of society—punctuated by the unpredictable randomness of inventors and the means through which they arrived at their inventions—with the transitions in the means and methods of print communications. This problem was highlighted by Elizabeth L. Eisenstein in her 1979 volume, The Printing Press as the Agent of Change. Eisenstein explains that the “far reaching effects” of Gutenberg’s invention—which “left no field of human enterprise untouched” and whose consequences are “of major historical significance”—have so far seen very little elaboration in the major texts on the history of print technology. Eisenstein points out that historians may refer to printing as one of the most important inventions, if not the most important invention, of the second millennia, but the dynamic interrelationship of Gutenberg’s breakthrough—as well as subsequent advancements—with the broader processes of human progress are rarely explored:

Insofar as flesh-and-blood historians who turn out articles and books actually bear witness to what happened in the past, the effect on society of the development of printing, far from appearing cataclysmic, is remarkably inconspicuous. Many studies of developments during the last five centuries say nothing about it at all.

Those who do touch on the topic usually agree that the use of the invention had far-reaching effects. Francis Bacon’s aphorism suggesting that it changed “the appearance of and state of the whole world” is cited repeatedly and with approbation. But although many scholars concur with Bacon’s opinion, very few have tried to follow his advice and “take note of the force, effect and consequences” of Gutenberg’s invention. Many efforts have been made to define just what Gutenberg did “invent,” to describe how moveable type was first utilized and how the use of the new presses spread. But almost no studies devoted to the consequences that ensued once printers had begun to ply their new trades throughout Europe. Explicit theories as to what these consequences were have not yet been proposed, let alone tested or contested. 

The lack of research that Eisenstein characterizes in her book as “The Unacknowledged Revolution,” is due in part to a frequent presentation of print technology history in a linear manner, going from one process to another—or from one innovator to another—in isolation from an analysis or understanding of the broader socio-economic context and the real driving forces of change before and since 1440 .

It is now well established that the printing was first developed in China, where paper was invented under the Han Dynasty by Ts’ai Lun at the beginning of the second century. The first woodblock printing known as xylography—where a complete page of relief characters was carved in a piece of wood—was produced in China in the sixth century. It is also known that moveable type forms made of clay, ceramic, wood and metal were also developed first in China between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries. Some of these methods spread across East Asia, including Korea and Japan, and into the western regions of Central Asia. It is speculated that the Asian relief printing techniques made their way into Europe where they were developed further in the form of the handheld metal casting mold and mechanical printing press invented by Johannes Gutenberg in the fifteenth century. It is known that Gutenberg’s typography methods were reintroduced to China in the nineteenth century.

The reason that the birth of printing has become associated with Gutenberg and his invention in Mainz, Germany in 1440—and not in China at least three hundred years earlier—is that the entire mechanized production system created by the fifteenth century inventor was vastly more productive than the hand carving xylographic techniques from the East. Due to a series of other foundational events taking place at that time, Gutenberg’s methods were picked up by a cultural transformation underway in Europe and swept very rapidly from one country to another. Meanwhile, the movable type techniques first pioneered in Asia did not overtake woodblock printing the way it did in the West. This was at least partially due to the fact that Chinese interchangeable type production required the management of as many a forty-thousand different characters. While xylography existed in Europe and was carried over into Gutenberg’s time for illumination of printed texts from the earlier form of handwritten manuscripts, the methods he developed represented a paradigm shift away from all previous techniques up to that point in world history. Eventually, woodblock illustrations were replaced by other methods of pictorial reproduction that were derivative and complimentary to the relief process and printing press mechanism of the letterpress era.

Perhaps the best description of the reciprocal impact of Gutenberg’s invention is provided by Will Durant in the sixth volume of The Story of Civilization—The Reformation:

Soon half the European population was reading as never before, and a passion for books became one of the effervescent ingredients of the Reformation age. … The typographical revolution was on.

