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That’s my stat camera!

As I’ve mentioned before, I started my career in commercial art a handful of years before computers began making in-roads into graphics. That means I had to learn to do everything one way, and watch as, bit by bit, computers swept away most of the jobs I had just learned to do.

It was awesome.

If the bomb ever strikes, we will never go back to doing things the old way again. Pre-digital printing technology was as complex and far more time-consuming and expensive as anything you can do with a computer. It was all photographic materials and layers and fiddly alignment tools and calculation charts and masking. In a lot of ways, it was fun — sort of a cross between flower arranging and carpentry — but it was a whooooole lot of work.

Anyhow, someone on an art forum posted a link to the Museum of Forgotten Art Supplies. If you’ve ever taken so much as a mechanical drawing class in High School, you will recognize and (I hope) enjoy paddling around in this collection. The sheer amount of junk we need to do our jobs was staggering.

So many old friends <sniff>


Comment from Christopher Taylor
Time: February 29, 2012, 12:02 am

I had a girlfriend who was learning layouts and printing and I watched her run through a few different pieces on a huge machine similar to that. Masking, layers, different color shots, it was incredibly complex and skill-related and way more work than it was worth. Now I can do it with GIMP in about 3 minutes for free.

Comment from Lipstick
Time: February 29, 2012, 12:19 am

Oh my, I remember stats and sending out for print and art directors who could draw. Holy Flashback, thanks Stoaty!

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: February 29, 2012, 12:26 am

Remember the smell of the stat chemistry? It was like rotten onions after a week or so. We took turns doing stat chemistry duty (it stank less if you drained it back into sealable containers at night).

If you pissed the boss off, the joke always went, he’d give you a big stat job to do.

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: February 29, 2012, 12:28 am

Oh, and there was one white-on-clear transparency method we used. To “develop” the film, you dipped the material in a bath of some crystalline chemical that, as a by-product, released pure oxygen. w00t! Hangover cure!

Comment from Uncle Badger
Time: February 29, 2012, 12:28 am

Ugh! Reminds me of the slide rule I begged my parents to buy me.

Never did learn to drive that thing – couldn’t get it out of first gear.

Not much call for maths when all you do is dig worms 😉

Comment from Uncle Badger
Time: February 29, 2012, 12:33 am

Oh! And there was a team that did blueprints in an office near mine. The place stank of ‘ozone’ as they called it (isn’t ozone scent free?).

It stank of ammonia to me… they used to swear they never had colds.

Probably died at 27, though.

Comment from Feynmangroupie
Time: February 29, 2012, 12:50 am

I knew a guy back in the 90s who was in the screen printing business, and was (lucky for him) a total computer geek and taught himself photoshop skills and programming for the types of apps that did digital manipulation. He had no problem seamlessly transitioning his old skill set into the digital age, and flourished. I remember him describing these huge printing machines, and how they had cutting edge technology that used CMYK instead of plain old RGB. I was all agog at how arcane and intricate it was.

Comment from Joan of Argghh!
Time: February 29, 2012, 12:50 am

Yes, I used to run a printing press with the state-of-the-art Itek (?) camera/platemaker. Masking and flashing and half-tones were more of an art you had to feel your way around in when the customer was standing right there waiting for their “instant printing” job.

Pantone dreams, kids.

Comment from Oldcat
Time: February 29, 2012, 1:20 am

No, Uncle Badger, Ozone is not scent free…it is the ‘smell’ of electricity after a discharge.

Also poison.

Comment from JeffS
Time: February 29, 2012, 1:29 am

As an engineering student, back in the days when Reverse Polish Notation was “cutting edge”, I pretty much did it like you, Stoatie. I didn’t have to switch from slide rule to calculator, as I just missed that switch. But the computer transition is something that everyone has seen. I’ll just note that I started out with the original IBM punch cards, and one time could recite the Hollerith code.

However, I did buy a slipstick (the college bookstore sold ’em for $5 during my senior, in 1979), and I bought one for giggles. I learned how to use it well enough that it was my exclusive computing device during my stint at Fort Belvoir, learning how to be an Army Engineer (and I didn’t use it all that often; even back then, military engineering was pretty basic). The other lieutenants thought I was nuts, and they had a point. Other technological changes that I went through:

Photogrammetry went from drawing contours using hand cut mosaics on a stereoscopic table while wearing stereo glasses (similar to what people wear to watch a 3D movie) to digital elevation models derived from LIDAR scans and intensive digital processing. Hell, even assembling a mosaic from aerial photos is much simpler. But not cheaper — we just switched from artists to high speed digital data collection processing.

