In the bucolic hamlet of Baldwin, on the south shore of New York’s Long Island, William Gegenheimer set out for work expecting to come home tired and dirty after a day spent installing and repairing Harris Automatic offset presses. Between 1906 and 1918, William not only worked for Harris but also ran a press in a local Printshop. Gegenheimer was at the genesis of offset press development as Harris only started shipping their first offsets in 1906. But the physical side of printing wasn’t going to do much more than put food on the table. Gegenheimer wasn’t just going to be a “44-hour man”, no, he saw himself as an inventor, and as the First World War was coming to an end, the printing industry needed new ideas!
In 1918 William set out on his own, rented space in Brooklyn, and formed William Gegenheimer Offset Press Engineering, later changed to Baldwin-Gegenheimer Corporation, - adding his home-town name to the company masthead. William would enter a potentially lucrative business of designing offset press “enhancements”, and in 1927 a novel inker wash-up device was patented. Initially the press washer was slow to sell, but as word filtered down to pressrooms, and faster color changes percolated up to the president’s office, everybody wanted one. Early attempts at forging alliances with press manufacturers soon paid off and virtually all new U.S. presses were equipped with a Baldwin wash-up device. The blade holder was very heavy and held a phenolic scraper-blade, while the metal trough could be removed after each wash. As simple as we think such a device is today, back in 1927 a press-washer was a revolutionary godsend because it reduced the daily chore of removing every roller and cleaning by hand.
William had a young son who would eventually overshadow the old man. Harold Gegenheimer worked part-time in the Brooklyn shop helping out where he could and while still barely a teenager it became evident that he was destined to be a mechanical engineer. Off he went to Georgia Tech, where he graduated in 1933.
On Harold’s return to Depression ravaged New York City, he found his father engrossed in a colossal venture of designing and constructing a new offset press. The single color offset would take a sheet size of 22” x 34” and offer two types of infeed: Feed-roll or 3-point register (transfer grip from lay to impression). Two years later, in 1935, the new prototype press, labeled Willard, would be completed and a new company, The Willard Manufacturing Corporation, was formed in New York City. Harold had jumped right into working on the Willard after college and there was great hope that the press would catch favor considering it embodied radically modern styling and held several improvements not available on other presses. However, while previously the Gegenheimers had symbiotic relationships with the big press manufacturers, the Willard press now made them competitors and therefore outcasts. With the U.S.A. and most of the world still in the grips of the Great Depression, 1935 was also the worst time to be spending money, let alone offer something new to a print industry struggling to keep its doors open.
Attempting to be both designer and manufacturer proved too steep a hill to climb and as war approached things just got worse with materials rationed and skilled machinists at a premium. The prognosis for survival seemed bleak. And there is no record of anyone purchasing a Willard. But as luck would have it, as the war came to a close, a great many defense industries began to notice government purchases were dwindling and they started to look around for new opportunities in a more peaceful world. Electric Boat (today General Dynamics Electric Boat) had built 74 submarines for the US Navy during WW II but was now facing a major financial crisis keeping the massive shipbuilding complex in Groton Connecticut profitable.
In 1946 The Willard Manufacturing Corporation would be sold en-bloc to Electric Boat, who it seemed, were now in the printing press business. It should be noted that from 1935 to 1946 the Willard was the most modern-looking offset press and may have drawn in the Electric Boat engineers. The Willard name would be retained, now referred to as the E.B.CO - Willard (Electric Boat Company). Probably due to lack of business, Harold Gegenheimer had already left his father several years before the Willard sale; first working for ATF-Webendorfer, and then Rutherford Machinery. With über capital now behind the new press Harold Gegenheimer would return and be appointed Division-Manager of the Printing Press division at Electric Boat. The same year (1947) Electric Boat announced their first sale to Ardlee Service Inc. a direct mail and lithographic printer in New York City. Twelve years after the Willard was designed it finally found a buyer, and as it turned out plenty more EBCO’s would follow and well into the mid 1950’s.
Harold was indeed a gifted engineer, and it wasn’t long before, with Electric Boat’s encouragement, he designed a two-color press and of a larger size. A “mile-long” building, inside the Groton CT shipyards, was set aside for increased production of EBCO presses and it was full speed ahead! However only a few years went by when the new atomic threat from Soviet Russia fell over the west. Electric Boat, perhaps underwhelmed with small machine manufacturing and equally slim profits, felt there was nothing quite as reinvigorating as multi-million-dollar defense contracts. So they went looking for a buyer for their printing division. In 1952 at the apex of the paranoia-fed McCarthy hearings, EBCO found an ideal suitor.
The Miller Printing Machinery Co., well established in Pittsburgh PA, was primarily a cylinder letterpress builder, first incorporated in 1903 as the Miller Saw Company, and in 1926 well on their way becoming a major force in the single and two-color letterpress industry. Miller once manufactured gravure web presses and owned a specialist valve manufacturer Kerotest (still in business today). But Print’s future would be offset and the chance to purchase the EBCO press provided Miller with a ready-to-sell platform. In 1952 Miller was now in the offset business.
Harold Gegenheimer was still working on his two-color when a year prior (1951) he decided to return to Brooklyn and his father’s fledgling wash-up and now water-leveler and water-stops business. Somehow, and it’s difficult to verify, he had not only been designing a new offset press but a radical new mechanism to turn over or tumble a sheet of paper while it sped between two printing units.
