Robert Howard (1923–2014): Dot matrix printer & direct imaging press

Posted in Color Printing, Digital Printing, People in Media History, Prepress, Print Media with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 31, 2016 by multimediaman
Robert Howard: May 19, 1923–December 19, 2014

Robert Howard:
May 19, 1923–December 19, 2014

Apple recently removed the headphone jack from the iPhone 7. Owners of the new model are required to use wireless Bluetooth audio or the Lightning port—the only connector on the phone that also charges the battery—for wired headphones. If the headphone jack is a must, owners can purchase the Lighting-to-3.5mm audio adapter separately for $9.

The missing headphone jack has upset some Apple customers. At the iPhone 7 launch, marketing chief Phil Schiller drove home the company’s reasoning, “Maintaining an ancient, single-purpose, analog, big connector doesn’t make sense because that space is at a premium.” As some tech journalists have pointed out, Apple’s decision comes down to one word: progress.

Analog 3.5mm and ¼” audio connectors

Analog 3.5mm and ¼” audio connectors

Actually, the 3.5mm headphone jack is based on technology that is more than one hundred twenty-five years old. It is a miniaturized version of the phone connector originally developed in the late 1870s for operators to manually connect telephone calls by plugging cords into a switchboard.

The 3.5mm format was created in the 1950s for the transistor radio earpiece and was modified in the 1960s for the Sony portable FM radio and again in 1979 for the Sony Walkman. The fact is that the analog headphone jack has been an anachronism since compact disks and other digital technologies like optical audio became available more than thirty years ago.

As with many earlier decisions by Apple—like eliminating floppy disk and CD-DVD drives, replacing parallel ports with USB ports and adopting Wi-Fi and Bluetooth wireless—the abandonment of the headphone jack, although disruptive, will allow the next generation of technology to develop and flourish.

Centronics interface

The Centronics connectors (25-pin and 36-pin) were dominant in computer peripheral technology for nearly thirty years beginning in 1970

The Centronics connectors (25-pin and 36-pin) were dominant in computer peripheral technology for nearly thirty years beginning in 1970

Interfaces and standards for connecting things together is an important part of electronics and computer history. The adoption of a new format, design or methodology over earlier ones—like USB for SCSI or Thunderbolt for FireWire—is complex and involves a mix of science, engineering, economics and a bit of good luck. In some cases, innovation can fill a void and be embraced rapidly if the cost of adoption is affordable. In other instances, persistent obsolescence can override innovation due to design weaknesses or ease-of-use considerations.

dr-an-wang

Dr. An Wang of Wang Laboratories

Robert Howard—a prolific inventor for seven decades beginning in the 1940s—was among the first engineers to understand that open technology standards were needed to connect computer equipment together. In the late 1960s, along with Dr. An Wang and Prentice Robinson at Wang Laboratories, Howard developed the 36-pin Centronics parallel interface to connect the Centronics Model 101 dot matrix printer to computers.

Although the Wang Labs team could not have predicted it, the Centronics connector took off and became one of the most successful computer connection technologies ever made. One reason for its success was the performance advantages over previous serial interfaces: parallel could carry multiple data streams between devices and could also simultaneously transmit status information.

More fundamentally, however, was the fact that the computer industry in the 1960s was going through a transition. Prior to the Centronics interface, each computer manufacturer used proprietary solutions designed to block customers from buying equipment from competitors. As the computer peripheral business expanded rapidly, however, the lack of standardized connection methods had become a barrier to progress.

As described by Robert Howard in his autobiography Connecting the Dots, the Centronics parallel port was the beginning of a shift in business philosophy among computer companies: “We came to the conclusion that if we developed a very easy, simple interface and gave it free to the world, it might be accepted and used by everyone. Apparently, the practice of creating unique interfaces was so resented by everyone in the computer industry that once IBM accepted our interface, seven other major companies immediately followed suit.” This was not the first or last major technical accomplishment associated with Robert Howard.

Robert Howard’s youth

robert-with-his-father-samuel-horowitz-howard-in-1931

Young Robert with his father Samuel Horowitz (Howard) in 1931

Robert Howard was born Robert Emanuel Horowitz in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, New York to Samuel and Gertrude (Greenspoon) Horowitz on May 19, 1923. Robert’s father worked the midnight shift at the Main US Post Office in New York City. Although he was born three months premature and was afflicted with dyslexia, Robert grew into a very likeable and stout youngster with athletic talent in several sports.

After the family moved to Flatbush, Brooklyn, Robert spent much of his spare time at the Brooklyn Ice Palace where he learned to skate. He played youth hockey and his skills on the ice were noticed by the hockey coach at Brooklyn Technical High School, an elite all-boys public school. Despite his marginal grades, Robert was recruited to attend Brooklyn Tech as along as that he promised to improve his studies.

While at Brooklyn Tech, Robert excelled at machine shop and woodworking. He built a model airplane out of balsa wood and tissue paper and a refurbished gas engine as a school project. His 1937 delta-wing design was ahead of its time and he received an award for it.

Robert was very close to his maternal grandfather, Isaac Greenspoon, who immigrated to the US from Odessa, Russia in 1910. Isaac started a window-shade business on Manhattan’s Lower East Side that became very successful. Robert worked at his grandfather’s company as a teenager and acquired business skills and decision making that would later prove to be a critical part of his own success.

Although no one, including family members, expected Robert to graduate, he not only received his high school diploma but was awarded an athletic scholarship to attend the college of engineering at Columbia University. By the time of his graduation from Brooklyn Tech, World War II was well underway and the Horowitz’s changed their name to “Howard” to avoid the anti-Semitism that was on the rise during that period.

Before attending Columbia, Robert took a summer job working the night shift for the Sperry Gyroscope Company in Brooklyn. He was hired to operate the milling and cutting machines used to produce parts for US military searchlights. He kept the job when college classes started so he could cover his living expenses.

In a stroke of good fortune, Robert was hired as an engineer for a new vacuum tube project at Sperry. Although he was still a student and did not have an engineering degree, the new position required the machine-shop skills that he did have. Robert switched to night school and threw himself into the vacuum tube development program. This was his first experience with electronics and, like so many other innovators of his generation, the field soon became a focus of his work and he stick with it until the end of his career.

Howard’s early inventions

Robert Howard’s sons Larry and Richard with a Howard Television set in 1959

Robert Howard’s sons Larry and Richard with a Howard Television set in 1959

After a brief stint in the army, Robert was hired as an engineer at Sylvania Electric Company in Queens, New York. Starting at the age of twenty, he became involved in a seemingly endless series of projects in a wide variety of pursuits that would establish him as a pioneer of post-war electronics innovation. His accomplishments would include the founding of at least twenty-four different companies and the development of dozens of state-of-the-art inventions.

Robert Howard’s inventions are so numerous and varied that it is only possible to review a few of them here:

  • 1947: Rectangular TV tube
    All early television sets had round picture tubes. This meant that the rectangular broadcast image was either clipped the top and bottom or was reduced in size to fit in the 7, 10, 11 or 14-inch standard diameters of the first TV tubes. While working for Sylvania, Robert Howard proposed a rectangular tube design and convinced the company to manufacture one hundred of these 16-inch television CRTs.
  • 1950: Cable television
    After founding Howard Television, Inc. to build and sell his own design for black and white TVs, Robert secured a contract to create the first cable TV system that was designed as part of the newly constructed Windsor Park apartment complex in the Bayside section of Queens, New York. Later known as the master antenna television system (MATS), the project connected 18 buildings with a total 320 apartments via coaxial cable to a single television antenna with a signal booster and splitter that enhanced the reception for seven TV channels from the New York area.
  • 1961: Improvements in vinyl record production
    Right around the time that the recording industry was transitioning from 78s to LPs, Robert was collaborating with a company that made the machines that pressed vinyl records. He helped to improve the quality of the mass-produced records by introducing zinc plates into the process. He also invented a pressurized steam-based system for controlling the temperature of the molten vinyl as it was extruded into the record press. Known as the “The Boomer,” Robert Howard’s invention significantly increased the volume of phonograph record production while maintaining the highest stereo quality.
  • 1968: Casino computer system
    As a division of Wang Laboratories, Robert Howard founded Centronics to build the first computerized system to prevent skimming at casino gaming tables. Robert’s system tracked the relationship between the amount of cash coming in versus the value of chips going out. The computerized register centrally tracked the amount of each transaction, each table number and each dealer at any time during the day.

Contributions to printing

Robert Howard’s work with the casino industry led to plans for a printing device that could produce multiple hard copy records of gaming transactions. The available technologies of that time were either too expensive and large or too small and slow for this purpose. Working with Dr. Wang at Centronics on a new computer printing device, Robert’s curiosity and sense of entrepreneurship put him on a path toward innovations that helped bring the printing industry into the digital age.

