As if a floodgate opened, 112
years ago the offset process
was born. Perhaps that’s
not completely correct.
from a stone was an already mature industry
for metal decorating, maps and posters.
Metal decorating refers to an image
printed onto a sheet of steel. Variants of
this process also included the printing of
gelatinous transfer materials used as decals
for products that were not flat. Stone
printing was invented or discovered by
Alois Senefelder, a German, in 1796.
Crude as it was the possibilities of using
limestone as the “plate” excited a lot of
people. Doing the work, however, was
difficult and lithography remained a very
limited pastime until 1875.
|Alois Senefelder invented the stone printing in 1796
||One example from the large collection of lithographic
stones at the Howard Iron Works Museum
In 1904, Ira Rubel of Tenafly, New
Jersey, ran a small print shop and discovered
a missing sheet while his zinc press
was on impression. Zinc printing process
technology used a plate (zinc or possibly
aluminum) with an image that was transferred
directly onto paper. Rubel noticed
the “wrong reading” image transferred to
the subsequent sheet, was much sharper
than directly from his plate – Eureka! Why
had no one seen such an obvious thing
before? It’s said that about the same year
The Harris Brothers of Niles, Ohio, who
had already revolutionized the letterpress
world with a 15,000-per-hour machine
called the E1, came upon the same discovery.
Rubel then partnered with another
man, Ike Sherwood, forming what was
called the Sherbel Syndicate to make and
sell his press. One went to Chicago and
one to the J.C. Hall Co. in San Francisco
just after the 1906 earthquake. Price of
this press: $11,000. The others stayed in
the east and the syndicate only allowed a
few chosen printers the chance to own
one. The idea of controlling a new technology
proved to be a big mistake. This
particularly riled Charles Goes of Chicago’s
Goes Lithographing as he was locked
out by the syndicate and he so desperately
wanted in. Goes, which continues to
this day, was a major producer of stock
certificates and posters. All printed lithographically
and with a stone. Goes knew
the magic and possibilities of offset, how
it worked and the fantastic advantages to
The Sherbel Syndicate was already
falling apart two years later when Rubel
left for England. There he contracted
Bentley & Jackson Engineers to fabricate
his design. But death soon followed in
1906 as did the demise of The Sherbel
Syndicate. George Mann Engineers in
Leeds got a hold of some of Rubel’s print
samples that were left at De La Rue &
Sons which spawned the British entry into
offset in 1906. Restricted trade practices,
hidden deals and lots of deceit were the
unfortunate consequences of the earliest
days of offset. The Premier-Potter Printing
Press Co, later to be acquired by
Harris in 1927, made all but one of Rubel’s
machines and continued on their own
after the collapse of Sherbel and death of
Rubel. Kellogg was the other builder who
like Potter started with Rubel’s crude
||This offset lithographic press is probably the first press that Rubel sold. Shown at the Smithsonian Institute, Washington, DC.
Photo source/credit: Information Technology and Society Division, NMAH, Smithsonian Institute.
The real winner was the Harris Automatic
Press Co. Charles Goes was so
upset he caught the ear of Charles Harris.
Now it should be said that Alfred Harris
had come about the same epiphany much
earlier. In fact, in 1898 at the offices of the
Enterprise Printing Co. in Cleveland.
While installing an E1 press Alfred is said
to have heard foul language coming from
a pressman and directed at a girl who had
missed feeding a sheet. Wondering what
the commotion was about Alfred came
upon the same deduction as Rubel did
years later. But Harris never acted upon it.
Charlie Goes provided the fuel. He
knew exactly what he wanted: a rotary
press with three cylinders using a rubber
blanket and a zinc plate. Harris struggled
and tried to sell Goes a curved stone press,
by Charlie said no, it wasn’t going to work.
So Harris took a model S4 letterpress (22
x 30 inches) added a cylinder, modified it
and came up with their first offset press!
This press designated the S4-L was sold
in 1906 to Republic Bank Note in Pittsburgh
and now resides at the Smithsonian
Museum. Goes received the next presses
(possibly two) of the earliest design.
A string of presses followed and placed
Harris as the undisputed leader in offset.
Printers from far and wide started reading
about this amazing new technology that
used a zinc plate, rubber blanket and impression
cylinder. No type, no forms,
Things got tougher, on two fronts.
Firstly, the industry long known for conservative
thinking, rebuffed offset as trash
printing. Huge armies of letterpress suppliers
ganged up on the fledgling offset
makers to disprove the technology. Secondly,
the early days of lithographic
printing was horrible. Heavy zinc plates,
big investments in ancillary machinery
such as plate grainers, whirlers, cameras,
chemicals, and expensive pressroom
supplies were squeezing the most progressive
Even the Miehle Printing Press Company
(the leader in letterpress machines)
wanted no part of offset. It was not until
1922 that Miehle finally built one. Harris
became not only a trailblazing offset pioneer
but also provided substantial money
to advertise what offset could do.