NORTH ANDOVER, Mass.,AP -It took about 500 years for Johannes Gutenberg”s ideas about printing to become obsolete, but Gardner LePoer worried the artifacts of Gutenberg”s legacy would be gone far sooner.
To LePoer, a newspaper editor turned printer, the printing press wasn”t just a machine, but a driver of human history, empowering the masses by spreading the written word across cultures and classes.
In 1979, at the start of a computer age that finally replaced the traditional printing press, he and some friends incorporated The Museum of Printing to preserve the machines.
Today, the museum holds a wide collection of presses, and traces the development of a craft that LePoer also considers an art.
"Printing gives longevity to language," said LePoer, the museum”s executive director. "When you do that well, it”s art."
In 1440, Gutenberg invented replaceable wooden or metal letters used in printing, making the mass production of documents possible.
That "relief" printing, in which the documents are produced by pressing them onto a hard, raised surface, remained the standard until the mid-20th century, though with various refinements and updates.
One of them, the linotype machine, was named after its ability to set entire "lines of type" by keyboard, rather than by hand. The linotype made books commonplace and revolutionized the newspaper business by speeding up the process by which the news made it to print.
Before then, it took so long for printers to set stories by hand that some simply didn”t make it into the paper.
"A lot of stuff in the paper wasn”t news," LePoer said. "It was stories and poems that you could set ahead of time and pluck into the hole."
The museum boasts an 1885 prototype of the first linotype machine, invented by Ottmar Mergenthaler. It also has an original plate from Page One of The New York Times the day after the moon landings, which reads (backwards): "MEN WALK ON MOON; Astronauts Land on Plain, Collect Rocks, Plant Flag."
Other machines demonstrate "intaglio" printing, in which an engraved copper plate is pressed by manually turning large wheels, for extra pressure, to produce a document which captures fine lines better than other printers.
A lithograph machine uses a flat stone and crayon which absorbs ink but sheds waters. Artists used the crayon on the stone to draw pictures, which could then be reproduced. In an advance that greatly speeded up lithography, called offset lithography, ink from a lithographic plate is pressed to a curved rubber surface, which can be rolled for quick production.
LePoer said the history of printing is the history of the spread of information. If one understands that past, the importance for society of staying on the vanguard of modern digital technology is clear, he said.
Catherine Tuttle, a teacher from Concord, N.H., visited the museum to learn more about printing and the use of text in art, but she said the link between the machines and cultural advance became plain.
"The machines preceded the literacy," she said. "The technology here shows you the progress of humankind."
Her husband, Peter Tuttle, added, "It gives you a sense of the chronology of where we all began and where we are."