Because it started off on stones, Senefelder’s new method of printing which he called Steindrückerei (stone printing) garnered the highfalutin Greek name lithography, stone writing. But on its way to commercialization Steindrückerei had to abandon its relationship with stones, and move over to a metal plate.

Although, according to Wikipedia, Senefelder had mentioned zinc as an alternative to limestones in his 1801 British patent application, the first real step on this road was taken in 1860 when Colonel Henry James printed Ordnance Survey maps by transferring his images onto zinc plates. He called this process photzincography, a name which unsurprisingly didn’t stick.

That the world didn’t rush to copy Col. James should not be put down to stubborn ignorance. We have always to bear in mind the inherent conservatism of the print industry. Not that printers were inveterate Tories, probably quite the opposite in many cases — but conservative in business terms. If you have a lot of capital tied up in equipment, you cannot just chuck it all away and follow the latest trend. You have to use the presses you have until the investment has been amortized, and of course until you’ve generated sufficient surplus to invest in new equipment. Letterpress was well established. It was efficient. There was no pressing need to consider any change. Lithography was great for pictures, but that edge wasn’t enough to necessitate a switch. Compromise was available by printing your images separately and binding or tipping them into your letterpress text. This is the origin of the otherwise completely unnecessary habit of publishers to have photo inserts in many of their books: it looks like we care. But for a long time there just wasn’t sufficient incentive to switch your operation over to lithography, and before that switch could became a real option a couple of other developments were necessary.

Photography was the first: invented independently in 1839 by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre and William Henry Fox Talbot, both systems depended on light-sensitive chemical compounds but differed from there on. Daguerre relied on a single-use positive image created on a silvered copper plate, whereas Talbot produced paper negatives, which could be reused several times. Daguerre’s prints were crisp and detailed, Talbot’s grainier, more impressionistic. Talbot published the first book to be photographically illustrated: The Pencil of Nature‘s illustrations were all original photographic prints on silvered paper, each tipped in to the book. Unfortunately, as well as being uneconomically time-consuming to print and tip in, the photographs had an alarming tendency to fade. This was clearly not going to be the way forward.

In 1852 Talbot patented the “photographic veil” — the original halftone dot system — and was able to use it with his negatives to create an etched plate which could be printed like a copperplate engraving. Improvements, including working from positive not negative originals, resulted by the end of the century in relief halftones becoming the way of reproducing photographs in regular (letterpress) printing.

Offsetting was the second necessary discovery. (In offset lithography the inked plate never comes into direct contact with the paper. The image is transferred to an impression cylinder which then rotates to deposit it onto the paper.) In direct lithography, if the pressman accidentally failed to put a sheet in place on one pass through a rotary lithographic press the next sheet would be spoiled by having a reversed impression on the back too. The ink for the missing sheet had been transferred from the litho stone to the rubber blanket on the roller which was there to press the paper against the stone, and  this ink was, on the next pass, being transferred (offset) onto the back of the next sheet. In 1904 Ira Rubel, a New Jersey printer, noticed that the secondary impression was actually better, crisper than the main one, and encouraged others to act on that discovery. Eventually it was found that not only was the rubber blanket giving a superior image, it was kinder to the metal plates which eventually took the place of stones in commercial lithography, and resulted in longer runs becoming possible.

But it wasn’t till the 1960s in America and a decade or so later in Britain, that offset lithography finally took over from letterpress as the main way to print books. When I left Britain in the mid 1970s we were still printing about ¾ of our books by letterpress (but we were a fairly traditional operation). In America at that time letterpress equipment was still fairly widely available, but was probably used for only about 10% of book work. Now we are witnessing offset lithography gradually beginning to be superseded by ink jet printing.

See also Lithographic origins