Growth of An Idea

By R.O. Vandercook from Printing Equipment Engineer, November 1938

I have been bumping along life’s highway for over three score and ten. (That’s not unusual experience because I have never known a human being who has not had a lot of bumps in the course of life.)

After graduation from school, I was ambitious to become a publisher. The printing plant in which I realized that ambition was poorly equipped. I had little or no money. I did not have money to employ competent mechanics. It was simply up to me to make that old junk machinery work. My press was an old-style Campbell drum cylinder. As the cylinder bounced on the form it would gutter the edges of the pages and leave the center of the pages white. To correct the error of this press took infinite care and patience. The process was something like this: It was necessary to hold the first sheet up to the light on the reverse side to see where the impression punched and where it didn’t strike; mark out the lightest spots with a heavy lead pencil; guess how much overlay was need; make the first hang sheet at the expense of an hour or two time; then make a test with this hang sheet because there was no way to tell how much impression was needed to bring up the whites—it was all trial and error method. After hanging three sheets, a reasonably smooth impression was obtained.

At this time I believe that the things I was compelled to do were very serious handicaps but I have now concluded that they were only very fine practice hurdles.

I struck me, why could not that cylinder be held down to the bearers so rigidly that it would not gutter the edges or pull away from the center of the pages? At that time there was not a cylinder press built that would hold down the impression. The early models of one of the most popular presses of today, all had that error. The error in press construction was discovered at a time when the head erector was away from the plant. His assistant was asked to test out the new presses. He made his tests and reported to the front office. He said that guttering could be overcome if the cylinder could be held down to the bearings. He said: “I want those draw rods built three or four times heavier.’ The suggestion was adopted. The man who put that big idea over is now a manufacturer of very successful printing equipment.

After hours of labor had been spent in correcting the errors of the press at that time, fairly smooth impression could be obtained. Then that made-ready sheet was sent to the proofreader who went careful over all the pages to detect imperfect letter. Now to lift out the defective types as marked out on the proof sheet, it was the pressman’s job to unlock his forms on the bed of the press. In a most awkward position under the feed board the defective letters were pulled out with bodkin and tweezers. New letter characters were inserted which the pressman hoped were accurate. The idea struck me very emphatically: Why not build a simple, accurate machine to test this type before it is set up in the form? If there were illustrations in the form it added a lot to the grief of the pressman. He would have to unlock his forms, pull out the defective cut, and guess as to how much underlay should be applied to the base. He had to decide whether the error could be corrected by underlay or overlay. That took rare judgment.

There is now a growing demand for reproduction proofs. The production of these has caused many a headache in composing and engraving rooms in the past. To be sure, these proofs could have been produced on a production press with the expenditure of hours of time for makeready. As the demand grew, it became necessary for advertising typographers to produce these proofs economically and in great quantity. Analyzing the proposition, it did not seem to me to be at all difficult to provide the right kind of press. If the press was accurate (and it was a simple matter to make it accurate) most of the time for makeready could be saved. if the cuts were defective, it was a very simple matter to find out before they were locked up in the form whether they would print right. And, it would be a great deal cheaper to send that defective cut back to the engraver to have him reblock it or tool out the errors than it would to have a pressman hold up the production press for hours at a time while the errors were corrected at terrific expense.

For a time, after the demand for reproduction proofs asserted itself, the problem of good proofs and the ever-present problem of printing element correction remained unsolved—both succumbed to the vicious circle of buck-passing, in the printing plant, but not for long. Working with imperfect tools, the mechanical executive passed on the blame for unsatisfactory results. It was so easy for a departmental executive to pass on the blame to the next fellow—he had not as yet become precision minded. He wasn’t aware at that time that the real savings in production costs could be made at the source.

Be it said to the credit of production and mechanical executives, however, that after they realized the futility of buck-passing they thought things out in the proper manner.

As a result of the installation of the proper equipment and changing his methods to suit, the composing room executive is only too glad to be rid of these petty annoyances, which are a source of production expense and interfere with otherwise profitable production operation. The photo-engraving executive, precision minded as he is, is only too glad to see the quality of his work brought up to its true value.

Paradoxical as it may seem, the mechanical executive has been a potent instrument in educating his boss on these precision matters. After many futile attempts trying to convince him of the value of precision proof presses, as a means of eliminating costly nonproduction expenses, he finally succeeded through trial and error methods of diplomacy in putting over the idea that perhaps after all lower production costs and better quality printing would be the net result.

As a consequence, the writer feels the comprehending use of proper production tools has advanced the printing industry just that much. The voice of the production and mechanical executive in the printing industry with respect to precision is a potent thing. Will you use that voice for the advancement not only of your station in life but for the good of the industry itself?