Today, tech enthusiasts rave about the Apple Watch, the latest smartphone, and the newest operating system.
Yet just a few decades ago, they sung the praises of linotype, teletype, and printers so small that, one company claimed, they would soon “find wide use in vehicles and aircraft.”
To us, enthusiasm over portable printers might seem strange, antiquated, or even humorous. But that enthusiasm is worth revisiting — if only to remember what we might lose if print disappears.
Take one question that animated mid-twentieth century writers: how to classify print. Ought it to take its place alongside the steel mills as a hallmark of modern industry? Or did it remain a carefully crafted art form?
On one hand, twentieth century writers were keenly aware that print was becoming increasingly automated. Indeed, they often greeted this development with optimism. Photos for a 1986 feature in the Post-Gazette showcased a shiny new linotype machine. The operator, the caption explained with no little wonderment (and perhaps a dash of sarcasm), “sits at the keyboard and makes, literally, a line of type.” Another article, this one from 1966, touted a machine that could print Braille 100 times faster than previous models.
Yet even as technology hurtled onward, print remained, by definition directed toward a physical product. Today, most designers spend their time in front of computer screens; algorithms and keyboards are the main tools of their trade. But before the digital world burst into existence, designers were far more intimate with the printing process. In a Post-Gazette photo from 1960, an employee from one of the city’s oldest print shops showed off designs from as early as 1840. In 1972, the Post-Gazette captured local advertiser Mac McGrew reclining in front of an entire wall plastered with different typefaces. The accompanying article marveled at how “the printed word can be made to appeal to various personalities just by changing the style of the lettering.”
“Despite the continuous introduction of modern equipment into printing plants,” one mid-century writer concluded, “printers still consider their work as a craft.”
By the mid-20th century, printing may have become as much of an industry as it was an art. In either case, it was also a growing profession. In 1913, Carnegie Tech (which would later become part of Carnegie Mellon) piloted what was then the country’s only degree in printing administration. It would soon graduate hundreds of students, including many from outside the country.
Above all, the printing industry was a sign that the city was “making it.” Ads from as late as the 1960s boasted of the region’s flourishing print industry and all the jobs it created. An article from 1964 touted plans for a cutting-edge printing facility, whose Oakland location would facilitate research partnerships (not unlike, perhaps, a more recent partnership between CMU and a certain ride-sharing startup). And as early as 1786, some enterprising printers, confident that then-tiny Pittsburgh was destined to become a major city, started the Pittsburgh Gazette: the first newspaper published west of the Alleghenies, and the forerunner to the Post-Gazette.
A lot has changed since 1786. Much of the technology in particular seems to have changed within the last 50 years. Today, a printer perched atop a living-room table is an unremarkable sight. Just a couple decades ago, it would have seemed near-miraculous. But between our smartphones, tablets, (and, yes, smartwatches), we have less need for printers than ever before.
What will happen to printing? It seems less and less likely to remain a booming industry. Perhaps, once again, it will become an art form. Maybe it will become an artifact of the past. Whatever the case, print will remain a crucial part of our history — at the Post-Gazette, in Pittsburgh, and throughout the country.