When Pantone Was Not Into Chips

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Link rhymes with ink. And so it was with Pantone in 1933 when this division of the Bakelite Corporations announced, “The Pantone process is a new principle in planographic printing.” Its newness was the ability to permit the printer with flatbed presses or with letterpresses to “obtain a satisfactory offset effect,” as the introduction to The Pantone Printing Process said. “It differs from offset, however, in that it eliminates one operation—the transfer of the image from plate to blanket. Pantone prints directly from plate to paper, thus assuring better definition.” The type was sharp and rich. It was all in the plate.

Before Pantone became synonymous with ink, printing was the game. In a 1933 typewritten, mimeographed document (bottom) charting the history of the process, we learn that Pantone found an alternative for mixing water and mercury on offset and lithographic presses. Here is what the Pantone Corporation said in detailed terms:

“It was left for an English inventor, A. Ronald Trist, to supply the missing link. … Through a painstaking study of the amalgams of all metals he found the amalgams of the noble metals ideally suitable for the purpose. His research revealed that when mercury was applied to the noble metals an amalgam was instantly formed only on the surface and any further amount of mercury applied would be permanently retained on the surface per se where it was needed. By this simple discovery he was able to hold a thin film of virgin mercury spread over the non-printing area of a printing plate and thus avoid a literal flooding of the plate with mercury necessary when other common metals are employed. … The Pantone Corporation assumed the burden of developing the process to a state as to offer a ready-to-go system of printing to industry.”

The following artifact, featuring examples of the process, is a slice of printing history when Pantone was in the plate-making business …

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About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →

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