To describe all its effects would be to chronicle half the history of the modern mind. … Printing replaced esoteric manuscripts with inexpensive texts rapidly multiplied, in copes more exact and legible then before, and so uniform that scholars in diverse countries could work with one another by references to specific pages of specific editions. … Printing published—i.e., made available to the public—cheap manuals of instruction in religion, literature, history and science; it became the greatest and cheapest of all universities, open to all. It did not produce the Renaissance, but it paved the way for the Enlightenment, for the American and French revolutions, for democracy. It made the Bible a common possession, and prepared the people for Luther’s appeal from the popes to the Gospels; later it would permit the rationalist’s appeal from the Gospels to reason. It ended the clerical monopoly of learning, the priestly control of education. It encouraged vernacular literatures, for the large audience it required could not be reached through Latin. It facilitated the international communication and cooperation of scientists. It affected the quality and character of literature by subjecting authors to the purse and taste of the middle classes rather than to aristocratic or ecclesiastical patrons. And, after speech, it provided a readier instrument for the dissemination of nonsense than the world has ever known until our time.

The historical framework of technological disruptive continuity in the age of print

The above timeline illustrates the interrelationship between the milestones in printing innovation between the fifteenth and beginning of the twenty-first centuries and the progression of the foundational eras of society—technological, socio-economic and cultural—along with major historical events in history, science and communications. This visual presentation establishes a framework within which to understand the unfolding process of disruptive continuity in the age of print communications.

The birth of printing was both the product of the increasing volume of hand copying by the scribes and the development of handicraft methods and metallurgy associated with the transition from the Dark Ages to the great cultural awakening of the Renaissance. It was a consequence of and a catalyst for the flowering of art, architecture, philosophy, literature, music, politics and other aspects of culture that were driven by the broad progression of societal change that brought about the discovery of the New World, the circumnavigation of the globe and the opening of trade routes from Europe through Asia and America. The printing press and the associated circulation of printed books and other materials to ever wider layers of the population was instrumental in great social movements such as that of the Protestant Reformation sparked by Martin Luther’s critique of the indulgences of the Catholic church. Behind these changes, came the Enlightenment, the development of democratic government, the domination of the commodity economy and the suppression of the institutions of feudalism during the great revolutions in America and France at the end of the eighteenth century. One need only point to the significance of the publication of Thomas Paine’s, The Age of Reason, to illustrate the fundamental role played by print communications in the intellectual ferment that accompanied the transition from feudal monarchy to democratic capitalism.

The systems of the printing press more or less existed as they had been developed by Gutenberg—based upon fruit presses designed for making cider, wine and oils—for three and a half centuries before any significant design changes were made. The technology developed very slowly as in an incubator with a few modifications, surrounded by the steady development of the Renaissance until the rise of the Scientific Revolution and the coming of the first industrial revolution. Then, all of a sudden, new materials and mechanical techniques exploded the old the wooden platen machine from Gutenberg’s era and, by the beginning of the nineteenth century, the printing press evolved rapidly to a completely iron apparatus with levers replacing the physical strength of pressmen needed to operate the old screw mechanism to transfer ink to paper. The invention of the paper-making machine in a Paris suburb in the midst of the French Revolution contributed to this evolution and fed the consequent expansion of printed materials with more consistent substrates and improved quality.

At the same, the press technologies that made contact with the paper evolved first into a metal cylinder-to-platen hybrid and, then by the middle of the 1800s, to a fully cylinder-based rotary press. Production speeds increased dramatically along with the volume of printed material that was needed to support the emergence of industrial society in countries around the world. This transition point in the history of print technology is illustrated in the timeline by the separation between the left side (1400 to 1735) and the right side of the graphic (1735 to 2020) around the middle of the eighteenth century. It was at this point of transition from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, from feudalism to capitalism, from pre-industrial to industrial society that printing underwent a transformation from handcraft to manufacturing such that the equipment, procedures and roles played by the people in the process no longer resembled anything in Gutenberg’s print shop in Mainz, Germany save the letterpress method that transferred the ink onto the paper.

