The Printing Press After Gutenberg, Part I

We all know Big John Gutenberg is responsible for the invention of the printing press, way back in Ye Olde Fifteenth Century CE. But there have been a ton of new advances in printing press technology since then. What else does the world of the printing press have in story for the historically inclined? Read on to find out, and look for Part II of this series in the near future. (Date TBA.)

A modern offset printing press running at full bore.

A modern offset printing press running at full bore.

Advanced Lithography

Offset printing is a common printing method that transfers an inked image or type from a hand-carved metal plate to a rubber blanket to the printing medium. A variation on the lithographic printing process, this technique uses the natural repulsion of oil and water to keep the non-printed areas of the image or text frame ink-free.

Lithography itself was originally intended as an inexpensive way to reproduce artwork. However, it proved difficult to reproduce images/text quickly and clearly with standard lithography methods.

The offset printing press was invented in England in 1875 by Robert Barclay. Barclay combined the basic technique used in lithography with mid-19th century CE transfer printing processes and the rotary printing press. Invented by American inventory Richard March Hoe in 1843, the rotary printing press used a metal cylinder to transfer inked images and/or text instead of the flat stones used in lithography.

Barclay added a cover around the roller; manufactured from specially treated cardboard, the roller assisted in transferring the ink the printed surface. The cardboard was later replaced with rubber, which is still used in offset printing today. The rubber-coated roller was later discovered (accidentally, by New Jersey photographer Ira Washington Rubel) to be ideal for reprinting photos on photo paper, as well.

Occam’s Razor?

Technological advances make the modern offset printing press a far faster and more efficient machine than Barclay’s original device. Computer programs provide perfect recreation of the original image or text; automation allows the system to operate at much, much higher speeds; and, of course, electrical power makes it all possible.

However, to actually print the image or text, today’s offset presses still transfer ink to rubber rollers which produce the image/text on the print surface. Barclay’s general principle remains intact. One hundred forty years later, the original technology is still the most effective. Truly a rarity in the modern world.

Photo credit: Kelly Sue / Foter / CC BY-SA