I was excited to recently discover John McMillian's, "Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America," a book that describes the emergence of small papers & small press magazines and their role in shaping the New Left and forming a political "movement culture" in the late sixties.
Not only does the book do an excellent job of describing the cultural contribution of the small press revolution of the 60s, it also got me thinking about the role that the "sub-ton" offset press provided to help democratize print media.
That said, from what I've read in the book so far, there is not a whole lot of discussion about specific equipment used or technical aspects of the printing production- that's not the focus of the book. But the writer does touch on how the small offset press was a contributing factor to the growth and proliferation of small press publications and newspapers. McMillian writes, "Before the 1960s, newspaper copy had to be set in hot type on a linotype machine- a procedure that was both costly and difficult. But with the advent of photo-offset printing, newspaper production suddenly became cheap and easy."
The above quote is just a glimpse of the long road of improvements of printing technology throughout the 20th century. But it does raise questions about what conditions existed, whether political, social, or technological, that allowed for greater accessibility to printing equipment and ultimately the democratization of the printing process.
Photolithography in various forms had been around for 100 years by then, close to the same with offset lithography. Was it the research and development of offset plates through the 30s and 40s that brought presensitized plates into wide commercial circulation that helped build independent publishing momentum? In the early 1900s lithographic shops produced their own plates using their own proprietary recipes for photosensitive coatings which were very laboriously and carefully hand applied to metal plates. The introduction of commercially available presensitized offset plates certainly made it easier for printers, and made it possible for smaller printing plants to operate with less start up cost and less equipment.
Was it that the highly disciplined standards of typography and composition were broken, partially through cold-set innovations popularized by equipment like the Varityper? Or was it the more whimsical cultural climate of the 60s that broke those typographical standards?
I'm sure the wider availability of smaller format offset presses, like the Multi 1250, helped fuel the independent publishing revolution, as well as many other factors. It is interesting to think about what exactly created that critical mass of self & small publishing activity in the 1960s onward.