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.

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