When papers took quantum leap into the computer age

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Computers and digital technology have transformed the way newspapers are printed. It’s all a far cry from 260 years ago, as Grace Hammond reports.

FOR centuries, a newspaper was produced in a world of paper, wax, ink and hot metal.

But something revolutionary evolved in garages and laboratories in America’s Silicon Valley that would change the way they were printed. This was, of course, the personal computer, which made its way to the Yorkshire Post a quarter of a century ago.

The rate of change is now so swift that the technology used to print The Yorkshire Post today wasn’t even familiar little over a decade ago.

Back in the mid-17th Century, though, there was another transformation taking place. The hand-written word was a closed book to all but a tiny elite. Printing changed the picture, if slowly at first. When the Leeds Intelligencer started in 1754 they used a wooden hand press which could make maybe 100 impressions an hour. Their methods had not changed 
much since William Caxton, 400 years earlier.

The Chinese were the first printers, obtaining an impression on paper from carved characters by hand-rubbing. To take it further to typographical printing, an alphabet was required with a limited number of characters. This is where Johann Gutenberg of Mainz came in some time before 1440.

He invented relief letters on metal stems that compositors could hold between finger and thumb, selecting them to make a word and then a line. They were of the same height so they could be locked into a frame (the chase) that it turn would make a rigid printing surface (a forme).

Gutenberg’s processes were not greatly altered when Griffith Wright started the Leeds Intelligencer. Two pressmen would labour over the wooden press. Daubers – the “dab hands” – inked the type with pads of supple goatskins attached to handles. The ink was probably made from soot, ground into a linseed oil varnish.

They had no convenient reels of newsprint. Paper was hand-made in single sheets from rag and this had been sized so as to give it a hard surface to take a quill pen.

This was not much good for the printer. He needed to soften the paper by dampening before putting it through the press in order for the type to make a sharp, decisive impact. Early prints of the interiors of newspaper houses seem to show them festooned with washing. It’s the printed sheets hanging up to dry.

Wooden presses could only exert a low pressure and this limited the use of dense black areas of print. If Griffith Wright had got any illustrations for his first Leeds Intelligencers, it would probably have been too risky to print them.

The last quarter of the 20th Century saw the inexorable rise of the computer. By the mid-1990s, the Apple Mac was in its adolescent stages of development, getting faster and more powerful.

In 1994, there was a huge sea-change with an application called QuarkXpress. It meant that more complex adverts could be created electronically. More importantly, it meant electronic pages – made on a screen and not on a paste board. That meant the end of waxing machines, adhesive chartpack lines and borders, rulers and scalpels. The end of an era.

The electronic page brought about the reality of a colour newspaper – something all the major publishers of the time had been developing since Eddie Shah’s ground-breaking Today newspaper hit the newstands in 1986.

Fundamental and irreversible change came in 1995 when the first fully electronic newspaper rolled off the press. Glass-fronted pasteboards were moved out into the corridors and waited like clapped-out old steam engines for disposal.

Waxing machines were tossed into bins, while other former linchpins of pre-press picture production were rolled out for recycling. A new era had begun.