John Crosfield (1915 – 2012): Printing press automation

John Crosfield

John Fothergill Crosfield: October 22, 1915 – March 25, 2012

Today’s digital and mobile wireless technologies are in a constant state of flux. As we pass the midpoint of 2015, the human computer interface is being once again transformed with haptic technology—tactile feedback from a device such as force or vibration.

If you have felt vibration in response to a touch function on your smartphone, then you have experienced haptics. What was until recently available only to virtual reality enthusiasts and gamers, is now a feature of every smartphone and tablet.

Technical evolution has been so fast that it is hard to believe smartphones have been around for less than eight years and the tablet is just a little over three years old. As we try to keep up with the pace of change, it is easy to miss the fact that the electronics revolution has been underway for more than a century and digital electronics represents less than half of that time period.

Electronic technology can be divided into two basic forms: analog and digital. Long before there were microprocessors and memory chips that exchange all information, data, code, signals, etc. in a series of zeroes and ones, there were analog electronics such as resistors, capacitors, inductors, diodes and transistors.

The difference between a clock with hour, minute and second hands rotating around the face and the numerals on an Light Emitting Diode (LED) clock display is a simple illustration of analogue vs digital technology.

John Crosfield’s contributions to printing and the graphic arts spanned both analogue and digital electronics. His analogue systems were developed in the late 1940s and became dominant in the industry throughout the 1950s. When the first computers were introduced in the 1960s, Crosfield pioneered digital electronics and became a major worldwide provider of equipment into the 1960s and mid-70s.

Crosfield’s youth

Young John Crosfield

Young John F. Crosfield

John Fothergill Crosfield was born into a well-off family. He was the third child and second son of prominent English Quakers. Born on October 22, 1915 in Hampstead, London—a community known for its intellectual, liberal, artistic, musical and literary associations—John had five siblings.

John’s father, Bertram Fothergill Crosfield, was managing director and co-proprietor of the News Chronical and The Star, both liberal daily newspapers in London. Bertram was also leader of several Hampstead organizations. John’s mother, Eleanor Cadbury, was the daughter of the famous chocolate maker and leading Quaker, George Cadbury. Eleanor was well-known independently of her father and was elected as a Liberal to Bucks County Council.

John showed an early interest in building things. As a boy, he was often busy in the family workshop making boats, steam engines and other mechanical devices. He once built a cannon and tested it on the garage door. The projectile went through the door and damaged his father’s Daimler. He was fond of trains and, with the assistance of a childhood friend, built an O gauge model railroad on the property of his school grounds.

At age 13 John was enrolled in Leighton Park School, a Quaker establishment. He enjoyed studying physics and math and decided he wanted to pursue engineering at college. Following in his father’s footsteps, John enrolled at Trinity College Cambridge. He designed and built gliders and other flying machinery such as a winch launcher in his spare time. Although he had many hobbies, John was an exceptional student and put most of his time into his studies.

John graduated from Cambridge in 1936 and went to Munich, Germany to improve his language skills. He came into contact with anti-Semitism and Nazi propaganda and was horrified by Hitler’s methods. Upon his return to England, John’s accounts of the treatment of political prisoners in Germany were met with disbelief.

World War II

John Crosfield was a member of a generation of engineers whose formative experiences were made in World War II. Much of the technology advancements that were deployed throughout industry in the post war period originated in the struggle by the warring countries for military supremacy.

After he left Cambridge, Crosfield took a student-apprentice engineering position with British Thomson-Hudson (BTH), a heavy industry firm based in Warwickshire. BTH was founded as a subsidiary of the US-based General Electric Company (GE) and specialized in steam turbines. In 1938, he left BTH and went to work at the Stockholm facility of ASEA, a Swedish version of BTH and GE. When the war began in 1939, John made his way back to England and planned to join the Navy.

Crosfield used some connections at ASEA to get an assignment by the Admiralty to the Mine Design Department. It was here that Crosfield’s electronic genius would begin to be expressed. He worked on a magnetic mine project that could detect German boats near British harbors.

Crosfield also designed and built a prototype of an acoustic mine that could pick up on the sound of the propeller of wooden German E-boats. The acoustic mine became a success with 200 being deployed in the Baltic Sea and sinking 47 enemy vessels. Crosfield and his colleagues later worked on the development of both acoustic and subsonic mines. He got involved in the production process and in 1944 Crosfield’s inventions proved extremely effective in major battles at the Straits of Dover and the Western Approaches.

Crosfield Electronics Limited & the Autotron

1949 advertisement for the Crosfield Autotron, the first automated electronic register control system

1949 advertisement for the Crosfield Autotron, the first automated electronic register control system

After the war, John Crosfield decided—after having learned from his experience at ASEA that some of the projects that he had worked on would never be funded—to start his own business. In 1947, he set up a lab in Hampstead and began working on new projects. He later recalled that in 1945, while he was in charge of electronics research for the Admiralty, he was approached by a printing industry representative about the problem of color registration on high speed rotogravure magazine presses. There was a need for an automated system to align all the process colors in the printed page to improve quality and reduce press waste.

With about £2,000 of his own money and another £2,500 borrowed from family members, Crosfield set out to design an electronic and automated registration system for color printing. After 18 months of hard work, the “Autotron” was tested as a prototype on the production of Women’s Weekly at Amalgamated Press in London. Prior to the Autotron, a magazine production run would often waste 25-30% of the impressions using manual controls. Crosfield’s automatic register system brought the waste figures down to 4-5%.