The introduction of steam power during the second industrial revolution brought mass manufacturing methods to printing with multilevel machines in large printing factories with teams of workers operating them. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the web press was introduced and the quantity of printing establishments in major cities, along with the number of daily newspapers, increased exponentially. The industrial expansion—especially in the US in the lead up to, during and after the American Civil War—made fundamental improvements to the production of letterpress typography with the Linotype machine. The invention of halftone photographic reproduction, the perfection of color printing and the proliferation of type styles were also driven by the needs of business advertising and the growth of newspapers and magazines to accommodate the thirst of the expanding urban populations for news and information.

Although electrification had been underway since the 1880s, the transition away from steam power did not take hold in factories and pressrooms until the second decade of the twentieth century. The military needs of both World War I and World War II drove significant developments in communications technologies and electronics were introduced into print machinery and brought with them methods of automation and remote controls. The invention of the transistor and the subsequent revolution in digital technologies—first the integrated circuit and then microprocessors—transformed press controls as levers and knobs were replaced with PLCs (programmable logic controllers).

With the rise of the personal computer in the early 1980s—which enabled the transformative impact of desktop publishing—the entire printing process was revolutionized again with all of the steps from the publisher to the pressroom replaced with software, lasers and direct-to-plate imaging systems. With the invention of digital printing in the 1990s, the computer transformation entered the pressroom and the distinction between office equipment and industrial printing machinery became blurred. The growth and predominance of the Internet and wireless broadband connectivity in the early twenty-first century enabled the integration of printing with online and web-to-print technologies.

A similar analysis can be made of the development of the methodologies for imprinting an image onto a sheet of paper or other substrate over the past six centuries. The generally recognized printing methods—letterpress, intaglio or gravure, lithography including offset lithography, screen printing, flexography and xerography—correspond to different stages of socio-economic development from craft manufacturing to industrial production including the application of metal, rubber and other synthetic materials that rely upon advanced chemistry, photomechanical and electronic processes. The mechanical systems of letterpress (relief printing) and intaglio (recessed printing) are by far the longest surviving methods, with each lasting for more than five centuries well into the twentieth century. Although they continue to be used today for specialized printing purposes, they were essentially displaced by offset lithography by the 1950s. The other three methods—screen printing and flexography at the end of the nineteenth century and xerography in the middle of the twentieth century—were associated with the photomechanical and modern electronic processes including the expansion of printing into areas such as the corporate and legal office, merchandising, retailing and direct mail communications.

Inkjet, the most recently developed method of placing a printed image onto a sheet of paper, requires no image carrier or any intermediary transfer mechanism at all. Inkjet is unique and heralds a new era of print technology because it places an image onto paper directly with an array of nozzles or spray heads. The implications of this transition for the future of print are significant, as it is a distinct departure from the static image reproduction of all previous methodologies—with the exception of xerography—and brings an infinitely variable image to nearly any surface. The integration of this digital process with big data repositories means that the mass manufacturing of any item can be imprinted with messaging that are relevant to small groups or subgroups of people or even a single individual.

As for the history of typographic design—a subject that is covered in several chapters of this book—it can be established that the style changes over the centuries represent a complex interaction of both cultural and technical influences within the forms of print communications. Clearly, the first blackletter fonts designed by Gutenberg and his contemporaries for book production during the incunabula (approximately 1450-1500) reflected the influence of the handwriting of the scribes and the limitations of matrix production within the new metal mold manufacturing technique. Connected with the artisanry of the individual printing establishment, typography underwent creative changes—roman and italic types and upper and lower case characters being designed in the later decades of Gutenberg’s lifetime—and then, after the global expansion of printing, the slow progression of the press was expressed in the emergence of Garamond in France, the eruption of a multiplicity of typeface styles and font families during the industrial era both expressed the various commercial and mass communication needs for signage, advertising and the column inches of newspapers. The type design variety and volume of printed material exploited the speed and precision of the Linotype machine and pantographic punch-cutting engraver.

