Frederic Eugene Ives: 1856 – 1937

Frederick Eugene Ives Frederic Eugene Ives

Frederic Eugene Ives is a central figure in the history of the graphic arts. His inventions and discoveries in the field of visual communications technology—the development of the first halftone reproduction process being the most significant—span six decades and are among the greatest contributions by an individual to the industry.

The son of a farmer-turned-country storekeeper from a small town in rural Connecticut, Ives developed an interest in printing when he found a small hand press in his fathers’ shop. He left school before the age of 12 to find a job and earn a living after the early death of his father from pulmonary consumption. More than a year later, young Frederic obtained an apprenticeship in the printing offices of the Litchfield Enquirer where he earned the state-wide reputation among newspaper printers as “the natural printer.” This was by virtue of the superb quality of his work.

Lacking any formal education, Ives developed a passion for investigation and experimentation in photography and engraving while working late into the night in the attic of a building directly across the village green from the Enquirer office. After completing his apprenticeship at the age of seventeen, he became a journeyman job printer for a printing establishment in Ithaca, New York, some two hundred miles away from his hometown. This was followed a year later with an application for a job running the photographic laboratory at Cornell University. After initially being declared too young and inexperienced for the position, Ives was selected by the university administration for employment on a “trial basis.”

While Ives’ tenure at Cornell lasted just four years, it was during this time that he would go on to develop some of his most important ideas; ideas that would transform the world of printing.

His invention of the halftone photoengraving process in 1881 and later the crossline screen for direct photographic halftone reproduction stand out as a transition period in the history of printing and publishing. Ives had created for the first time the technology and method for reproducing with ink-on-paper printing processes all of the tonal values and richness of detail from an original photographic image. Prior to this discovery, imagery in print was confined to the highly skilled and time-consuming efforts of handicraft wood engravers and resembled works of art more than an actual scene as perceived by the human eye.

In its essential features, the halftone process remains in use today as the most common method for photographic reproduction in print. It is safe to say that the offset lithographic process, the predominant printing technology of the past half-century, could not exist without Ives’ invention. Each day millions upon millions of printed products — newspapers, books, magazines, brochures, calendars, wrapping paper, greeting cards, packaging materials, billboards, to name only a few — are produced by machinery that utilizes what was once known as the “Ives process.”

Simply put, the halftone is an optical illusion: small dots of various sizes that are equidistant from each other create the appearance—at an appropriate viewing distance—of continuous gradations of tone. Due to the fact that many printing processes, can only transfer a solid film of ink to a sheet of paper (or other substrate), the halftone is the most effective method for reliably simulating a continuous tone image such as a photograph. Measured in lines per inch, the halftone screen is the essential building block of the printed page upon which everything else depends.

Ives also made major contributions to the development of color photography and microscopy. Among his 70 patents were the photochromoscope camera, the chromogram and the single-objective binocular microscope. In his later years, when asked how he came to devote himself to the field of optics without what was considered the requisite mathematics and physics training, Ives quoted Robert Louis Stevenson’s remark about his father, the lighthouse engineer, who he said had a “sentiment for optics.”

An unusually gifted man, Ives wrote about himself in his “Autobiography of an Amateur Inventor,”: “… the writer belongs to a period when some of the most revolutionary inventions were made by men not specially trained for such work, but were impelled to undertake it by the possession of what Sir William Abney once termed ‘instinctive genius.’ To this class of men I would apply the term ‘amateur inventors.’ … Some men are as naturally inventors as others are poets, fiction writers, statesmen or merchants and the typical amateur inventor will pursue his course through any amount of poverty and hardship and indifference, thinking much more about his work than about any material reward which it might bring.”

Frederic Eugene Ives is without question one of the great — albeit often unappreciated and rarely recognized — pioneers of graphic and print communications technology.

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