Model 101 Centronics Dot Matrix Printer

Model 101 Centronics Dot Matrix Printer

  • 1970: Dot matrix printer
    Electronic impact printers with ink-soaked cloth ribbons like typewriters had been developed by IBM in the 1950s for printing from mainframe computers. These machines used a chain with a complete set of characters passing horizontally across the paper at high speed. As the paper moved vertically line-by-line, type hammers struck from behind and drove the accordion folded, tractor-fed paper against the ribbon and type characters on the chain. The IBM line printers had the speed that Robert needed but they cost about $25,000 and were the size of a large piece of office furniture.

    While at Wang Labs, Robert developed a self-contained impact print-head could be made to produce type characters on paper from a matrix of one hundred dots. His invention used wires or “pins” that could print up to 185 characters per second and hit the ribbon and paper hard enough to print all four copies of a multi-part form. The core technology of his invention was an electromagnetic switch that could make each pin strike the printing surface one thousand times per second, more than enough to satisfy the performance required for the gaming reports, and at a cost that was affordable.

    Following the formation of an independent partnership with the Japan-based Brother Industries, Robert Howard’s dot matrix technology was deployed in the Model 101 Centronics printer. Although there were competing dot matrix devices on the market, Centronics became the most successful mass production printer of the early computer industry. By the mid-1970s, sales grew exponentially and reached tens of thousands of units internationally. It was the popularity of the printer that made the above-mentioned Centronics interface into an industry standard for connecting peripherals to computers that lasted for decades until it was replaced by the Universal Serial Bus (USB) in the 1990s.

  • 1991: Direct imaging press

    Prototype of the Heidelberg Quickmaster DI press that was designed with integrated Presstek direct imaging technology

    Prototype of the Heidelberg Quickmaster DI press that was designed with integrated Presstek direct imaging technology

    Robert Howard made what is certainly his most enduring contribution to the printing industry toward the end of his career. In 1986, he founded Presstek to develop the first ever direct imaging offset printing technology. As he explained in his autobiography, “The problem at that time was that offset color was a slow, costly process. It took at least ten days to two weeks of what was called ‘prepress’ preparation before a color print job could even be put on a printing press, and because of this expense, it was both impractical and costly to print less than 10,000 copies of anything. I wanted to apply our knowledge of computers and imaging to the color printing business.”

    Robert’s breakthrough concept was to image the printing plates on the press itself and eliminate the darkrooms, film and chemistry associated with prepress processes. By 1991, a Presstek laser imaging system was added to a Heidelberg offset printing press and sold as the Heidelberg GTO DI (for direct imaging). At the center of the Presstek system was a set of four-color thermal laser heads that imaged plates on press. Aside from the novelty of the on-press plate imaging, the Presstek technology was waterless and was easily retrofitted onto the existing Heidelberg GTO design because it took the place of the unneeded dampening system.

    Beginning in 1993, Presstek and Heidelberg developed the Quickmaster DI press, a printing system that was designed from scratch with the on-press laser imaging technology. Launched at DRUPA in 1995, the Quickmaster DI became one of the most popular Heidelberg offset presses ever with 5,000 machines sold within the decade. The press included design innovations that made it easier to operate than previous offset systems. With this innovation, Robert Howard invented a technology that was both disruptive to the prepress industry and also enabled former prepress companies to enter the short-run color printing market.

Robert Howard died on December 19, 2014 at the age of 91. Although he is not a well-known figure in the history of printing—perhaps because of the variety of businesses and disciplines where he left his mark—Robert made critical contributions to the industry, especially in the final decades of the twentieth century. His exceptional talents as an engineer and entrepreneur were essential to the transition of offset printing from an exclusively analog process to one that uses a host of integrated digital technologies.

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How the index card launched the information age

Posted in Digital Media, People in Media History, Print Media with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 30, 2016 by multimediaman

library-card-catalogOne year ago this month, the final order of library catalog cards was printed by the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) in Dublin, Ohio. On October 2, 2015, The Columbus Dispatch wrote, “Shortly before 3 p.m. Thursday, an era ended. About a dozen people gathered in a basement workroom to watch as a machine printed the final sheets of library catalog cards to be made …”

The fate of the printed library card, an indispensable indexing tool for more than a century, was inevitable in the age of electronic information and the Internet. It is safe to say that nearly all print with purely informational content—as opposed to items fulfilling a promotional or a packaging function—is surely to be replaced by online alternatives.

Founded in 1967, the OCLC is a global cooperative with 16,000 member libraries. Although it no longer prints library cards, the OCLC continues to fulfill its mission by providing shared lirary resources such as catalog metadata and WorldCat.org, an international online database of library collections.

Speaking about the end of the card catalog era, Skip Prichard the CEO of the OCLC said, “The vast majority of libraries discontinued their use of the printed library catalog card many years ago. … But it is worth noting that these cards served libraries and their patrons well for generations, and they provided an important step in the continuing evolution of libraries and information science.”

The 3 x 5 card

Printed library catalog card

Printed library catalog card

The library catalog card is one form of the popular 3 x 5 index card that served as a filing system for a multitude of purposes for over two hundred years. While many of us have been around long enough to have used or maybe even still use them—for addresses and phone numbers, recipes, flash cards or research paper outlines—we may not be aware of the relationship that index cards have to modern information science.

The original purpose of the index card and its subsequent development represented the early stages of information theory and practice. Additionally, as becomes clear below, without the index card as the first functional system for organizing complex categories, subcategories and cross-references, studies in the natural sciences would have never gotten off the ground.

The index card became the indispensable tool for both organizing and comprehending the expansion of human knowledge at every level. Along with several important intermediary steps, the ideas that began with index cards eventually led to relational databases, document management systems, hyperlinks and the World Wide Web.

Carl Linnaeus and natural science

carl-linnaeus

Carl Linnaeus

The Swedish naturalist and physician Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778) is recognized as the creator of the index card. Linnaeus used the cards to develop his system of organizing and naming the species of all living things. Linnaean taxonomy is based on a hierarchy (kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species) and binomial species naming (homo erectus, tyrannosaurus rex, etc.). He published the first edition of his universal conventions in a small pamphlet called “The System of Nature” in 1735.

Beginning in his early twenties, Linnaeus was interested in producing a series of books on all known species of plants and animals. At that time, there were so many new species being discovered that Linnaeus knew as soon as a book was printed, a large amount of new information would already be available. He wanted to quickly and accurately revise his publications to take into account the new findings in subsequent editions.

As time went on, Linnaeus developed different functional methods of sorting through and organizing enormous amounts of information connected with his growing collection of plant, animal and shell specimens (eventually it rose to 40,000 samples). His biggest problem was creating a process that was both structured enough to facilitate retrieval of previously collected information and flexible enough to allow rearrangement and addition of new information.

Pages from an early edition of Linnaeus’ “The System of Nature”

Pages from an early edition of Linnaeus’ “The System of Nature”

Working with paper notations in the eighteenth century, he needed a system that would allow the flow of names, references, descriptions and drawings into and out of a fixed sequence for the purposes of comparison and rearrangement. This “packing” and “unpacking” of information was a continuous process that enabled Linnaeus’ research to keep up with the changes in what was known about living species.

Linear vs non-linear methods

At first, Linnaeus used notebooks. This linear method—despite his best efforts to leave pages open for updates and new information—proved to be unworkable and wasteful. As estimates of how much room to allow often proved incorrect, Linnaeus was forced to squeeze new details into ever shrinking available space or he ended up with unutilized blank pages.

After thirty years of working with notebooks, Linnaeus began to experiment with a filing system of information recorded on separate sheets of paper. This was later converted to small sheets of thick paper that could be quickly handled, shuffled through and laid out on a table in two-dimensions like a deck of playing cards. This is how the index card was born.

a-stack-of-linnaeus-index-cards

A stack of Linnaeus’ hand written index cards

Linnaeus’ index card system was able to represent the variation of living organisms by showing multiple affinities in a map-like fashion. In order to accommodate the ever-expanding knowledge of new species—today the database of taxonomy contains 8.7 million items—Linnaeus created a breakthrough method for managing complex information.

Melvil Dewey and DDC

While index cards continued to be used in Europe, an important step forward in information management was made in the US by Melvil Dewey (1851-1931), the creator of the well-known Dewey Decimal System (or Dewey Decimal Classification, DDC). Used by libraries for the cataloging of books since 1876, the DDC was based on index cards and introduced the concepts of “relative location” and “relative index” to bibliography. It also enabled libraries to add books to their collection based on subject categories and an infinite number of decimal expressions known as “call numbers.”

The young Melvil Dewey

The young Melvil Dewey

Previous to the DDC, libraries attempted to assign books to a permanent physical location based on their order of acquisition. This linear approach proved unworkable, especially as library collections grew rapidly in the latter part of the nineteenth century. With industrialization, libraries were overflowing with paper: letters, reports, memos, pamphlets, operation manuals, schedules as well as books were flooding in and the methods of cataloging and storing these collections needed to find a means of keep up.