Still, it was fun to whip out the old stereoscope, tape a couple of successive aerial photos to the table, and then proceed to show the latest generation of engineers the ways things used to happen. Alas, we disposed of the desktop stereoscope years ago. I managed to retain a pocket stereoscope for future needs, though.

Computer assisted drawing. A lot of the stuff at your link, Stoatie, I used back when. Hell, I still have my drafting kit from college, a briefcase sized doohickey that sets up as a small drafting table. I’ve used it lately, when I had to make a template for cutting a rectangle into plastic. Triangles, templates, french curves, pencils (including sandpaper on a board to fine tune the pencil lead), compass set, t-square, yup, got it all. I once used it at a ham radio project meeting, and the younglings (mid-teens) were astonished that I had it; they thought the templates were used strictly by pre-schoolers for drawing. Professional drafting? “What’s that, Mr. S?” Jeez.

Reproductions. UB, yup, that was ammonia you smelled from the blueprints. Ozone was generally a by-product, so it was there, but on some set ups, ammonia was used in the reproduction, and it was known to leak out. Nasty stuff. That shifted to using Mylar originals exposed against photosensitive paper, and finally to the mother of all inject printers.

While not engineering, I did work with offset printing on the school paper, in the original cut&paste mode, on light tables.

Hmmmmm….I hope this isn’t too long. I find this post to be quite nostalgic. Thanks for the reminder of the way things once were.

POST EDIT: I see I forgot to enter my name and e-mail. So let the records show that this “Anonymous” is the infrequent commenter, but constant reader, “JeffS”

Comment from GregO
Time: February 29, 2012, 2:20 am

Yeah, memory lane time. I started life as a “draftsman”, yes that’s what we were called…how funny. Still have a faint trace of that funny bump you develop on the middle finger of your drawing hand.

Computers really did change ev-er-y-thing. I also did some music copying (all in ink) in the old days and that is also now done exclusively on computers(as far as I know – I certainly do not copy music in ink now days. Ever.).

I still like to draw by hand though, and like working in ink and have a nice set of Rapidograph pens.

Uncle Badger – yes I remember the blueline and brownline machines and that gawdawful smell of ammonia.

Comment from Pavel
Time: February 29, 2012, 3:16 am

Great memories. I never got into any of this in any great way. I loved the drafting section of my shop class in junior high school, though. There was always something peculiarly satisfying about straightedges and compasses and pencils and erasers. Thank goodness for computers, but I miss the graphite stains on the edge of my writing hand.

Comment from Oh Hell
Time: February 29, 2012, 3:57 am

I have worked in a print shop for 20+ years and the technology has TOTALLY changed!! We didn’t even have a computer for bookkeeping when I started and now the whole shop is infested with them…..

Comment from Oceania
Time: February 29, 2012, 6:07 am

Ahhhhh Memories


Comment from Uncle Badger
Time: February 29, 2012, 1:25 pm

You’re right, Oldcat – and I should have remembered because they used to sell ‘ozone machines’ to counter the smell of cigarettes.

I had one. It stank.

Comment from nightfly
Time: February 29, 2012, 3:02 pm

My parents owned a screen printing shop in the early-mid 80’s, when we still lived on Long Island. My father did the artwork, and I can still remember what he went through to transfer from the page to acetate to emulsion-coated screen. The lettering alone was so laborious: pages and pages of various fonts on a transfer sheet, to be painstakingly lined up and then scratched into place.

Sadly, he passed on many years ago… I think he’d be astounded by the changes and the technology available – and for relatively cheap, too.

Comment from spambot if you please
Time: February 29, 2012, 3:09 pm

I have been recently perusing your blog and although I try to refrain from commentatory activities it has been brought to my attention that it lacks archaic graphic techniques and implements.
Why you no smear pictogrammes of wooley mastodons and shortfaced bears on Hadrian’s Wall? Even pre-Norman druids could do that. What have you against obsolescence? It is Blightey national sport. There are still Britishers who ferventley believe that this newfangled fad of knapped flint will not take and is just a toy that becomes Daniards and marauding longships of Norsk.

If the bomb ever falls you will forage for algae lumps and a crawfish will become a tribute to gods of daylight.

I remain most disinfectedly yores,

Comment from spambot if you please
Time: February 29, 2012, 3:29 pm

I have been recently perusing your blog and although I try to refrain from commentatory activities it has been brought to my attention that it lacks archaic graphic techniques and implements.
Will you send me all of your social media logins and passwords? I like big butts and I cannot lie.

