small medium large xlarge

When Did That Happen?

The Printing Press and the Printer

by Dan Wohlbruck

Generic image illustrating the article
  Dan’s got printer’s ink in his blood. This April he tells the story of printing that began in April, 1863.  

The idea that would ultimately lead to the computer printer actually started with shingles. The kind you put on a roof, not the kind whose symptoms include a painful rash.

Bullock’s Rotary Press

Sometime in the mid-1830s, an enterprising young foundry man and machinist by the name of William Bullock invented a machine to cut shingles. It was a real labor-saving device. Overcome by the smells of success and money, Bullock moved to Savannah, Georgia, and started a shingle-cutting factory. He went broke.

Undaunted, Bullock kept inventing things. He made artificial limbs, seed planters, a grain drill. During the late 1850s, Bullock moved to Pittsburgh and entered the newspaper business. By 1861, he had designed and built a printing press for the Cincinnati Times. Then, on April 14, 1863, he was granted a patent for the continuous-roll printing press. This invention would change history, and have a role in recording it.

By 1865, the world’s first continuous-roll rotary printing press was in operation. The Bullock press, as it came to be known, could finish up to 10,000 pages per hour as it printed on both sides of the paper. Bullock’s press could cut the continuous roll of paper into individual sheets as if they were shingles, cutting either before or after printing. The Bullock press is said to have enabled the creation of mass-circulation newspaper publishing. Without it, neither Hearst nor Pulitzer would have had an audience.

Sadly, Bullock’s story has a tragic ending. In 1867, just two years after his first press went into operation, he fell into a press as it was being constructed. Dare I say it? He was a man consumed by his work.

I have a personal interest in the rotary press. When my father returned from World War II, he used his GI benefits to become a pressman. In 1950, he moved our family from Altoona, Pennsylvania, to Harrisburg, where he went to work for a specialty printing house. The MacFarland Printing Company occupied an entire city block in Harrisburg. I still remember the time that he took me to see the press room. Everything about it was big. Huge rolls of paper fit on one end of the press and somehow, magically, full-color catalogs came out the other end. I was entranced.

IBM’s High-Speed Computer Printer

It was at about the same time, the 1950s, that computer manufacturers realized that the mainframe computer was going to need a new output device that could print all manner of documents. As well as continuous form computer paper, what we always called green bar because of its alternating rows of light green and dark green, mainframe users wanted to print insurance policies, telephone bills, paychecks, and everything in between.

In 1959, IBM came up with the answer. The IBM archive describes the 1403 printer this way: “The IBM 1403 Printer is a completely new development providing maximum thru-put of forms and documents in printing data from punched cards and magnetic tape. The printer incorporates a swiftly moving horizontal chain (similar in appearance to a bicycle chain) of engraved type faces, operated by 132 electronically-timed hammers spaced along the printing line. The impact of a hammer presses the paper and ink ribbon against a type character, causing it to print. The chain principle achieves perfect alignment of the printed line.” IBM bragged that the 1403 printer was four times faster than any competitor. The IBM web site maintains that the 1403 “launched the era of high-speed and high volume printing, and was not surpassed for print quality until the advent of laser printing technology in the 1970s.”

Both Sides? No

For all of IBM’s claims that the IBM 1403 printer was an entirely new development, it was truly a descendant of Bullock’s invention, a mini rotary press. Although it couldn’t print on both sides of the paper at once, it was fed by boxes of continuous-form paper, perforated at each page boundary, and it produced high-quality printed documents. Like the rotary press, the 1403 gave birth to an array of companies to support it. Moore Business Forms designed and prepared the custom forms, like bills and paychecks, that were needed for the mainframe’s new applications. Unlike the Bullock press, the 1403 didn’t cut the paper, so a number of manufacturers built decollators to remove carbon paper and bursters to separate each sheet from its perforation.

In the wake of the invention of the 1403, the mainframe computer room resembled nothing so much as my dad’s press room—with tape drives thrown in for good measure.

Although IBM discontinued the 1403 in 1971, it remained the printer of choice throughout the decade.

But all good things must end, and the Xerox laser printer, with its cut sheets of paper and its ability to print its own forms, brought an end to the era of large continuous-form printers. From Bullock’s press to computer mainframe printing took about one hundred years. It all started in April 1863—and that’s when it happened.

Dan Wohlbruck has over 30 years of experience with computers, with over 25 years of business and project management experience in the life and health insurance industry. He has written articles for a variety of trade magazines and websites.

Send the author your feedback or discuss the article in the magazine forum.