The Autotron consisted of a scanning heads mounted on each printing unit and a control cubicle that was located away from the press. The scanning heads picked up “register marks”—unobtrusive symbols on the printed page that were hidden from view—to regulate the movement of the printed image from unit to unit with an accuracy of one thousandth (1/1000) of an inch.

Word about the Autotron travelled quickly in the printing industry and Crosfield was soon taking prepaid orders from companies in Britain. An opportunity to show the system at the British Industries Fair in 1949 made Autotron an international phenomenon and orders were quickly being placed from printers in countries around the world.

Pressroom automation

The success of the Autotron encouraged John Crosfield to invest in further research in pressroom automation for gravure magazine printing and other presses such as offset newspaper and packaging print.

In Recollections of Crosfield Electronics, 1947 to 1975, John Crosfield wrote, “My philosophy was to concentrate our research on new electronic aids for the printing industry, in order to maximize the use of our electronic ‘know how’ on the one hand and our sales contacts in the printing industry on the other. Eventually we had the greatest range of electronic equipment for the printing industry of any company in the world.”

In the 1950s, Crosfield developed a suite of successful automation products for the industry:

  • Secatron: an optical system for packaging printers that kept images in the right position on the cardboard so they would look right on the finished carton.
  • Webatron: a system similar to Autotron for high speed presses that regulated the movement of paper through the press for delivery to folders and sheeters.
  • Trakatron: a system for regulating print on web-fed cellophane and wax paper presses.
  • Idotron: a system for measuring ink density on a web press to keep color reproduction consistent during press runs.
  • Viscomex: an ink viscosity control system that added solvents to the ink automatically as needed as a result of evaporation.
  • Flying Paster: an automatic splicing mechanism that enabled production to go from one roll of paper to the other without slowing down or stopping the press.
Crosfield Idotron measured and adjusted ink density inline on a high speed rotogravure press

Crosfield Idotron measured and adjusted ink density inline on a high speed rotogravure press

Many of these systems relied upon photo-electric cells to detect movement of paper or printed images on the paper. Crosfield’s expertise in the area of optical sensors lead him to several other important breakthroughs in the composition and preparatory stages of print production. These developments took place in an environment of intense global competition with companies in Europe, the US and Middle East.

Phototypesetting and color scanning

The Crosfield Lumitype 450 was the first phototypesetting system designed and built in Europe. It was licensed to Crosfield by the US based Photon.

The Crosfield Lumitype 450 was the first phototypesetting system designed and built in Europe. It was licensed to Crosfield by the US based Photon.

By the 1960s, the printing industry had been moving rapidly into offset lithography. A major factor in this regard was the displacement of hot metal typesetting with cold type, i.e. phototypesetting systems. While Crosfield was not the inventor of the first phototypesetter, his company was a designer and builder of the Lumitype 540 under patents from the original inventors at Photon in the US. This relationship would continue through the development of the high speed Photon 713 in 1965, which was the first computer controlled phototypesetting system.

Among the greatest successes of Crosfield Electronics, Ltd. was its color scanning systems. The Crosfield Scanatron—which was developed in 1958—was the first scanning technology that could make color corrections and eliminate the time-consuming work of retouchers.

The Crosfield Magnascan was the first color scanning device that could retouch color electronically.

The Crosfield Magnascan was the first color scanning device that could retouch color electronically.

Crosfield continued with advancements in color scanning throughout the 1960s. The Magnascan was introduced in 1969 and it was capable of scanning a color transparency. It also had the software capability to adjust the size, form, color and hue such that the printed image was of the finest quality anywhere.

While the Magnascan was an international success, it was developed at the same time as Rudolf Hell’s Chromograph. Recognizing that a battle over who invented and patented the drum scanner first, the two men signed an agreement giving cross licenses for a modest royalty. Crosfield and Hell remained good friends from that point forward.

Impact of desktop computing

John Crosfield receiving the gold medal of the Institute of Printing in 1973

John Crosfield receiving the gold medal of the Institute of Printing in 1973

In addition to accomplishments in the graphic arts, Crosfield Electronics Limited (CEL). also developed computerized business systems and—leveraging the expertise in optical devices—invented a very successful automated bank note sorting and processing technology.

While the company was very successful in the printing market, an attempt to take CEL public in 1974 was made during a collapse of the stock exchange and Crosfield ended up selling his business to De La Rue. The color scanning segment of his business—the most profitable aspect of CEL—was sold by De La Rue in 1989 to a joint venture of Fuji and DuPont called Fujifilm Electronics Imaging.

With the introduction of the desktop PC—and especially the desktop publishing system associated with the Apple Macintosh computer in 1985 and shortly thereafter desktop flatbed scanners—Crosfield’s era graphic arts electronics had come to a close.

John Crosfield received many accolades for his contributions to the printing industry over nearly five decades, including four United Kingdom Queen’s Awards and the gold medal of the Institute of Printing in 1973. He remained a board member of De La Rue until 1985 and thereafter was Honorary President of CEL. A very modest, personable and generous man, John Crosfield died on March 25, 2012 at his home in Hampstead at age 96.

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One Response to “John Crosfield (1915 – 2012): Printing press automation”

  1. As an employee from 78-2001′ I got to see a lot. Met JFC several times and traveled with Dennis Bent. Russell Holder and others had a profoundly positive impact on my life. I shal hold these people dear as long as I live.

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