May 26

The renowned Theodore L. De Vinne was asked to state his views on the changing technology of the printing industry during the 19th century. In a broadly reasoned statement De Vinne expressed on this day in 1889 his attitude toward what critics were then calling the destructive forces which endangered the future of the industry. His words could well be appropriate today, when the threat of automation of typesetting by computer is upsetting to many traditional printers.

“Much of the present disquietude,” said De Vinne,”is unnecessary. That typesetting by machine may or will reduce the cost of work on reprints and cheap books and papers is probable. That it will ever drive any large body of good workmen out of business is absurd. The machines will surely make more work for workmen. So far from decreasing the standard of workmanship, they will elevate it. In this country there has never been any active hostility to new machinery in the printing business. There have been no moves or strikes against inventions, but workmen look on all new devices with suspicion and unfriendliness. They do not see that the invention which temporarily throws one man out of work, ultimately, makes work for two or more men.

“What would be the state of the trade if we had no stereotype or electrotype, no composition rollers, and no printing machines: the daily newspaper as we now have it would be an impossibility. An edition of two thousand or twenty-five hundred copies of a small sheet would be the highest performance of the hand press, and what severe work this paltry performance would impose on the wretched hand pressman who had to print this edition in a hurry! The illustrated magazine of large edition and low price, filled with fine wood cuts, could not exist at all in the days of hand presses. One could go on and show how hand presses would curtail the production not only of the popular but of the artistic forms of typography.

“Processes and machines that were once dreaded are now used by every printer, and they are welcomed as much by the journeyman as the master. No one will pretend that they have reduced the number of workmen. Where there was one printer fifty years ago, there are at least twenty printers now. As a rule, the average piece compositor is a better educated man than the average pressman. Under equal conditions he should and would earn higher wages, but his superior intelligence and education do not increase his production. This production is limited by the slowness of his hand, which is now as it was fifty years ago. If the compositor was employed on a type setting machine, he would get some of the benefits of the increased production.

“One reason why the modern pressman is better paid than the old pressman is because he is a better workman. The machine is more complex than the hand press, and it compels the pressman to exercise more forethought and intelligence. As a rule, the mechanics who bitterly decry machines are those who have been found incompetent to handle them. The men who refuse to learn the theory or the practice of new processes—who are content to do work as it was done when they were boys—who ‘don’t want to be bothered’ by the study of new problems in handicraft—who evade or shirk responsibilities—are the very men that employers do not want to employ upon their machines. That they may and probably will suffer for their persistent refusal to adapt themselves to changed conditions is much to be regretted; but are they blameless? Is it the fault of the master, or the machine, or the workman himself?”

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