In the 1870s, while working at Amherst College Library, Melvil Dewey became involved with libraries across the country. He was a founding member of the American Library Association and became editor of the The Library Journal, a trade publication that still exists today. In 1878, Dewey published the first edition of “A Classification and Subject Index for Cataloguing and Arranging the Books and Pamphlets of a Library” that elaborated on the use of the library card catalog index.

Precursor to the information age

Title page of the first edition of Dewey’s bibliographic classification system

Title page of the first edition of Dewey’s bibliographic classification system

Like many others of his generation, Melvil Dewey was committed to scientific management, standardization and the democratic ideal. By the end of the nineteenth century the Dewey classification system and his 3 x 5 card catalog were being used in nearly every school and public library in the US. The basic concept was that any member of society could walk into a library anywhere in the country, go to the card catalog and be able to locate the information they were looking for.

In 1876 Dewey created a company called Library Bureau and began providing card catalog supplies, cabinets and equipment to libraries across the country. Following the enormous success of this business, Dewey expanded the Library Bureau’s information management services to government agencies and large corporations at the turn of the twentieth century.

In 1896, Dewey formed a partnership with Herman Hollerith and the Tabulating Machine Company (TMC) to provide the punch cards used for the electro-mechanical counting system of the US government census operations. Dewey’s relationship with Hollerith is significant as TMC would be renamed International Business Machines (IBM) in 1924 and become an important force in the information age and creator of the first relational database.

Paul Otlet and multidimensional indexing

Paul Otlet working in his office in the 1930s

Paul Otlet working in his office in the 1930s

While Dewey’s classification system became the standard in US libraries, others were working on bibliographic cataloging ideas, especially in Europe. In 1895, the Belgians Paul Otlet (1868-1944) and Henri La Fontaine founded the International Institute of Bibliography (IIB) and began working on something they called the Universal Bibliographic Repertory (UBR), an enormous catalog based on index cards. Funded by the Belgian government, the UBR involved the collection of books, articles, photographs and other documents in order to create a one-of-a-kind international index.

As described by Otlet, the ambition of the UBR was to build “an inventory of all that has been written at all times, in all languages, and on all subjects.” Although they used the DDC as a starting point, Otlet and La Fontaine found limitations in Dewey’s classification system while working on the UBR. Some of the issues were related to Dewey’s American perspective; the DDC lacked some categories needed for information related to other regions of the world.

A section of the Universal Bibliographic Repertory

A section of the Universal Bibliographic Repertory

More fundamentally, however, Otlet and La Fontaine made an important conceptual breakthrough over Dewey’s approach. In particular, they conceived of a complex multidimensional indexing system that would allow for more deeply defined subject categories and cross-referencing of related topics.

Their critique was based on Otlet’s pioneering idea that the content of bibliographic collections needed to be separated from their form and that a “universal” classification system needed to be created that included new media and information sources (magazines, photographs, scientific papers, audio recordings, etc.) and moved away from the exclusive focus on the location of books on library shelves.

Analog information links and search

After Otlet and La Fontaine received permission from Dewey to modify the DDC, they set about creating the Universal Decimal Classification (UDC). The UDC extended Dewey’s cataloging expressions to include symbols (equal sign, plus sign, colon, quotation marks and parenthesis) for the purpose of establishing “links” between multiple topics. This was a very significant breakthrough that reflected the enormous growth of information taking place at the end of the nineteenth century.

By 1900, the UBR had more than 3 million entries on index cards and was supported by more than 300 IIB members from dozens of countries. The project was so successful that Otlet began working on a plan to copy the UBR and distribute it to major cities around the world. However, with no effective method for reproducing the index cards, other than typing them out by hand, this project ran up against the technical limitations of the time.

henri-la-fontaine-with-staff-members-of-the-mundaneum

Henri La Fontaine and staff members at the Mundaneum in Mons, Belgium. At its peak in 1924, the catalog contained 18 million index cards.

In 1910, Otlet and La Fontaine shifted their attention to the establishment of the Mundaneum in Mons, Belgium. Again with government support, the aim of this institution was to bring together all of the world’s knowledge in a single UDC index. They created the gigantic repository as a service where anyone in the world could submit an inquiry on any topic for a fee. This analog search service would provide information back to the requester in the form of index cards copied from the Mundaneum’s bibliographic catalog.

By 1924, the Mundaneum contained 18 million index cards housed in 15,000 catalog drawers. Plagued by financial difficulties and a reduction of support from the Belgian government during the Depression and lead up to World War II, Paul Otlet realized that further management of the card catalog had become impractical. He began to consider more advanced technologies—such as photomechanical recording systems and even ideas for electronic information sharing—to fulfill his vision.

Although the Mundaneum was sacked by the Nazi’s in 1940 and most of the index cards destroyed, the ideas of Paul Otlet anticipated the technologies of the information age that were put into practice after the war. The pioneering work of others—such as Emanuel Goldberg, Vannevar Bush, Douglas Englebart and Ted Nelson—would lead to the creation of the Internet, World Wide Web and search engines in the second half of the twentieth century.

George Baxter (1804–1867): Pictorial color printing

Posted in Color Printing, People in Media History, Print Media with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 31, 2016 by multimediaman
George Baxter: July 31, 1804–January 11, 1867

George Baxter: Jul 31, 1804–Jan 11, 1867

Prior to the invention of photography and photomechanical halftones, the printing of pictures required the handwork of skilled artists. For centuries, craftsmen used various manual techniques—engraving, etching, stippling and drawing—to create original images on wood blocks, metal plates or lithographic stones that could be inked and printed onto paper.

At each evolutionary stage—from relief to intaglio to lithography—pictorial printing became incrementally more productive. However, the craftsmen’s work persisted and the process remained slow. Well into the 1800s, it was common for creative work on pictures such as engraved images on text pages or separately printed lithographic plates to begin a year or two before the date of publication.

Although the artistic work was time-consuming, it often produced striking results. By the time color printing methods were perfected, magnificent pictures began to appear. In the mid-nineteenth century, pictorial color printers—some using RBY or RBYK models and others using “tinting” techniques of up to 20 or even 30 different colors—were producing astonishingly beautiful prints.

As the methods advanced and cost per picture declined, the quantity of color printing grew. This expansion was in part due to the industrialization of printing press machinery. The speed and volume of print was being driven up exponentially by metal cylinders, steam power and rotary printing equipment.

The Coronation of Queen Victoria and the Opening of Parliament (1842)

“Her Most Gracious Majesty Receiving the Sacrament at her Coronation” (1841) is among George Baxter’s most famous pictorial work. It includes two hundred identifiable portraits of individuals who were present at the event.

Another side of the surge in color was that more people than ever before had access to the new low-priced prints. For the first time, average people could buy printed copies of paintings and other items previously seen only in the private collections of society’s elite. The color printer became for the people the disseminator of artistic masterpieces and the chronicler of contemporary events.

A few enterprising printers recognized that industrial society had created an opportunity to produce and sell pictures to the general public. They established companies in cities and employed the available labor—including child workers—to print inexpensive color pictures for the growing urban population. In this environment, the Englishman George Baxter emerged as perhaps the most important figure of the era of pictorial color printing.

George Baxter’s innovation

In some respects, the color work of George Baxter should be considered Victorian-age fine art. Even though he produced upwards of 20 million prints during his lifetime, Baxter’s work exhibits virtuosity in the technical aspects of platemaking and printing as well as extraordinary gifts as an engraver.

It would take many decades after his death for the meaning of Baxter’s accomplishments to be fully appreciated. As C.T. Courtney Lewis explained in George Baxter, Color Printer, His Life and Work in 1908, “His genius was not unrecognized in his own day; yet it seems that it is only now that the hour of his complete triumph has sounded … he was not a printer merely: he was an artist, a pioneer, and a man of many and versatile talents.”

The innovation for which George Baxter is known—and for which he applied for on October 23, 1835 and was granted a patent on April 23, 1836—is a complex one. To produce long press runs of beautiful and economically viability color pictures, Baxter combined two previously existing printing techniques:

  1. Steel or copper plate intaglio printing
  2. Woodblock relief printing

Baxter’s novelty was that the first impression was printed in black or gray ink with an intaglio outline or “key plate” and then subsequent multiple layers of color tinting were printed with relief woodblocks. His convergence of intaglio and relief printing produced pictures that were significantly superior to anything printed with either process independently of one another.

An early example of Baxter’s color printing innovation, “Evening on the sea” (1835), is the frontispiece of Robert Mudie’s book “The Sea”

An early example of Baxter’s color printing innovation, “Evening on the sea” (1835), is the frontispiece of Robert Mudie’s book “The Sea”

As Baxter himself explained in his patent application, “My invention consists in colouring such impressions of steel and copper plate engravings and lithographic and zincographic printing by means of block printing in place of colouring such impressions by hand as heretofore practised, and which is an expensive process; and by such a process producing coloured impressions of a high degree of perfection and far superior in appearance to those which are coloured by hand and such prints as are obtained by means of block printing in various colours uncombined with copper and steel lithographic or zincographic impressions.”

