Lead, Silver, Silicon: The Elements of Publishing

Essay by Ed Quillen

Publishing – February 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

FOR REASONS that made some sense thirty years ago, radio and television stations are known as “electronic media,” while magazines and newspapers are “print media.”

This implies that we print folk aren’t electronic, but I’d wager that there are more pieces of electronic gear in the offices of The Mountain Mail than in the studios of KVRH. Except for charming anachronisms like the Saguache Crescent, the “print media” are electronic now — we may rely on physical distribution to put our work before you, but our production occurs on computers.

In a way, this represents an elemental progression for printing. During my youth, the element was lead, the main constituent of “type metal.” In the 1970s, offset printing arrived, and the element was silver because the heart of the process was photographic, not mechanical. And now that it’s done with computers, the element must be silicon.

A philosopher of alchemic bent might find significance in this elemental progression, but for me, it means learning new technologies just to keep doing my job. This makes me suspicious of all the “career education” we see in our schools.

My great-grandfather William Henry Quillen was a stonemason (among other things — he was also a fervent Populist and a traveling agitator for the Farmers’ Union). He could learn a skilled trade from youthful apprenticeship, then practice it all his days.

Although the practice of masonry hasn’t changed measurably since the pyramids were built, the need for it has declined considerably, as Dick Dixon mentions in his accounts of the Ute Trail quarries we’ve been publishing.

My grandfather on that side, the first Edward Kenneth Quillen, was a laundryman. That was a skilled trade, requiring an intricate knowledge of the interactions of tallow soap, alkali, bleaches, blueing, starch, water hardness, and water temperature, along with a good eye for soil and stains on clothes, and a feel for the variations among cotton, linen, wool, silk, and their combinations.

Today we have synthetic fabrics, color-fast dyes, and versatile detergents — with a home washing machine and modern chemicals, you can pretty much load it and know that within an hour, the clothes will be reasonably clean.

In more complex situations, such as industrial laundries, a computer can handle most of the thinking — indeed, one of my brothers earns his living by building and installing computer controls for 400-pound washing machines.

Such automation was just beginning in 1963 when that grandfather died. My father, raised in the trade, was a damn good washman, justifiably proud of the white shirts he could turn out. Alas, it was a hard-earned skill that nobody needs now.

As for me, the arrival of the steam locomotive in Salida last summer caused more dismal thoughts about “career education.” The man at the throttle, a guy named Steve Lee, is my age, and he has the job I desperately wanted way back when. Had there been a “career education” program in 1957, I’d have signed right up for “steam locomotive engineer.”

And long before I grew tall enough to reach a whistle cord, steam locomotives had vanished from daily use. Talk about a dead-end career path.

No classes that any school offered before my formal education ended in 1974 could have taught me to use the machinery I use every day now, since that machinery — personal computers, scanners, laser printers, fax machines, etc. — didn’t even exist then.

But I manage, as do millions of other people, since we did learn to read, to type, to analyze, and to manipulate numbers. That’s what schools should focus on, rather than teaching WordPerfect only to have the kids discover upon graduation two years later that the world has moved to Microsoft Word, and their skills are obsolete.

Over the years, I have developed a large repertoire of obsolete skills — from replacing film ribbons on an IBM Executive typewriter to configuring CP/M computers. Any of these might have taken classroom time back then, and would be perfectly useless now.

So we figure things out as we go along. When we started this magazine four years ago, we reckoned it was possible to produce one with desktop computers and off-the-shelf equipment. But our knowledge didn’t extend much past that.

Sometimes it’s quite obvious that I’m still learning. With all those years laying out newspapers, where the idea is to jam everything possible onto a page, it’s hard for me to “waste” white space to make attractive magazine pages.

Our workhorse 600-dpi (dots per inch) PostScript laser printer expired just as serious production started on the December edition. We had a spare at hand, an old 300-dpi page printer we had bought used from Hal Walter just for such contingencies, and it did the job.

But the pictures looked rather ragged, as they often have even with more capable laser printers — the digitization of photography means dealing with SCSI chains, calibrating scanners, calculating optimum scanning resolutions, manipulating images for good reproduction without compromising their veracity, and fretting about slew and dot gain on the printing press.

It’s going to be a while before I get that all figured out, and by the time I do, the knowledge will likely be obsolete as new processes and technology emerge.

BUT DESPITE all the frustrations with the new technology, it has revived an American tradition. When the First Amendment was proposed in 1789, the national capital had just moved from Philadelphia, which then had about 28,000 people, and 35 newspapers, most of them highly partisan and scurrilous.

That’s the sort of press that the Founding Fathers knew and wanted to protect — not the publications which caused Max Lerner in 1938 to observe that “The American press today is ninety percent a class monopoly. That means it responds to the pressures and compulsions to which other big business enterprises respond,” nor the press of 1960 which provoked A.J. Liebling to write that “Freedom of the press is guaranteed to those who own one.”

In the late 18th century when the First Amendment appeared, a newspaper’s machinery cost about $300 — about a year’s wage for a skilled workman, which meant that almost anybody with something to say could get into the business.

Over the years, that cost soared into the millions, but thanks to the consumer-electronics revolution of the past twenty years, publishing is again affordable to ordinary Americans — whether they publish on paper or via the Internet.

This scares hell out of our politicians, who leap at any excuse — “protection of children” is a favorite, as is “monitoring potential terrorist activity” — to try to control what the First Amendment says is none of their damned business.

True, you’ve got to learn complicated new stuff every day because the technology changes so quickly, and there’s no enduring way to learn it in school, for you or your children.

But while I sometimes feel apologetic and frustrated because I don’t learn quickly enough, I’m not complaining. Having a First Amendment that actually means something is well worth the trouble of these transitions from lead to silver to silicon.

–Ed Quillen