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Commentary & Analysis

The Last Printer, A Seasonal Fantasy

Gutenberg was dead,

By Frank Romano
Published: December 19, 2008

Gutenberg was dead, dead these 540 years. There is no doubt whatever about that. Hummery had signed the papers; Gutenberg was as dead as an em quad.

I had retired for the evening in my night gown and cap, settled into the canopied four-poster, and dreamt my usual dream about Oreos with the wafer in the middle.

Suddenly, a cold wind came wooshing through the room and someone was standing at the foot of the bed.

“Frankela, I have come to show you the error of your ways.”

“You, you’re Gutenberg.”

“In the flesh, the Geisfleish.”

“Was that a medieval joke?”

“We have much to see. Here, touch my magic composing stick.”

“But I don’t know where it’s been.”

Suddenly we were transported to a plant with great timbered presses and men picking type from type cases. Sheets were hanging for the ink to dry on ropes stretched across the room.

“Reminds me of a plant I saw in Secaucus.”

“It all began here. For a while, I WAS the printing industry.”

“You were the first printer and the first to suffer a hostile takeover.”

“Damn Fust; if only we had bailouts then.”

“What was it like being the first and only printer?”

“Well, you could charge whatever you wanted and no one complained about halftone dots.”

“Why not?”

“They weren’t invented.”

“Oh, right.”

“But even after I was forced out, I invented printing with multiple ink colors. Until the day I died, I was always working on something new.”

“I see a theme to this dream.”

“Come, we must go.”

Instantly we were in a present-day plant filled with that wonderful aroma of printing ink. There were large presses and skids of paper going to the presses or coming from them.

“It looks like every printing plant I have ever been in.”

“Ach, that is the problem. Many printers do the same things in the same ways and no one can tell them apart.”

We were suddenly in a future time. The plant was immaculate and at its center was a large square box made of transparent-titanium. Bio-waste entered at one end and printing exited at the other -- on any kind of paper, printed, and bound. The nameplate said Hpujieroxodak. One person controlled it all from a cockpit above the press. He looked familiar.

“This is amazing. How many machines are there like this?”

“Just one.”

“What are all the other printers using -- AB Dick 360s?”

“There are no other printers. This is the last one.”

“What happened? Did Al Gore buy up every tree in America.”

“It was many things. Printers hoped that their competitors would go out of business, or that lowering prices would keep them alive, or that older equipment could still do the job. They reacted to a changing market in the same old ways.”

“Couldn’t anyone help?”

“Their consultants pushed old ideas. Their trade associations needed to merge and band together. No one could see a future so they held on to the past, thinking it would all come back.”

“Are these the shadows of what must be?”

“My visit is a warning of a future that is not inevitable. Tell the printers of America that there is hope. ”

“Yeah, I know, just go out and buy something new.”

“I had to invent my technology from scratch. Printers must re-invent themselves and so must their suppliers. It is not only the equipment; it is the mindset.”

“So printers can think their way to success?”

“They can no longer work their way into the future; they must think their way into the future. They must look beyond that which they built their business on and embrace new ideas.”

Then I realized that the person in that futuristic cockpit was Gutenberg. He was the first printer . . . and perhaps the last printer . . . if we do not heed his words.

“But the Internet, outsourcing, the economy . . . I have many questions.”

“There will always be a printing industry; there will always be printers,” he exclaimed as he faded from sight.

And then he was gone.

Frank Romano has spent over 50 years in the printing and publishing industries. Many know him best as the editor of the International Paper Pocket Pal or from the hundreds of articles he has written for publications from North America and Europe to the Middle East to Asia and Australia. Romano lectures extensively, having addressed virtually every club, association, group, and professional organization at one time or another. He is one of the industry's foremost keynote speakers. He continues to teach courses at RIT and other universities and works with students on unique research projects.

Please offer your feedback to Frank. He can be reached at frank@whattheythink.com.



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