Prior to Baxter, key plates had been used in the more labor-intensive process of color tinting by hand. In the case of the woodblock method (also known as chromoxylography), it was used previously by others without the preliminary step of the key plate. It is also true that a combination of the two methods had been performed a century earlier by the Englishman Elisha Kirkall, but with nothing approaching the level of Baxter’s perfection or economy.

A decisive aspect of what became known as Baxter’s Process was the remarkably consistent quality of the entire color printing run. This was achieved with tight registration—using four pins or “pointers” in the press to hold the paper in position from one impression to the next—and oil-based inks. The advent of improved brightness of pigments and the permanent quality of the oil-based inks gave Baxter’s prints a superior color fidelity.

Among the first examples of Baxter’s method was the frontispiece of Robert Mudie’s 1835 book The Sea. What may seem today as a subtle change, the picture of a boat at sea during sunset carries a degree of precision and detail that was not achievable prior to Baxter’s two-step process.

Early life

George Baxter was born on July 31, 1804 at Lewes in the southeastern English county of Sussex. This area is known to have been a center of the early English printing and papermaking industries.

George was the second son of John Baxter, the proprietor of a typography, printing and publishing establishment in Lewes. George’s father would gain in his lifetime a reputation as an advanced printer who was the first to test and perfect several early industrial innovations in printing press technology.

George attended Cliffe House Academy and went to high school at St. Ann’s in Lewes. After he finished school, he worked in a book shop in Brighton, a seaside town less than ten miles from home. Later, although the record is unclear, he apprenticed as a wood engraver and lithographer.

By the age of nineteen, George was focusing on the artistic elements of printing rather than the mechanical and he began making a name for himself as a gifted illustrator. By 1826, it is known that George Baxter was in Lewes at his father’s establishment identifying himself as a “wood-engraver.”

At age 23, George migrated to London and set up his own business as an engraver and printer. Six months after starting his enterprise in London, George married Mary Harrild, daughter of Robert Harrild, a printing industry innovator and business partner of John Baxter. The record shows that at this time George Baxter began his experiments with color printing.

Greatest works

Once he had demonstrated to himself—if not also to everyone in the printing business—that his patented process represented an important breakthrough, Baxter started on a path that would continue for the next thirty years. During the period of his first patent grant (1834-1849), Baxter had no competitors in England for the process that he advertised as “Pictorial Colour Printing for Book Illustration and Picture Printing.”

“The Pictorial Album, or Cabinet of Paintings for the Year 1837” included eleven color prints by George Baxter. Some consider this to be among his finest work.

“The Pictorial Album, or Cabinet of Paintings for the Year 1837” included eleven color prints by George Baxter. Some consider this to be among his finest work.

At the end of 1836, Baxter produced a volume called The Pictorial Album, or Cabinet of Paintings that was published by Chapman and Hall. This project—which contained ten pictures including reproductions of several works of well-known artists of the day along with a frontispiece—was the first major publication of Baxter’s process. Some have said it was the high-water mark of his craft.

In 1841, Baxter printed two pictures called “Her Most Gracious Majesty Receiving the Sacrament at Her Coronation” and “The Arrival Her Most Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria at the House of Lords to Open her First Parliament” that include 200 portraits of identifiable guests at the event at Westminster Abbey in 1938. These oil-color prints—which are 21-3/4” by 17-1/2”—were prepared in cooperation with Buckingham Palace and gained Baxter direct access to the Queen and other royals in Britain and elsewhere in Europe.

Confident of the superiority of his methods, George Baxter was not shy about self-promotion as he gained a level of notoriety for his invention. However, as Baxter was continually preoccupied with the artistic and technical aspects of his business, he was never successful financially. In 1849, he petitioned the Privy Council and was granted a five-year extension on his patent on the grounds that he had lost money during the previous fourteen years.

Baxter’s print booth at the Great Exhibition

Baxter’s print booth at the Great Exhibition

In 1851, Baxter prints were on display at The Great Exhibition (also called the Crystal Palace Exhibition) in London. Of his work, the official catalog of the expo said, “Mr. George Baxter, the patentee of the process of printing in oil colours, exhibits in the Fine Art Court, upwards of sixty specimens (from the largest size to the smallest miniature), of his choicest productions … The visitors will indeed be delighted with these charming specimens which form the principal attraction in the Fine Art Court.”

Baxter also exhibited prints at the international expos in New York City in 1852 and Paris in 1855. He was awarded medals for these entries. Later, Baxter produced a series of prints called “Gems of The Great Exhibition” which show the grandeur of his vision and the dexterity of his engraving skills.

Baxter’s series “Gems of the Great Exhibition” (1852) included this image of the exterior of the Crystal Palace in London.

Baxter’s series “Gems of the Great Exhibition” (1852) included this image of the exterior of the Crystal Palace in London.

Legacy

In later years, while still holding his patent, Baxter took to licensing his method to other printers as a means of generating income. Having obtained color printing patents in France, Belgium and Germany as well as Britain, Baxter sold annual licenses to a handful of printers in all of these countries. Some have said that the work of these printers never approached Baxter’s in graceful detail and delicate coloring.

Six years after his process went into the public domain, Baxter liquidated his oil-color printing business and sold off his inventory of prints and intaglio plates and woodblocks to another printer. Part of this arrangement included Baxter’s agreement to provide technical assistance to the new owner.

The reasons for his decision to exit the business are unknown. It is clear that by the 1860s other competing methods such as chromolithography (Engelmann, 1837) and photography (Daguerre, 1839) were challenging the Baxter method in both quality and cost. By 1865, the remainder of Baxter’s printing business went bankrupt.

In late 1866 George Baxter was struck in the head during an accident involving a horse-drawn omnibus. He died at his residence in Sydenham on January 11, 1867 and was buried at Christ Church, Forest Hill in London. A red granite obelisk above his grave bears the inscription “the sole inventor and patentee of oil-colour printing.”

Some believed that Baxter’s significance and contribution had been exaggerated by a cult of enthusiasm built up by clubs and associations organized to collect copies of his works. One such critic, R.M. Burch, wrote of Baxter in 1910, “Had he not been, rediscovered … his name and fame would in all probability have completely passed into the limbo of forgetfulness.”

However, George Baxter is remembered for the lasting impact of his original color printing method and for making color printing popular and viable. Like others before and after him, Baxter’s genius and creative gifts intersected with important changes in the means and methods of printing during his lifetime. It is undeniable that George Baxter played a decisive role in expanding the influence of print upon society during the Victorian era.

The pioneers of color printing

Posted in People in Media History, Print Media, Typography with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 30, 2016 by multimediaman

Red Apple Green Leaves Blue Sky

Color is a perception; it is the response of the human visual system to light reflected from objects in the world around us. We learn as children to associate these color perceptions with names: the red of an apple, the green of the leaves or the blue of the sky. More scientifically, color is the way our eyes, optic nerve and brain receive and process different wavelengths of the visible spectrum of electromagnetic radiation.

It took hundreds of years of thought and experiment—beginning with Isaac Newton’s 1672 idea that white light is the source of color sensation—to arrive at the modern understanding of color and the way we perceive it. In 1802, the visible spectrum of electromagnetic energy was defined by Thomas Young when he measured various wavelengths of light and established their relationship to color, i.e. red is about 650 nm, green is about 510 nm and blue is about 475 nm.

Visible Light as a Segment of Electromagic Waves

The visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum represents all the colors of the rainbow

Later, Young and Hermann von Helmholtz developed the theory of trichromatic color vision. They surmised that the human eye has three types of photoreceptors, each with particular sensitivity to a corresponding range of light waves. In the 1950s it was proved—with advanced measuring equipment—that the three kinds of visual receptors (cones) have the capacity to sense many combinations of light wavelengths and see them as all the colors of the rainbow.

Knowledge of the properties of light and color was a major achievement of the scientific revolution (1500 to 1900) that—alongside the discovery of graphical perspective and other mathematical linear projections—transformed the visual arts. Artists and craftsmen that exclusively relied on their sensibility, talent and experience were able to integrate the principles of science into their works, bringing a degree of realism and accuracy that was previously impossible.

While the history of two-dimensional color representation is most often associated with fine art painting—the fresco, oil and tempera works of the Renaissance masters—the lesser known origins of color printing took a parallel development in time. Starting with the birth of mechanical metal type in Germany during the High Renaissance, a quest was begun to conquer the challenge of practical and high-quality color printing.

