How the London Graphic Produced Their 14-color Engravings
Reprinted from an 1882 issue of The (London) Graphic
Gentle reader, before this number is laid on one side, let us try and convey to you the amount of trouble, and labor, and anxiety it has caused, and the number of busy hands it has occupied.
For this number, artists had placed in our hands their pictures and our task is to deliver to you for a shilling faithful copies of works that have cost many thousands of pounds to produce.
First, a picture is photographed on to box wood and engraved. This is called the key or black block. Then has to be produced each color plate in relief like the engraved block, only in metal. There is one plate for each color -- buff, yellow, pink, brown, blue, crimson, and so on, altogether fourteen color plates. There are no less than nine separate printings on, say, a child's face: two yellow tints, three flesh, two gray, besides a brown and blue. Each plate then has an impression taken by a hand press, one on top of the other.
The result, when finished, is appalling, and it would be dangerous to show even the most good-tempered and genial artist the proof; this color must be altered, that plate thrown away, and another redone, this color softened, that strengthened. At last another proof is reprinted with a better result. The fourteen plates are now ready for electrotyping.
The process of electrotyping may be briefly described as follows: The wood block or color plate is placed in a bed of wax, which has been melted, and allowed to cool until it has arrived at the proper consistency. It is then submitted to a great pressure in a press of hydraulic or other construction. In this way a facsimile of the original is produced but with every detail reversed. This was impression is then covered with a thin coating of black lead, such being a good conductor of electricity, and is hung by means of a brass rod in a large bath filled with a solution of sulfate of copper, sulfuric acid, &c. Side by side with this bath is a powerful battery of Smee's construction, that is to say zinc, and platinized silver in dilute sulfuric acid. The current generated by this battery is put into connection with the wax mold hung in the bath, and also with a sheet of copper also hung side by side with the mold. The effect of the electricity is in the first place to decompose the copper and in the second place to attract the particles of copper to the mold. In a short time a thin coating of copper has formed along the mold, of which it is again the reverse, and consequently the exact facsimile of the original block. The shell, as it is called, is then filled up at the back with metal in order to make the surface perfectly hard and suitable for printing. After being made smooth and uniform in thickness by means of lathes and planing machines, it is mounted upon wood and is ready for the machine.
A machine now starts on its task of printing over a half-a-million impressions. One printer has charge of the machine and is responsible for the excellence of the work. He has under his command two youths who lay on and one who takes off. The layer's-on have to adjust each sheet by pin-holes on to little pins to get the exact register. Here let the reader dismiss any preconceived notions rattling off thousands per hour as is ordinarily done with printing from type. Engravings, whether in black or color, must have fair time to get a good, clean impression and the machine has yet been made that can print well at a speed above eight or nine hundred an hour. The printer has to watch each sheet with the eye of an artist, see that it is printed with the proper strength, and throw out any faulty impressions.
At length the impression is taken to another machine, exactly the same routine goes on as for the first color, again to the third, an so on to the fourteenth.
In the meantime, authors and compositors have not been idle. Other machines are now in readiness to receive the sheets of colored pictures which require printing at the back. This printing can be done at a quicker speed and the sheets are then taken to a folding room.
The folding machine is a dear, winning, fascinating instrument. Though small, it has an enormous appetite and it is fed on one side by a man with an open sheet of the number, another side by another sheet, and, as if this were not enough, a third man artfully contrives to introduce the cover or wrapper. Nothing daunted, the machine snatches all three, folds them into four or two as wanted, puts each of them into their proper place in the cover, and delivers them as fast as your pulse beats.
The number having been printed, packed into quires, and handed over to the publisher, his troubles now begin. He has over half-a-million copies, representing a total cost of about twenty-one thousand pounds, and he does not quite know whether public favor will leave him with forty or fifty thousand on his hands, or whether the demand will so largely exceed his supply that he will lay himself open to numbers of actions at law and claims for damages (as happened on a former occasion) from exasperated newsagents who have taken orders which, through no fault of theirs, they cannot supply.
On the morning of the publication -- the whole trade having previously paid for the quantities they require -- the publishing office is besieged by eager messengers from wholesale houses, and by the retail dealer, anxious for the stroke of the clock announcing the opening of the "list." The roadway and adjacent streets are closely packed with vehicles of every description, from the two-horse van to the common costermonger's barrow. The services of the police are need to regulate the traffic without and to keep in check the more turbulent spirits within. The "list" having been opened, each house is taken in its alphabetical order and their collectors served, whether it be the modest single quire or four thousand quires. Hastening with their burdens at full speed to their respective offices, all is hurry and bustle to catch the first train with the parcels which they in turn distribute to their country customers and they again to the public with everyone's anxiety being to the first. As our American cousins display the same impatience, arrangements are now made by which The Graphic is published at the same hour in both England and in every American state and most of the colonies.
A few plain figures may be considered interesting. Counting artists, authors, papermakers, printers, &c., we calculate the The Graphic employs about a thousand people; that the annual outlay is over one hundred and twenty thousand pounds; the weight of paper used a thousand tons; and, if you were to lay it down, in sheets, and walk on it, at the rate of three miles and hour, and start on Christmas day, you would come to the end of your Graphic walk on the 22nd of November -- that is, if you were to walk twelve hours a day. Or, to put the matter another way, the sheets of paper used by The Graphic in one year, if laid side by side, would reach just half way around the world.
The Graphic, at its beginning, rented one house and began to print with six machines. Now there are three large buildings containing twenty printing machines invented by our master printer (besides ten machines constantly employed by us outside), illuminated with the electric light by the Metropolitan Brush Company's lamps worked by means of a dynamo-machine on their premises. There are also telephonic communication with four departments, another building devoted to electrotyping and stereotyping, and one now in course of erection to contain the new dynamo-electric machine, and two more printing machines driven by gas engines.