Comment from mostly cajun
Time: February 29, 2012, 3:38 pm

Oh, little one, as you traipse among the paths trodden by dinosaurs, that little set of footprints that shows up from time to time is mine.

I learned drafting with a pencil, did paste-ups for page layout, used a LeRoy letterer, have run a real blueprint duplicator with originals on varnished linen, ‘cut’ mimeograph stencils on an Underwood 5 typewriter and run off copies on an AB Dick mimeograph and had my OWN AB Dick office model offset press, so I’m fluent in offset inks and rubber mats and…

And there’s not a microchip in any of that.


Comment from Redd
Time: February 29, 2012, 4:05 pm

My only experience was with mimeograph machines and that was enough. They did smell good, though…

Comment from A Question for Uncle Badger
Time: February 29, 2012, 5:42 pm

Have you ever felt pangs of envy upon watching star nosed moles?


The SNM operates within the same design envelope as genus Meles, but has prehensile nostrils, swims and is capable of paralyzing the nightcrawlers for later consumption. This shows an ability to plan and premeditate. There are no immediate records of SNMs building tools and having written language. Yet it is a tremendously developed concept, perhaps best evidenced by the dozens of college room walls where impressionable and hormonally curious teenage weasels have plastered the posters of Star Nosed Moles all over the danged creation.

Bonus question. Have you any plans to grow squash and shallots out of the bowler hat once owned by batty Uncle Balfour?

Comment from mojo
Time: February 29, 2012, 10:41 pm

Used to run an old blueprint machine, used straight ammonia as a working fluid.

Smelly? Oh, hell yes.

Comment from Christopher Taylor
Time: March 1, 2012, 1:27 am

I do miss the smell of freshly mimeographed pages at school back in the early 70s.

Comment from Ric Locke
Time: March 1, 2012, 2:46 pm

JeffS, do we know one another out in what might amusingly be called “the real world”?

I started in photogrammetry in ’74, right after I got out of the Navy. Kelsh plotters, Wild B8s and A8s (with orthophoto capability), and the Zeiss Jena Topocart. There was some fine Italian machinery in there, as well. 4×8 FOOT copy cameras and Dektol-based developers, scribecoat, pencil manuscript as a final product… Later on I got mostly into computers, then cameras: RMK, RC-8 through 20, the LMKs from East Germany. Fun times.

The field was (and is) small enough that most people in it had at least some knowledge of the others. Where (what part of the country) did you spend most of your career?


Comment from David Gillies
Time: March 1, 2012, 5:25 pm

Last time I saw smelly old diazo blueprints in a production environment was about 1992. Virtually all drawing and process engineering was done via CAD/CAM at this point. Physical blueprints were still very handy for the guys in the machine shop to visually check the stuff that was coming out of the CNC machine. These days they probably have an iPad or somesuch.

Comment from Sigivald
Time: March 1, 2012, 10:42 pm

I got a graphic design degree late enough that we did plenty of computer design, but early enough that they still made us learn to do paste-ups and take a semester actually making photo plates and running a printing press.

(And mechanical folders for paper output! Which is perhaps the most useful thing, in that it makes one respect the process of turning an A4 sheet of paper into a trifold.)

Mostly useless, most of that, but it does give one perspective.

Comment from Erik
Time: April 25, 2012, 1:48 pm

Rubylith, loading the waxer, stench of bestine, rubber mats to protect the art tables, and bloody cuts from mishandling an xacto knife. Chem coating plates for the flash burner, shooting negs, clonking the stat camera while it exposed in order to get a little bit of blur to take out a moire.

My first compugraphic typesetter had NO MONITOR SCREEN and whatever you typed (which was done completely blind, although you could stare at your hands while plunking the keys) was what you got after removing the paper tape and processing it. Typos were fixed with an xacto knife.

Cleaning Staedtler and Koh-i-noor tech pens, drawing endless straight lines for overhead projector charts, and digging through french curve rulers to get a radial beveled corner on a frame, all done with the tech pens and a shaky hand. Smeared ink, scraped away with an xacto knife. Mountains of sticky liner tape.

That was my first job in the industry in 1980, working for a defense contractor in Washington DC. Everyone wore suits except the art department. The guys (called “strippers”) who cut up the masks for burning negs wore long white lab jackets and took what they did very, very seriously. You had to have real problem-solving skills to make four-color separations manually.

In 1987 got a Macintosh SE and a copy of Adobe Illustrator 1.1 and it seemed like a staff of twenty had been stuffed into Apple’s plastic box.

More efficient and much more capable now, but of course I miss the old ways.

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