Scanning Around With Gene: The Printing Press as Art

As someone who’s owned and operated a couple of different printing presses in my time, I can attest to the fact that there is something about them that sucks you in and compels you. Any complex machine is a work of art in its own way, but a well-made printing press is a marvel of engineering and manufacturing. Most of the presses I’ve been around were American-made and nothing to sneeze at, but for the real printing experience you really have to operate a German-made machine. From Gutenberg on, the Germans have been masters at the art of printing and at designing and manufacturing printing equipment.

The best and biggest example of German printing technology comes from the Heidelberger Druckmaschinen company, better known as simply Heidelberg. With roots going back to 1850, Heidelberg is still going strong, though now the company is trying to be as much about digital technology as traditional forms of printing, which is sensible for the times but not quite as romantic in my book. Today’s images of printing presses and the men who operated them, come from a series of Heidelberg company newsletters dated from 1961 to 1972. These newsletters, which were printed in English, went to Heidelberg customers (and potential customers) and typically contained success stories of printers around the world, news of new Heidelberg technology, and tips for operating various machines. Click on any image for a larger version.

The first thing you notice is how proud the owners of new printing machines are – there are endless photos of printing companies taking delivery of their shiny new presses and showing off their facilities. Indeed, owning a certain style of press opens up new business opportunities, so every machine is a pretty big deal. My favorite of these photos is the first one, which shows three generations of the Altenkirch family of Germany posing in front of a new Heidelberg model. They are followed by happy owners in Australia, New Zealand, and another German printer.

In my own printing experience, which was limited and never of what I would call good quality, there was something about watching the paper move through the machine that was mesmerizing and that never failed to impress me. Once a press gets up and running at speed, things tend to move very fast and it’s a marvel that everything runs smoothly.

There are certainly examples of simple printing presses and printing processes, but the machines from Heidelberg tend to be of the industrial-strength variety and very complex (and mostly large). These presses were (and still are) serious business.

Posted on: January 25, 2013

Gene Gable

Gene Gable has spent a lifetime in publishing, editing and the graphic arts and is currently a technology consultant and writer. He has spoken at events around the world and has written extensively on graphic design, intellectual-property rights, and publishing production in books and for magazines such as Print, U&lc, ID, Macworld, Graphic Exchange, AGI, and The Seybold Report. Gene's interest in graphic design history and letterpress printing resulted in his popular columns "Heavy Metal Madness" and "Scanning Around with Gene" here on

5 Comments on Scanning Around With Gene: The Printing Press as Art

  1. In 1947, Pietro Beluschi designed a building for The Oregonian newspaper that featured large, street-level windows that offered pedestrians the chance to watch the huge presses churn out the daily rag. The paper did a permanent “stop the press!” decades ago with those machines. But even modernized, The Oregonian faces the same cyber competition of newspapers world-wide. I too loved the oversized, muscular machines.

  2. Before I knew what I really wanted to do, at a local technical school I started training to be a printer. I never graduated the course but during the three semesters I frequently ran the 1-color Heidelberg letterpress. Wow, what a machine it was. Most other machines were loud and had a vibration. The Heidelberg ran literally silent, and smooth with just a faint humming sound. Once it was set up, it required basically no further adjustments other than to keep an eye on the paper tray. Quite an unforgettable experience and one I will not forget.

  3. Thanks Gene, what a great article. I grew up around printing as my dad started his first shop in ’72. By the third shop in the late-90’s, Dad was the owner; mom, the accountant; myself, the graphic designer; and my husband, the press operator. Although all the shops have since been sold, my husband still runs a Heidelberg, I still design, and we still love to talk shop. :) Thanks for the memories!

  4. yes, whenever I observed modern printing methods and equipment I am as amazed as when I observe the launch of vehicles and probes into outer space. ~ delphyne woods

  5. It’s really amazing how far back the printing process goes. Seeing these old printing presses takes me back to when my father used to bring me into his shop. I can still remember the smell of the ink and the paper. It was memorizing watching these beast of machines run.

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