Relief color, Fust and Schoeffer (1457)

Page from the Mainz Psalter

A three-color page from the Mainz Psalter printed by Fust and Schoeffer in 1457

There is evidence that Johannes Gutenberg experimented with color during the printing of his famous 42-line Bible. For the most part, however, traditional hand-painted ornamental color lettering was used by Gutenberg alongside the black letter printing type he invented around 1450. Shortly thereafter, relief printing of color type and other ornamental figures was performed remarkably well by Gutenberg’s former collaborators on the printing of the Bible, Johann Fust and Peter Schoeffer.

In 1457, Fust and Schoeffer printed the Mainz Psalter with three colors—black, red and blue—all at one time. Their ingenious technique of compound printing involved interlocking metal type characters that were inked separately and reassembled for a single impression on the printing press. Although it returned extraordinary results, the process was very time consuming and expensive.

Intaglio color, Teyler ( 1680)

Johan Teyler intaglio color print

Johan Teyler intaglio color print

For most of the next two centuries, limited color printing was attempted as hand-colored pages remained the preferred method of pictorial representation. As various printing techniques spread across Europe, new approaches to color reproduction were tested. Some color illustrations were made using wood blocks.

By the mid-fifteenth century, intaglio engraving emerged as the standard method for printing images in black and white. Around 1680, a mathematician and engineer from Nijmegen, Holland named Johan Teyler developed a means of dabbing different colored inks into the wells of intaglio plates—originally intended for black-only printing—to make a full-color impression all at one time. Like Fust and Schoeffer’s work, Teyler’s color results were artistically beautiful but could not be developed into a viable commercial process.

Three-color mezzotint, Le Blon (1720)

Jacob Christoph Le Blon’s three-color mezzotint of 1722

Jacob Christoph Le Blon’s three-color mezzotint of 1722

Following the publication in 1704 of Isaac Newton’s discoveries regarding the physics of light and color—especially the idea that all colors are made of different combinations of red, blue and yellow (this was later proven to be imprecise for both light waves and pigments)—a few printers began working with techniques in three-color mezzotint printing. By this time, mezzotint copperplates were the favored image reproduction method because they rendered tones more easily than engraving.

In 1711, the Frankfurt-born painter Jacob Christoph Le Blon, basing himself directly upon Newton’s theory, mastered trichromatic mezzotint printing in his Amsterdam studio. Le Blon first tried and failed to commercialize his invention in Amsterdam, The Hague and Paris. He relocated in London in 1720, successfully obtained a royal patent from George I for his process and opened up a business selling printed color copies of oil paintings.

While his technical accomplishment was a significant step forward, Le Blon’s business lasted for three years before bankruptcy forced him back to Paris. Creating an appropriate balance of intensity between the primary color plates and maintaining tight registration between the three press impressions upon the paper was an exceedingly difficult and costly trial-and-error process.

Four-color mezzotint, L’Admiral and Gautier (1736)

Test printing of yellow and blue plates of the human skull by L’Admiral (1738) and the four-color mezzotint of the musculature of the head by Gautier (1745)

Test printing of yellow and blue plates of the human skull by L’Admiral (1738) and the four-color mezzotint of the musculature of the head by Gautier (1745)

It is documented that J. C. Le Blon also invented four-color mezzotint printing by adding black to the red, yellow and blue plates on a few of his prints. However, the perfection RYBK (K is for the key color, black) model was made by others, especially following Le Blon’s death in 1741. Among those who contributed were the Dutch engraver and printer Jan L’Admiral and the French painter Jacques Gautier, who had both been assistants to Le Blon. L’Admiral and Gautier initially produced color plates of human anatomy for medical research publications in Paris in the 1730s and 1740s.

In France, Gautier proved to be something of a charlatan and attempted to take full credit for the invention of four-color printing. He started a periodical in 1752 called Observations on natural history, on physics and painting in which popular sensationalism appears to have been his primary objective. Gautier fabricated a full-color image of a “siren” with the body of a seahorse and a hideous head of a human and reproduced some images that bordered on pornography. Nonetheless, Gautier’s journal proved to be among the first financially successful uses of color printing; it was published quarterly for five years.

Chromolithography, Engelmann (1837)

Godefroy Engelmann 1838 chromolithograph copy and the original oil of Master Lambton

Godefroy Engelmann 1838 chromolithograph copy and the original oil of Master Lambton

The invention of lithography by the Bavarian Alois Senefelder in 1796 brought a fundamentally new approach to printing. While relief letter press and intaglio mezzotint were mechanical printing processes, lithography relied upon the chemical antipathy of oil and water to transfer the image onto paper. The new method enabled artists to draw on the surface of limestone instead of the much more difficult etching or engraving of metal plates. In 1818, Senefelder experimented with lithographic color reproduction and pointed the way forward for others.

For the next two decades, lithographers from Germany, France and England made strides with color, for the most part printing decorative ornamentations or title pages of relief printed books. The chromolithography during this time was also a return to a multi-color approach of the seventeenth century as opposed to the later and more advanced three- or four-color mezzotint separation process.

Chromolithography came of age with the work of the French-German Godefroy Engelmann of Mulhouse. After becoming a pioneer and master in monochrome lithography, Engelmann made significant progress with four-color lithographs in 1837. He moved to Paris a year later and obtained a patent for his process. His works proved that chromolithography could effectively render lifelike prints of landscapes, flower and fruit arrangements and the most difficult human forms.

Toward modern color printing

The four-color chromolithography of the mid-nineteenth century finally brought color printing to an economically viable balance of quality, time and cost. However, full color printing was still largely a special process that was performed separately from letterpress black-only text print. With the rapid industrial expansion of book and newspaper publishing, color work remained essentially a very slow, craft-based process that required highly skilled artisans.

The production of relief, intaglio and lithographic “prints” and “plates” remained the convention for color work during the balance of the 1800s. These products were most often sold as single items—sometimes for as little a penny each—or bound into books as illustrations. It would require the development and maturity of three major advancements in the graphic arts to integrate printed color together with black text: color photography by Thomas Sutton (1861) and halftone reproduction by Frederic Ives (1881) and the CMYK ink model (1906).

Initially, some black and white halftones were enhanced with synthetically applied color. By the 1920s, improvements in mechanical color separation techniques and the growth of magazine publishing made it possible for some titles to afford full-color pictures and black text to be printed together on sheetfed letterpress systems. Some of these publications, such as National Geographic Magazine, continued with letterpress color all the way up to the late 1970s.

By the late 1950s, offset lithography and electronic color separations had begun their rise as the foremost method of reproducing high quality, inexpensive printed color images. Although the personal computer (IBM, 1981), digital camera (Fuji, 1987) and digital printing (Indigo, 1993) have brought color reproduction to new levels of high quality and low cost—especially for small quantities—the breakthroughs of seventy years ago remain by far the dominant methods of color reproduction today.

Steve Case and “The Third Wave” of the Internet

Posted in Digital Media, Internet, Mobile Media, People in Media History with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 25, 2016 by multimediaman

Steve Case and The Third Wave

In 1980, Alvin Toffler published The Third Wave, a sequel to his 1970 best-seller Future Shock and an elaboration of his ideas about the information age and its stressful impact on society. In contrast to his first book, Toffler sought in The Third Wave to convince readers not to dread the future but instead to embrace the potential at the heart of the information revolution.

Alvin Toffler

Alvin Toffler

Actually, Alvin—and his co-author wife Heidi Toffler—were among the few writers to appreciate early on the transformative power of electronic communications. Long before the word “Internet” was used by anyone but a few engineers working for the US Department of Defense—and after reporting for Fortune magazine on foundational Third Wave companies like IBM, AT&T and Xerox—Toffler began to hypothesize about “information overload” and the disruptive force of networked data and communications upon manufacturing, business, government and the family.

"The Third Wave" (1980) by Alvin Toffler

“The Third Wave” (1980) by Alvin Toffler

For example, one can read in the The Third Wave, “Humanity faces a quantum leap forward. It faces the deepest social upheaval and creative restructuring of all time. Without clearly recognizing it, we are engaged in building a remarkable new civilization from the ground up. This is the meaning of the Third Wave.” Appearing today as a little excessive, these words would certainly have seemed in 1980 to be a wild exaggeration by two fanatical tech futurists.

But Alvin and Heidi were really onto something. More than 35 years later, who can deny the truth behind Toffler’s basic ideas about the global information revolution and its consequences? The Internet, networked PCs, the World Wide Web, wireless broadband, smartphones, social media and, ultimately, the Internet of Things have changed and are changing every aspect of society.

To his credit, Steve Case—who cofounded the early Internet company America Online—has written a new book called The Third Wave: An Entrepreneur’s Vision of the Future that borrows its title from Toffler’s pioneering work. As Case explains in the preface, he was motivated by Toffler’s theories as a college student because they “completely transformed the way I thought about the world—and what I imagined for the future.”

