In my wanderings I’m fortunate to come in contact with many practitioners of the dark arts. (No, this is not a reference to Harry Potter, but the worldwide confraternity of ink-stained printers.) Recently I was invited to tour the extraordinary department of Graphic Communications at the California Polytechnic State University, better known as Cal Poly, in San Luis Obispo, California. The students who take printing and design production classes under department chair Ken Macro and associate professor Brian Lawler (the fellow pictured in these fuzzy photos) are lucky indeed. The department boasts the most astonishing array of printing technology under one roof that I have seen.
They don’t just have the largest graphic arts library in the world, but one of almost every kind of old and new printing machine, from the heaviest cast iron to the shiniest high tech. Mr Lawler’s tour of the facilities included glimpses of sturdy 20th century machines for foil stamping and die-cutting, a machine for making perfect bindings, a mammoth Heidelberg Speedmaster four-color press than can pump out 15,000 impressions per hour, the world’s fanciest and most expensive exacto knife (AKA an ESKO computer-driven cutter that costs more than most of us make in a year). Then there are the photopolymer plate makers, the rotogravure machine that is apparently only economical for runs of a million or more, and the amazing eight-color Flexo printing machine that employs those polymer plates. Every student learns how to run and maintain all of these state-of-the-art monsters, some of which are loaned (rather cleverly) by the manufacturers. This means that from time to time, the very latest model replaces the one on the floor–and the graduates of this program, whether designing packaging or digital user interfaces, or learning to operate and manage complex printing processes, easily find great jobs.
Amazed as I was by all this modernity, my heart really belonged to the basement floor, where 19 working letterpresses are housed in the “Shakespeare Press Museum.” It’s not a museum so much as a working shop, with 500 fonts of type and everything from an 1850 Washington Hand Press to several Little Pilots and a behemoth newspaper press (the Campbell Country Cylinder Press) once used to print the Soledad weekly. There’s even a working Linotype machine, that remarkable invention of Ottmar Mergenthaler inspired by the Jacquard looms that prefigured the punch cards of early modern computing. (All together now: Farewell Etaion Shrdlu!) And naturally, as befits all printing establishments, there is a framed facsimile of a leaf from the first major book ever printed, our own personal favorite, the Gutenberg (Schoeffer-Fust) Bible!