Is Lead Dead?

David Lance Goines

November 9, 1993

Just like people, every technology has its birth, infancy, vibrant youth, maturity, decline, doddering old age and death. Some hold long leases, others, mayfly-like, come and go in the twinkling of an eye.

All skills are cousins, tracing their intermingling family trees back to not so long ago, really. Things got started slowly - people are amazingly conservative, welcoming the new not at all. But, technological progress affects people, willy-nilly. Technology feeds on itself, gradually speeding things up. People get caught up by the harrow-teeth of change and are dragged along, kicking and screaming.

The very cutting edge of technology creates new skilled trades. The new becomes the established, and begins its imperceptible decay. As the trade declines, gradually devoured by its own progeny, skilled labor gives way to craft. When craft has run its course, it is in its turn replaced by art. This is the end of the line. If they teach it in art school, it's dead.

History sows ideas like a farmer casting corn over a field. Some seeds fall on stony ground, some sprout but die for want of water, some are eaten by birds. Others survive and propagate after their own kind. As well as finding a friendly reception, ideas can occur out of their time, in the wrong place, in the wrong culture. Hero of Alexander invented the steam engine in 300 bc. Charles Babbage invented a digital computer in 1835. The institution of slavery scotched the first, and the want of electricity spoiled the second. I suppose that ideas can be eternally lost, too, but it's hard to prove a negative. Who knows what was in the great library at Alexandria?

Printing was invented in China, where it wasn't wanted particularly, and spread Westward via Marco Polo's tall tales and stimulus diffusion until the seeds found, at last, a fertile soil in Gutenberg's clever head.

Letterpress printing received its first serious intimation of mortality in 1796, when Aloys Senefelder invented lithography. At once, letterpress was no longer the only way to do it. That's when things start to change.

Convinced that printing had lapsed into hopeless decline, from 1855 through 1889 William Morris turned his dark Victorian eye to letterpress printing. Under his direction skilled labor became craft, the signal that the end was not far off. In letterpress printing's last hundred years it reached a zenith of perfection. The finest sailing ships were built after the nasty, grimy steamer was regularly plying the seas and frightening the fish. The most perfect mechanical watch postdates the plain, cheap, ultra-accurate electronic digital.

No serious threat at first, lithography patiently awaited its bride, photography. The union effected at the beginning of this century by the wedding of two reproduction techniques was still a clumsy medium, long scorned and good mostly for printing maps and beer cans.

After World War Two, offset really began to make inroads on the formerly exclusive dominions of letterpress. Although most printing by offset lithography, compared with even indifferent letterpress, was exceedingly bad, it was also exceedingly cheap. The last neighborhood letterpress job shop that I remember was run by a fearsome old woman with an eye patch, on Berkeley's far-famed Telegraph Avenue right next door to The Café Mediterranium, where Allen Ginsberg wrote Howl. She folded up her tents and stole off into the night sometime after the People's Park riots of the late 1960s, and that was the end of that. At about the same time, letterpress equipment was dumped onto the market at fire sale prices, some of it finding its way to Latin America and other places where things were just a little behind the times; and some of it finding its way into the hands of young printers who fell in love with cast iron machinery and the deep soulful kiss of metal type on paper. That's when it turned into Art here in the USA. By 1980 or so, used letterpress equipment was free for the asking—you haul it. What wasn't broken up by scrap merchants found a home in museums, art schools, garages and basements.

In 1983, Scientific American magazine switched from letterpress to digital typography and photo-offset lithography. Let's say that this signals the end of letterpress printing as a viable commercial medium. Not so bad, as technologies go. Letterpress printing was the queen of crafts, the megaphone for ideas and the agency of revolution for something in excess of half a millennium.

The chain was not quite broken. Enough of the old, skilled workers remained to teach the rudiments of the trade to the new crop of enthusiastic amateurs, and the tricks of the trade, so hard won over centuries, were not lost. Just as the last foundries closed their doors, some few anachronistic lunatics bought up Monotype and Ludlow machines and started casting type. It wasn't as good as industry standard of even twenty years before, but it sure was better than nothing.

Fine printing, typography, papermaking and book binding - in short, all the book arts - are now to be found in the realm of Art. Stop thinking of it as Printing, per se, and start thinking of it as Art, and you will have an easier time of it.

Artists and craftsmen preserve old knowledge against the day when it will again be wanted. Of what use is the preservation of five hundred and fifty years of human endeavor? I don't know, but I do know that you should never discard a tool merely because you don't need it right now. You just might need it again.