Steve Case’s The Third Wave

First Wave Internet companies

First Wave Internet companies

In Steve Case’s book, “The Third Wave” refers to three phases of Internet development as opposed to Toffler’s stages of civilization. For Case, the first wave was the construction of the “on ramps”—including AOL and others like Sprint, Apple and Microsoft—to the information superhighway. The second wave was about building on top of first wave infrastructure by companies like Google, Amazon, eBay, Facebook, Twitter and others that have developed “software as a service” (SAS).

Case’s Third Wave of the Internet is the promise of connecting everything to everything else, i.e. the rebuilding of entire sectors of the economy with “smart” technologies. While the ideas surrounding what he calls the Internet of Everything are not new—Case does not claim to have originated the concept—the new book does discuss important barriers to the realization of the Third Wave of Internet connectivity and how to overcome them.

Second Wave Internet companies

Second Wave Internet companies

Case argues that Third Wave companies will require a new set of principles in order to be successful, that following the playbook of Second Wave companies will not do. He writes, “The playbook they need, instead, is one that worked during the First Wave, when the Internet was still young and skepticism was still high; when the barriers to entry were enormous, and when partnerships were a necessity to reaching your customers; when the regulatory system was coming to grips with a new reality and struggling to figure out the appropriate path forward.”

In much of the book, Case reviews his ideas about the transformation of the health care, education and food industries by applying the culture of innovation and ambition for change that is commonly found in Silicon Valley. However, he cautions that current Second Wave models of venture capital investment, views about the role of government and aversion to collaboration among entrepreneurs threaten to stall or kill Third Wave change before it can get started.

The story of AOL

In some ways, the most interesting aspects of Case’s book deal with the origin, growth and decline of America Online (AOL). Case gives a candid explication of the trials and tribulations of his innovative dial-up Internet company from 1983 to 2003. Case explains that prior to the achievement of significant consumer (27.6 million users by 2002) and Wall Street ($222 billion market cap by 1999) success, AOL and its precursors went through a series of near death experiences.

Steve Case in 1987 before the founding of America Online

Steve Case in 1987 before the founding of America Online

For example, he tells the story of a deal that he signed with Apple in 1987 that was cancelled by the Cupertino-based company during implementation. Case had sold Apple customer service executives on a partnership with his then Quantum Computer Services to build an online support system called Apple Link Personal Edition that would be offered to customers as a software add-on. Disagreements between Apple and Quantum over how to sell the product to computer users ultimately killed the project.

Facing the termination of the investment funding that was tied to the $5 million agreement, Case and the other founders decided to sue Apple for breach of contract. Acknowledging their liability to Quantum, Apple agreed to pay $3 million to “tear up the contract.” Starting over with their new source of cash, Case and his partners restarted their company as America Online and they made an approach directly to consumers to sign up for their service.

This tale and others reinforces one of the key themes of Case’s book: Third Wave entrepreneurs will need to persevere through “the long slog” to success.

The January 24, 2000 cover of Time magazine with Steve Case and Jerry Levin announcing the AOL-Time Warner merger.

The January 24, 2000 cover of Time magazine with Steve Case and Jerry Levin announcing the AOL-Time Warner merger.

The end of Steve Case’s relationship with AOL is also a lesson in the leadership skills required for Third Wave success. In a chapter entitled “Matter of Trust” (the longest of the book), Steve Case relives the story of the merger/acquisition of Time Warner with/by AOL. It is a cautionary tale of both the excesses of Wall Street valuations during the dot com boom and the crisis of traditional media companies in the face of Third Wave innovation.

Case says that while the combination of AOL with Time Warner in 2000—the largest corporate merger in history up to that point—made sense at the time, two months later the dot com bubble burst and the company lost eighty percent of its value within a year. This was followed by a series of leadership battles that proved there were deep seated feelings of “personal mistrust and lingering resentments” among top Time Warner executives over the business potential of the Internet and the up-start start-up called AOL.

Steve Case writes that, although the dot com crash was certainly a factor, “It came down to emotions and egos and, ultimately, the culture itself. That something with the potential to be the first trillion-dollar company could end up losing $200 billion in value should tell you just how important the people factor is. It doesn’t really matter what the plan is if you can’t get your people aligned around achieving the same objectives.”

What now?

For those of us that were in the traditional media business—i.e. print, television and radio—the word “disruption” hardly describes the impact of the Internet over the past three decades. When companies like AOL were getting started with their modems and dial-up connections, most of us were looking pretty good. We had little time or interest in the tacky little AOL “You’ve Got Mail” audio message. As we reluctantly embraced IBM, Apple and Microsoft as partners in our front office and production operations, we were later making smug remarks about the absurdity of eBay and Amazon as legitimate business ideas.

Internet of Things

IoT is at the center of Case’s Third Wave of innovation.

Steve Case’s book represents a timely warning to the enterprises and business leaders of today who similarly dismiss the notions of IoT.  He points to Uber and Airbnb and shows that the hospitality and transportation industries are being right now turned on their sides by this new wave of information-enabled “sharing” businesses.

Actually, Case is an unlikely spokesman for the next wave of innovation having personally made out quite well (his net worth stands at $1.37 billion) despite the shipwreck that became AOL Time Warner. If he had been born twenty-five years later, Case could possibly have been another Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and rode the Second Wave of the Internet (Zuckerberg got his start in coding by hacking AOL Instant Messenger) over the ruins of the dot com bust.

But that was then and this is now. Case has decided to commit himself to investment in present day entrepreneurships through his Revolution Growth venture capital fund. His book is kind of a roadmap for those who want to learn from his experience and bravely launch into the Third Wave of the Internet and build start-ups of a new kind. As Alvin Toffler wrote in Future Shock, “If we do not learn from history, we shall be compelled to relive it. True. But if we do not change the future, we shall be compelled to endure it. And that could be worse.”

Nicholas-Louis Robert (1761 – 1828): Papermaking machine

Posted in Paper, People in Media History with tags , , , , , , , , on April 24, 2016 by multimediaman
Engraving of Nicholas-Louis Robert: December 2, 1761–August 8, 1828

Engraving of Nicholas-Louis Robert: December 2, 1761–August 8, 1828

Industry experts say that there are more than twenty thousand uses of paper in the world today. Communication, currency, hygiene, manufacturing, packaging and construction are a few of the commercial applications of paper. Remarkably, even with the growth of electronic and digital alternatives, the worldwide production of paper and cardboard has continued to expand.

Paper is so ubiquitous in our lives that it would seem that the subject of its origins and development would be of interest to just about everyone. Yet the versatility and utility of paper are such that we barely notice it. As librarian and historian John Bidwell has said, “If you’re noticing paper, that probably means there’s something wrong with it.”

Throughout its history, paper has served as the vehicle upon which an image is presented; it is the medium that delivers the message. The more invisible its “negative” form, the more effective paper carries its “positive” content.

Perhaps this background role is at least partially responsible for the perception that paper is more effect than cause; that the development of paper has always been driven by the requirements of what is printed upon it. However, the truth is that the evolution of paper and the methods of its making have proceeded in reciprocal relation to print, as both its catalyst and consequence.

* * * * *

And so it was that paper was invented by Ts’ai Lun (Cai Lun) in China in 105 AD initially for the purpose of facilitating calligraphy. By the time Oriental wood block printing was developed a century later, the making of hand writing papers was an established craft. The new printing method was adapted to the lightweight Chinese stock and the soft impression of the wood block prints could only be effectively made upon one side of this paper.

Beginning with the papers made for Chinese calligraphy from around 100 AD, Chinese woodblock printing types (200 AD) and Gutenberg’s metal type characters (1440) were influenced by the paper that was available at the time of their invention.

Beginning with the papers made for Chinese calligraphy from around 100 AD, Chinese wood block printing types (200 AD) and Gutenberg’s metal type characters (1440) were influenced by the paper that was available at the time of their invention.

More than one thousand years later—after papermaking made its way across Asia and the Middle East and became established in Europe—a different kind of paper was being made. Crafted from macerated linen and cloth fibers, dipped in animal gelatin and dried to accommodate the quill pen, this paper was used by Gutenberg in the application of his movable metal printing types. The pressure of the inked metal type impression took to these hardened European papers in a manner that facilitated printing on both sides of the sheet.

Four-and-a-half centuries later, as print was being transformed from a craft to an industry, paper once again emerged as the driver of innovation. Many years before the application of metal construction, cylinders and steam power to printing machines, the technology of papermaking had undergone its own revolution.

The papermaking machine

In 1798, Frenchman Nicholas-Louis Robert began the industrialization of printing by inventing the papermaking machine. Although there were many technical hurdles to be overcome, the essential features of Robert’s first successful invention have remained standard in paper manufacturing to this day.

Robert’s technical innovation was the rotating cloth screen (wire) belt that received a continuous flow of fibers and delivered an unbroken sheet of wet paper to a pair of squeeze rollers. As the long strip of paper came off the machine, in Robert’s configuration it was hung by hand to dry on a series of bars or cables. This would later become a roll of paper.

