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Printing Press Operators, Then and Now

Updated on January 7, 2013
Old printing presses were operated by hand.
Old printing presses were operated by hand. | Source

Printed materials like newspapers, magazines and books are made in printing presses, but those machines don't run themselves. Like many modern machines, the printing press has gotten plenty more sophisticated than it used to be, but even with advances in automation, it still relies on hands-on operation by skilled, trained workers. Of course, the life of a press operator now is a lot different than it was when the technology was first invented—after all, that was way back in the 1400s!

After all, in the 1400s, people didn't even have technology like trains or electricity, let alone the kinds of sophisticated, computer-programmed presses that populate factory floors today. No matter how much more elaborate our printing presses are than they once were, though, we still need people to run them like they did in the old days.

The Good Old Days

Behind all the machinery, the first printing presses functioned kind of like big stamps. First, a customer would place his order, which included a detailed manuscript of what was to be printed on the page. Printing workers would then take tiny stamps carved in the shapes of letters and load them onto a tray—they would have to do this for the entire page, essentially building a large stamp letter-by-letter. As you can probably guess, this took some time! The end result, however, was a large stamp that had all of the information that would be printed on the page, and could eventually be taken back apart for the letters to be re-used.

The plate with the letters on it was loaded face-down into a machine, and paper was placed on a table beneath the plate. The plate would be coated in ink, and the operator would use a lever to press the inked plate against the paper. They repeated this process over and over, and were able to produce hundreds of pages every day. For this, press operators made a few dollars a week.

This technology evolved fairly quickly, and continues to do so today. Primitive presses became more sophisticated, were made out of heavy metals instead of wood, were upgraded to steam power and were able to churn out more and more paper in less and less time. After a few hundred years, we started to see really serious industrial machines like the sheet-fed printing presses and digital presses that are used today.

Modern Day Printing Presses

So old-timey printers with hand-cranked printing presses were able to make a few hundred pages a day, and while it was a vast improvement over hand-writing everything, it has nothing on what we're capable of today. Consider that major newspapers print millions of issues a week—that would take a lot of hand presses!

The press today is much faster, more powerful and more intricate, allowing people to quickly print beautiful, multi-colored pages faster than ever—and all from a single machine. It's all because of machines like offset printers, which are capable of handling a variety of tasks all at once.

An offset printer, for example, doesn't use stiff, hand-carved plates. Instead, it uses a flexible printed image that is stretched out over a rotating cylinder. As the cylinder rotates, it is dredged with ink and water, which it transfers to another spinning cylinder, which rolls across a sheet of paper and transfers the image to it. This process happens quickly and continuously, so the cylinders are always spinning, transferring ink and printing images. A single printing press may have several of these mechanisms, each one laying down a different color of ink onto the paper.

These presses break down even further based on what you need. For example, a sheet-fed press prints on massive sheets of paper, while web-fed presses are loaded with large rolls of paper. These aren't like rolls of paper towels—they can weigh as much as 900 lbs.! Different brands of printing presses cater to people that need different styles, and because the technology changes so quickly, used presses are immensely popular. Whether you're buying a used Heidelberg or a shiny new Mitsubishi, you can find something that suits whatever your printing.

These machines are generally operated at least partially with computers, but that doesn't mean you can do the job laying down. Press operators and technicians have to be trained for this hands-on job, which requires working in a fast-paced and loud environment. While this is the case for large-scale printing presses, smaller-scale applications are more accessible to the average person.

For example, digital presses are becoming more and more commonplace, particularly for short runs of printed materials. Digital presses work like a much fancier version of the inkjet printer you have at home—instead of using plates and rollers, the printer applies ink directly to the page. This allows you to do things like print a single photograph or poster, or to make changes to your materials on the fly without resetting the machine. As digital printing and computer technology continues to evolve, so does the entire industry—there's no telling how we'll be printing things in another few hundred years!

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