The Miller Company and their now prized subcontractor, Harold Gegenheimer, soon spent a great deal of time together. With the assistance of EBCO’s engineer, Carl Siebke, Gegenheimer hand-drew a concept that was assumed impossible at the time: a convertible perfector. If anyone had even attempted to build such a device it certainly never made the printing news grapevine. In 1950 the only possibility of printing both sides of a sheet was upper and lower units with a common gripper in a blanket-to-blanket arrangement. This type of press was only a perfector and not nearly as versatile for penny-pinching printers. Just think, if one machine could print two colors one side in the morning, then one color on both sides in the afternoon, surely the cost of printing would fall and more importantly result in higher profit for a printer. Of course, Miller would also enjoy exclusive use of the technology for years, maybe decades! The Swiss army knife of the graphic arts industry.
Gegenheimer’s perfector broke just about every rule of printing press design. Two grippers fixed inside a cylinder, able to rotate in a 180-degree arc, while driven only by cams! Simply nuts not to mention impossible; as ridiculous as a man walking on the moon! The traditional practice had grippers and pads fixed and usually pined so there was no way a set of “dancing” gripper-bars could take a sheet from another gripper and receive the tail all the while spinning at 133 revolutions/minute: not possible!. It’s important to mention that a 1952 offset press already had plenty of adventurous register and chemistry problems keeping men attentive and frustrated or headed to a local bar for more laughs and giggles. Gegenheimer and Siebke’s hallucination had an uphill battle getting refined and completed, especially after failed tests, which were numerous.
The idea of radical change seemed so difficult to support, even today. Ten years ago when Koenig & Bauer developed a side-guide, built into their RA105 in-feed (SIS), many pundits argued a traditional side-guide relocated inside a moving drum couldn’t work. Well, Koenig & Bauer proved the naysayers wrong.
For the perfector to be completed there had to be an equally creative #2 cylinder (modern perfectors incorporate 2 cylinders) which would need to adjust for various sheet sizes, with vacuum suction holding the tail of the sheet. The vacuum would act as a mechanical gripper when transferring the tail to the #3 perfecting cylinder. But most importantly the entire job had to hold hair-line register. Ironically in the same year Miller took possession of the EBCO press a patent application bearing both Gegenheimer and Siebke’s names, was filed in the U.S. and I wonder whether Miller knew of either man’s work before purchasing EBCO’s printing press division? Four long years later, on August 7, 1956, the printing industry changed forever. A US patent was granted and assigned to Miller. Siebke would go to work for Miller and in the next decades continued his print-related inventions.
Harold Gegenheimer remained with the Baldwin-Gegenheimer Corp (now Baldwin Technology Company, Inc.) and led the business while inventing a host of new tools for sheetfed presses and the roaring web offset sector. I was fortunate to meet Gegenheimer in 1982, when we were both at Greystone Graphics Inc, a large Kansas City printer, witnessing a new “Delta Effect” dampener installation on a Planeta. Baldwin had purchased the rights to the slower-speed first ink form roller concept from a California printer and then licensed the technology to Epic International. I recall Harold as a soft-spoken warm man, who seemed to have time for everyone. His openness made me muse on the full extent of the man’s genius, not only as an inventor but as a corporate leader, considering throughout my career the name “Baldwin” was lionized. I regret not enquiring about his involvement with the “perfector”, regretting not to enquire how the idea came to him. Gegenheimer died in 2006 at the age of 95, having led Baldwin’s products into virtually every printing company around the globe.
Miller at first struggled with the Gegenheimer perfector. They didn’t have a completed workable two-color and no major improvements to the EBCO either. In 1955 Miller announced an agreement with the German press giant M.A.N. to become the US and Canadian distributor for MAN sheetfed. But this was an odd relationship, one of many the Miller Company would find themselves in over the next several decades. Still more importantly, no workable perfector!
The difficulties finally ended when in 1958 Miller introduced the world’s first convertible offset press in the TPJ. This new design, including Gegenheimer’s revolutionary perfector, was offered up as a two-color 23 x 36 inch, and on May 1958 an advertisement bellowed in large type; “Another Miller First!”. In early 1962 Miller announced a vastly improved model in the 25 x 38 inch TP-38. The TP-38, enhanced over time would become the mainstay of the Miller lineup for the next 28 years and ultimately bring about the TP-104 platform; the last press design before Man Roland purchased all Miller US and German interests in 1990. Miller was also instrumental in adding a roll-to-sheet attachment (manufactured in Germany by Spiess) to apply further cost savings to their two color perfector.
For 17 years Miller held the convertible-perfector advantage all to themselves, but in 1975 Heidelberg began production of their single gripper variation, nicknamed the “pincer-gripper”, in a brand new Speedmaster platform. Once Heidelberg’s perfector hit the market Miller’s days of dominance were numbered, and not because of an inferior perfector design but the Speedmaster press proved more popular against the now aging platforms of Miller TP-38A and TP41-S. The Heidelberg design was also able to transport thicker materials compared to Miller and as many new applications, involving heavier stock e.g. Postcards, moved over to convertible perfectors, Miller sales strained.
Today the press of choice in the commercial print sector is an eight-color perfector. Every manufacturer and that includes ALL of them, licensed or have reverse-engineered some portion of Gegenheimer’s 1956 patent. Certainly, vast improvements have been made during the last 64 years, but the essential fundamentals remain unchanged from 1956 and emanating from two Americans, Harold Gegenheimer, and Carl Siebke, who probably first met each other at the Electric Boat Co shipyards in Groton.
Convertible-perfecting is possibly the most important development ever invented in the offset printing industry. The Gegenheimer invention further epitomizes America at its finest; dreaming big, surmounting major obstacles, the old ways of Europe couldn’t, and yet, as we see today, evolving into something of a paradox between enlightenment and intransigency. The next time you walk near that new or old perfector take a moment to salute two guys and a nuclear submarine manufacturer who defied logic.
Don't miss upcoming auctions