Model of Robert’s original invention reconstructed from the drawings that accompanied his French patent application of 1798

Model of Robert’s original invention reconstructed from the drawings that accompanied his French patent application of 1798

Prior to the Robert’s invention, all paper was made by hand and consisted of dipping a framed mould with a porous surface into a vat of fibers suspended in water. Upon lifting the mould from the vat, a thin layer of fibers rested on top of the screen and was dried to form a sheet of paper. With this method, the mould could be used again only when the sheet had dried and been removed from it.

Aside from its important technical features, the key results of the papermaking machine were:

  • Productivity:
    The volume of paper that previously would have taken many hand papermakers and many hours could be produced by a single operator in far less time.
  • Paper Size:
    Sheet dimension was limited with handmade paper. It was not possible for a craftsman to adequately balance a large mould. With Robert’s machine, paper size was limited only by the width of the machine and the length was endless.

Nicholas-Louis Robert

Nicholas-Louis Robert was born in Paris in a small house on December 2, 1761. He had health problems as a child and was quite frail. Despite his condition, when he turned fifteen, the boy made an effort to join the French army because he was concerned that his aging parents could not afford to take care of him. The military did not allow him to join and Nicholas-Louis was returned to his parents’ home to continue his studies.

Four years later, following a period of severe mental anguish for having been a burden to the family, Nicholas-Louis again applied for military service. On April 23, 1780, he was admitted to the First Battalion of the Grenoble Artillery and was stationed in a garrison at Calais, a port city in Northern France across the English Channel from the clifftop town of Dover.

Portrait of Nicholas-Louis Robert from a watercolor painted by his sister

Portrait of Nicholas-Louis Robert from a watercolor painted by his sister

Robert’s military experience took a dramatic turn in 1781 when the young soldier was sent to war in the Caribbean during the American Revolution. The French Metz Artillery regiment sailed to Santo Domingo to fight an engagement against the British. Having won the battle, Nicholas-Louis returned home and shortly thereafter left the military at age 28 to seek an occupation in civilian life.

With a mechanical aptitude, Robert turned to the printing craft and landed a clerkship with the well-known printing, type founding and publishing company Didot in Paris. After working for several years in the office, Nicholas-Louis sought a new opportunity in related industries and came upon the paper mill operations of Francois Didot in Essones, a well-known papermaking center south of Paris.

The Didot papermaking operation was quite important as much of French paper currency was printed there. Nicholas-Louis initially obtained a position as mill personnel inspector. Having regular contact with the staff, Nicholas-Louis found that there many antagonisms among the hand paper making tradesmen and these problems frustrated him.

The invention

After working in the mill for months, it occurred to Robert that there was a more advanced method for making paper; that it might be possible to get around the constant quarrelling among the papermaking trades. While the discord among the employees of the mill may have been the impulse for Robert’s research—he was after all under the direction of the owner Didot—the fact is that his project led to a significant reduction in the cost and a more abundant supply of paper.

Robert’s initial attempts at a papermaking machine were failures and termed “feeble” by Didot. Nonetheless, Didot encouraged Nicholas-Louis to continue with his work. For a time, the young man gave up on his project and became involved in other areas of mill operations. But under the constant prodding of his boss, he returned to his research in mechanical papermaking.

Diagram of Robert’s original papermaking machine

Diagram of Robert’s original papermaking machine

Soon, with the help of others at the Didot establishment, Robert saw that the basic principles of his original concept were sound. His earlier work was revived and he proceeded with the construction of a device that was larger than the first machine. Finally, when trial sheets of paper had been effectively produced on the new machine, Didot encouraged Nicholas-Robert to file a patent for his invention.

On September 9, 1798, Robert and Didot traveled to Paris and presented a patent application to the French Minister of the Interior. In a letter that accompanied the application, Nicholas-Louis wrote, “It has been my dream to simplify the operation of making paper by forming it with infinite less expense, and, above all, in making sheets of an extraordinary length without the help of any worker, using only mechanical means. … The machine makes for economy of time and expense and extraordinary paper, being 12 to 15 meters (472 to 590 inches) in length, if one wishes.”

The patent was granted at a cost of 1,562 francs and dated January 18, 1799. Considering the fact that the maximum length of handmade paper was about 32 inches, Robert’s machine represented an enormous step forward. The French government recognized the significance of his invention and dispatched an engineer to the Didot mill to assist in the construction of an improved model.

The Bureau of Arts and Trades wrote of it, “this machine forms paper of great width and indefinite length. The machine makes paper of perfect quality in thickness and gives advantages that cannot be derived from ordinary methods of forming paper by hand, where each sheet is limited in size in comparison with those made on this machine.”

Further developments

Mention must be made of the fact that Robert’s papermaking machine was invented during the tumultuous years of the French Revolution (1789-1799). It is no accident that this technical breakthrough coincided with the spread of the ideas of “liberty, equality and fraternity” that depended greatly upon the printed word.

Mid-19th century drawing of a Fourdrinier papermaking machine

Mid-19th century drawing of a Fourdrinier papermaking machine

However, as the historian Dard Hunter described, the “disturbed conditions” of the period were such that very little progress was made by Didot and Robert beyond the initial invention. As Robert became preoccupied with the financial benefits of his accomplishment, he sold his patent to Didot for 25,000 francs, a modest sum considering the implications of the invention.

Didot immediately sought to move further development of the project out of France and into the more stable environment of England. Didot’s brother in law, John Gamble, was an English paper-mill owner and the two corresponded to have a much larger machine constructed. It was then that the London stationers Henry and Sealy Fourdrinier became involved in building papermaking machines.

A monument to the memory of Nicholas-Louis Robert was erected outside the church at Vernouillet, France in 1912.

A monument to the memory of Nicholas-Louis Robert in Vernouillet, France

Following several modifications to the wire, the Fourdrinier brothers invested 60,000 pounds in the construction of a large machine that could make paper on continuous rolls. This attempt was eventually proven successful and they were granted an English patent for it in 1806. However, the project was not commercially successful and it bankrupted the Fourdriniers. Nevertheless, to this day—although its basic design was invented by Nicholas-Louis Robert—the papermaking machine bears the Fourdrinier name.

While the Fourdrinier machine underwent rapid development in the nineteenth century, the ingenious Nicholas Louis was living quietly in France. When the first commercial papermaking machine was installed there in France in 1811, Robert was approaching fifty years of age and on his way out of the papermaking business. In 1812, he opened a small primary school in Vernouillet, northwest of Paris where he worked as a poorly paid teacher. Never realizing the financial benefit from his invention, Nicholas-Louis died broken and destitute on August 8, 1828. A monument to Robert’s memory was erected in 1912 outside the church at Vernouillet.

Books, e-books and the e-paper chase

Posted in Digital Media, Mobile, Mobile Media, Paper, Print Media with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 22, 2016 by multimediaman

Last November Amazon opened its first retail book store in Seattle near the campus of the University of Washington. More than two decades after it pioneered online book sales—and initiated the e-commerce disruption of the retail industry—the $550 billion company seemed to be taking a step backward with its “brick and mortar” Amazon Books.

Amazon Books opened in Seattle on November 3, 2015

Amazon opened its first retail book store in Seattle on November 3, 2015

However, Amazon launched its store concept with a nod to traditional consumer shopping habits, i.e. the ability to “kick the tires.” Amazon knows very well that many customers like to browse the shelves in bookstores and fiddle with electronic gadgets like the Kindle, Fire TV and Echo before they make buying decisions.

So far, the Seattle book store has been successful and Amazon has plans to open more locations. Some unique features of the Amazon.com buying experience have been extended to the book store. Customer star ratings and reviews are posted near book displays; shoppers are encouraged to use the Amazon app and scan bar codes to check prices.

Amazon’s book store initiative was also possibly motivated by the persistence and strength of the print book market. Despite the rapid rise of e-books, print books have shown a resurgence of late. Following a sales decline of 15 million print books in 2013 to just above 500 million units, the past two years have seen an increase to 560 million in 2014 and 570 million in 2015. Meanwhile, the American Booksellers Association reported a substantial increase in independent bookstores over the past five years (1,712 member stores in 2,227 locations in 2015, up from 1,410 in 1,660 locations in 2010).

Print books and e-books

After rising rapidly since 2008, e-book sales have stabilized at between 25% and 30% of total book sales

After rising rapidly since 2008, e-book sales have stabilized at between 25% and 30% of total book sales

The ratio of e-book to print book sales appears to have leveled off at around 1 to 3. This relationship supports recent public perception surveys and learning studies that show the reading experience and information retention properties of print books are superior to that of e-books.

