Sunday, 14 March 2010

Anastatic blogging?

In the previous post, I briefly touched on anastatic printing (aka zincography), a form of facsimile printing invented in the 1840s. It involved moistening the printed original with nitric acid - which penetrated the paper but not the oil-based ink - and using it to etch a zinc printing plate. The plus side was that it produced an exact copy; the downside was that it destroyed the original (or at the least damaged it). This was fine if the original was created purely for the purpose of making the plate; not so good if it was a rare volume, especially as the process sometimes destroyed the original without producing a copy.

In the light of the controversy over the Google Books Agreement, it's interesting to look back and see analogous arguments about anastatic printing (arguments that have probably attended any new medium since cuneiform). The chief issue was that anastatic printing offered rapid and inexpensive print production compared to typesetting and hand-engraving of printing plates. In England, Michael Faraday showcased the technique in a lecture at the Royal Institution, showing that it took just twenty minutes to get from original to printing plate: Littell's Living Age enthused. Chambers' Journal, however, worried about the copyright implications in its commentary "New Graphic Wonders":

In contemplating the effect of these astonishing inventions, it is impossible to foresee their results upon the ordinary transactions of life. If any deed, negotiable security, or other legal instrument, can be so imitated that the writer of, and subscriber to it, cannot distinguish his own handwriting from that wliich is forged, new legislative enactments must be made, and new modes of representing money, and securing property by documentary record, must be resorted to. A paper currency and copyhold securities will be utterly useless, because they will no longer fulfil the objects, for which they, and instruments of a like nature, are employed. Again, the law of copyright as respects literary property will have to be thoroughly revised. Let us, for an instant, view the case in reference to ' The Times' newspaper. Suppose an early copy of that powerful journal to be some morning procured, and anastatyped in a quarter of an hour. The pirated pages may hereafter be subjected to printing machinery, and worked off at the rate of 4000 copies in each succeeding hour, and sold to the public, to the ruinous injury of the proprietors. The government newspaper stamp would be no protection, for of course that could be imitated as unerringly as the rest. This, too, is an extreme case against the imitators; for a newspaper would have to be done in a great hurry. Books, maps, prints, and music, could be pirated wholesale, and at leisure.

This proved a short-lived scare; anastatic printing simply didn't catch on. It did, however, have a brief flowering both as a copy process and for low-budget printing. See, for example, The Anastatic Facsimile of the Declaration of Independence ("A Case Study in Records Management in Early American Times") which tells the story of the anastatic copying - unthinkable nowadays - of an early copy of the Declaration. In Praise of Ephemera Fairs mentions the role of the process in creating ephemera. There were also the Anastatic Drawing Societies, which used the medium as a convenient way for amateur archaeology and antiquarian groups to publish and disseminate field notes and drawings (a kind of graphical Notes & Queries). The collections are of considerable historical value, and many of the journals are online, such as that of the Ilam Anastatic Drawing Society (see the Internet Archive) and the Anastatic Drawing Society (whose brief was

to delineate remains of Antiquity; e.g. ancient Ecclesiastical, Military, and Domestic Edifices, Sepulchral Monuments, Fonts, Brasses, Stained Glass, Tiles, Armour, Dress, Jewellery, Plate, Embroidery, Furniture, Carvings, Illuminations of ancient MSS., Copies of rare Prints, Portraits, Seals, Coins, Heraldry, &c. &c., illustrative of the early and middle ages.

A notable proponent of anastatic printing was Edgar Allan Poe, who also enthused about the process in Anastatic Printing, Broadway Journal, April 12, 1845, 1:229-231. A number of commentators have noted the passage ...

... authors will perceive the immense advantage of giving their own manuscripts directly to the public without the expensive interference of the type-setter, and the often ruinous intervention of the publisher. All that a man of letters need do, will be to pay some attention to legibility of MS., arrange his pages to suit himself, and stereotype them instantaneously, as arranged. He may intersperse them with his own drawings, or with anything to please his own fancy, in the certainty of being fairly brought before his readers, with all the freshness of his original conception about him.

... as prescient of blogging, although it's more prescient of self-publishing and samizdat, via technologies such as the mimeograph, hectograph and spirit duplicator. As John Ptak says at Ptak Science Books - Poe and the Internet, 1845 - "Poe’s technology was wrong, but his thought-prognosis was pretty spot-on".
- Ray


  1. I remember the days of mimeographs. They mostly used an insipid blue ink. All tests and handouts in school were done this way. And along came Xerox...

  2. Yes. When I was little, my mother (single parent) worked as a school secretary and used to take me into work sometimes. I used to call the spirit duplicator, onomatopoeically, "the crackaboomfy machine".

  3. I guess you could always say your mother was involved in spiritual work.