With the introduction of photomechanical methods and offset lithography in the twentieth century, typography underwent another transformation that corresponded with the esthetics of modernism. While serif type styles still predominated in text-intensive book and publication design, san serif types— such as Helvetica, Univers and Avant Garde—proliferated after World War II and dominated corporate identity, display type and public information signage wherever the Latin alphabet and the English language were the international standard, which by this point was most of the world.

From this review of graphic communications history, it can be seen that there is a logical evolution of stages in the development of printing press machinery, methods of printing, image transfer processes, phases of type production and the pictorial reproduction techniques. These have all proceeded along this path through individual inventors but also independently of them. That is to say, technological advancement in graphic communications has moved through periods of human history and individual innovators were “found” to make the breakthroughs that were necessary at any given moment along this continuum. The specific identity of the innovators and how they were selected is the result of a complex set of circumstances that located the right person at the right time.

This is also not to say that the determined vision of the inventors or the specific knowledge, skills and talents they possessed did not play a role in this selection process. These subjective factors are extremely important and can, in certain situations, be the final decisive element in the achievement. However, in the end, these individual traits are themselves part of a concatenation of conditions such as geographic location, social and economic environment, professional relationships and the availability of resources that form the foundational background and driving forces of innovation.

Senefelder made a highly significant comment in his autobiographical account when he explained that had he possessed the financial resources to invest in “types, a press and paper,” then lithography “probably would not have been invented so soon.” This was his way of saying that the invention of a purely chemical printing method was historically inevitable and may well have been made by someone else, had it not been for the random circumstance of his inability to purchase the resources required to start a letterpress printing business.

Senefelder understood that it was a matter of time before the discovery of lithography would have happened anyway. After all, his invention coincided with major advancements in chemistry in the late eighteenth century. Known as the “chemical revolution,” the elements of water and air molecules were being defined and atomic theory was being suggested while Senefelder was experimenting with the interaction of various chemicals and printing plate surfaces with the use of an oil-based writing tool.

It is interesting to note that, while popular accounts of Senefelder’s invention of lithography often make mention of the “grease pencil” or a “greasy crayon” he used to write the laundry list upon the limestone, there is hardly a reference to the nature of this instrument or the substances out of which it was made. Readers of the stories of the accidental invention of lithography by Senefelder will not find an explanation of the significance his possession of a crayon at the same time that he had a slab of limestone, even though he mentioned his use of this writing tool throughout his biographical account.

Senefelder described the various compositions of the crayon that he experimented with for the purpose of applying it “on the stone plate in dry form like Spanish or Parisian chalk.” He gave eight different combinations of wax, soap, lampblack, spermaceti (whale oil), shellac and tallow from which he created the prepress writing instrument. He wrote that, “Wax, mennig, and lampblack are heated and constantly stirred till the mennig dissolves in froth and changes from red to brown. Then the lampblack is rubbed in thoroughly, the whole warmed again properly and shaped into sticks.” This is one of the earliest descriptions of crayon use for artistic purposes and, to some extent, it can be said that Senefelder is both the inventor of lithography and the crayon.

In a similar manner, while there are repeated references to the misfeed jam of Rubel’s lithographic press that had a “rubber blanket” on its impression cylinder, little time has been devoted to a study of how it came to be that his press contained such a blanket system. The rubber on Rubel’s press was most certainly of the natural and vulcanized type that had been developed and perfected by Charles Goodyear (US) and Thomas Hancock (UK) by the middle of the previous century. While products such as printing cylinder blankets were derived from rubber trees grown in tropical and subtropical regions of South America, western Africa and Southeast Asia, the material had a tendency to swell and blister under the pressure and heat of the printing process. Synthetic rubbers, especially heat resistant neoprene, were invented in the 1930s and solved many of these issues. Without the circumstances that brought rubber blankets to lithographic press machinery, and the subsequent improvement and perfection of these blankets with synthetic materials that took place before and during World War II, the offset method would not have been invented at the turn of the century and the rise of offset lithography would have been delayed.

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.

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.