The reasons for the recent uptick in print sales and the slowing of e-book expansion are complex. Changes in the overall economy, adjustments to bookstore inventory from digital print technologies and the acclimation of consumers to the differences between the two media platforms have created a dynamic and rapidly shifting landscape.

As many analysts have insisted, it is difficult to make any hard and fast predictions about future trends of either segment of the book market. However, two things are clear: (1) the printed book will undergo little further evolution and (2) the e-book is headed for rapid and dramatic innovation.

Amazon launched the e-book revolution in 2007 with the first Kindle device. Although digital books were previously available in various computer file formats and media types like CD-ROMs for decades, e-books connected with Amazon’s Kindle took off in popularity beginning in 2008. The most important technical innovation of the Kindle—and a major factor in its success—was the implementation of the e-paper display.

Distinct from backlit LCD displays on most mobile devices and personal computers, e-paper displays are designed to mimic the appearance of ink on paper. Another important difference is that the energy requirements of e-paper devices are significantly lower than LCD-based systems. Even in later models that offer automatic back lighting for low-light reading conditions, e-paper devices will run for weeks on a single charge while most LCD systems require a recharge in less than 24-hours.

Nick Sheridon and Gyricon

The theory behind the Kindle’s ink-on-paper emulation was originated in the 1970s at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in California by Nick Sheridon. Sheridon developed his concepts while working to overcome limitations with the displays of the Xerox Alto, the first desktop computer. The early monitors could only be viewed in darkened office environments because of insufficient brightness and contrast.

Nick Sheridon and his team at Xerox PARC invented Gyricon in 1974, a thin layer of transparent plastic composed of bichromal beads that rotate to create an image

Nick Sheridon and his team at Xerox PARC invented Gyricon in 1974, a thin layer of transparent plastic composed of bichromal beads that rotate with changes in voltage to create an image on the surface

Sheridon sought to develop a display that could match the contrast and readability of black ink on white paper. Along with his team of engineers at Xerox, Sheridon developed Gyricon, a substrate with thousands of microscopic plastic beads—each of which were half black and half white—suspended in a thin and transparent silicon sheet. Changes in voltage polarity caused either the white or black side of the beads to rotate up and display images and text without backlighting or special ambient light conditions.

After Xerox cancelled the Alto project in the early 1980s, Sheridon took his Gyricon technology in a new direction. By the late 1980s, he was working on methods to manufacture a new digital display system as part of the “paperless office.” As Sheridon explained later, “There was a need for a paper-like electronic display—e-paper! It needed to have as many paper properties as possible, because ink on paper is the ‘perfect display.’”

In 2000, Gyricon LLC was founded as a subsidiary of Xerox to develop commercially viable e-paper products. The startup opened manufacturing facilities in Ann Arbor, Michigan and developed several products including e-signage that utilized Wi-Fi networking to remotely update messaging. Unfortunately, Xerox shut down the entity in 2005 due to financial problems.

Pioneer of e-paper Nick Sheridon

Pioneer of e-paper, Nicholas Sheridan

Among the challenges Gyricon faced were making a truly paper-like material that had sufficient contrast and resolution while keeping manufacturing costs low. Sheridan maintained that e-paper displays would only be viable economically if units were sold for less than $100 so that “nearly everyone could have one.”

As Sheridon explained in a 2009 interview: “The holy grail of e-paper will be embodied as a cylindrical tube, about 1 centimeter in diameter and 15 to 20 centimeters long, that a person can comfortably carry in his or her pocket. The tube will contain a tightly rolled sheet of e-paper that can be spooled out of a slit in the tube as a flat sheet, for reading, and stored again at the touch of a button. Information will be downloaded—there will be simple user interface—from an overhead satellite, a cell phone network, or an internal memory chip.”

E Ink

By the 1990s competitors began entering the e-paper market. E Ink, founded in 1998 by a group of scientists and engineers from MIT’s Media Lab including Russ Wilcox, developed a concept similar to Sheridon’s. Instead of using rotating beads with white and black hemispheres, E Ink introduced a method of suspending microencapsulated cells filled with both black and white particles in a thin transparent film. Electrical charges to the film caused the black or white particles to rise to the top of the microcapsules and create the appearance of a printed page.

E Ink cofounder Russ Wilcox

E Ink cofounder Russ Wilcox

E Ink’s e-paper technology was initially implemented by Sony in 2004 in the first commercially available e-reader called LIBRIe. In 2006, Motorola integrated an E Ink display in its F3 cellular phone. A year later, Amazon included E Ink’s 6-inch display in the first Amazon Kindle which became by far the most popular device of its kind.

Kindle Voyage (2014) and Kindle Paperwhite (2015) with the latest e-paper displays (Carta) from E ink

Kindle Voyage (2014) and Kindle Paperwhite (2015) with the latest e-paper displays (Carta) from E ink

Subsequent generations of Kindle devices have integrated E Ink displays with progressively improved contrast, resolution and energy consumption. By 2011, the third generation Kindle included touch screen capability (the original Kindle had an integrated hardware keyboard for input).

The current edition of the Kindle Paperwhite (3rd Generation) combines back lighting and a touch interface with E Ink Carta technology and a resolution of 300 pixels per inch. Many other e-readers such as the Barnes & Noble Nook, the Kobo, the Onyx Boox and the PocketBook also use E Ink products for their displays.

Historical parallel

The quest to replicate, as closely as possible in electronic form, the appearance of ink on paper is logical enough. In the absence of a practical and culturally established form, the new media naturally strives to emulate that which came before it. This process is reminiscent of the evolution of the first printed books. For many decades, print carried over the characteristics of the books that were hand-copied by scribes.

It is well known that Gutenberg’s “mechanized handwriting” invention (1440-50) sought to imitate the best works of the Medieval monks. The Gutenberg Bible, for instance, has two columns of print text while everything else about the volume—paper, size, ornamental drop caps, illustrations, gold leaf accents, binding, etc.—required techniques that preceded the invention of printing. Thus, the initial impact of Gutenberg’s system was an increase in the productivity of book duplication and the displacement of scribes; it would take some time for the implications of the new process to work its way through the function, form and content of books.

Ornamented title page of the Gutenberg Bible printed in 1451

Ornamented title page of the Gutenberg Bible printed in 1451

More than a half century later—following the spread of Gutenberg’s invention to the rest of Europe—the book began to evolve dramatically and take on attributes specific to printing and other changes taking place in society. For example, by the first decade of the 1500s, books were no longer stationary objects to be read in exclusive libraries and reading rooms of the privileged few. As their cost dropped, editions became more plentiful and literacy expanded, books were being read everywhere and by everybody.

By the middle 1500s, both the form and content of books became transformed. To facilitate their newfound portability, the size of books fell from the folio (14.5” x 20”) to the octavo dimension (7” x 10.5”). By the beginning of the next century, popular literature—the first European novel is widely recognized as Cervantes’ Don Quixote of 1605—supplanted verse and classic texts. New forms of print media developed such as chapbooks, broadsheets and newspapers.

Next generation e-paper

It seems clear that the dominance of LCD displays on computers, mobile and handheld devices is a factor in the persistent affinity of the public for print books. Much of the technology investment and advancement of the past decade—coming from companies such as Apple Computer—has been been committed to computer miniaturization, touch interface and mobility, not the transition from print to electronic media. While first decade e-readers have made important strides, most e-books are still being read on devices that are visually distant from print books, impeding a more substantial migration to the new media.

Additionally, most current e-paper devices have many unpaper-like characteristics such as relatively small size, inflexibility, limited bit-depth and the inability to write ton them. All current model e-paper Kindles, for example, are limited to 6-inch displays with 16 grey levels beneath a heavy and fragile layer of glass and no support for handwriting.

The Sony Digital Paper System (DPT-S1) is based on E Ink’s Mobius e-paper display technology: 13.3” format, flexible and supports stylus handwriting

The Sony Digital Paper System (DPT-S1) is based on E Ink’s Mobius e-paper display technology: 13.3” format, flexible and supports stylus handwriting

A new generation of e-paper systems is now being developed that overcome many of these limitations. In 2014, Sony released its Digital Paper System (DPT-S1) that is a letter-size e-reader and e-notebook (for $1,100 at launch and currently selling for $799). The DPT-S1 is based on E Ink’s Mobius display, a 13.3” thin film transistor (TFT) platform that is flexible and can accept handwriting from a stylus.

Since it does not have any glass, the new Sony device weighs 12.6 oz or about half of a similar LCD-based tablet. With the addition of stylus-based handwriting capability, the device functions like an electronic notepad and, meanwhile, notes can be written in the margins of e-books and other electronic documents.

These advancements and others show that e-paper is positioned for a renewed surge into things that have yet to be conceived. Once a flat surface can be curved or even folded and then made to transform itself into any image—including a color image—at any time and at very low cost and very low energy consumption, then many things are possible like e-wall paper, e-wrapping paper, e-milk cartons and e-price tags. The possibilities are enormous.