Heidelberg’s Greatest Gift

Nick Howard
October 10, 2014
By Nick Howard

In the early 1980s, a local garden hose manufacturer called our small press-sales office because he had a printing problem. The round cardboard discs, used for product branding within the the hose-reel, were missing their Made in Canada. Somehow its inclusion overlooked by everyone involved in the printing process. The garden hose manufacturer now had thousands of printed and die-cut pieces of cardboard he could not use. “Any suggestions?” he asked.

It took a split second to solve his problem: The Heidelberg platen! Certainly there were other possibilities. Machines from Kluge, Victoria or Chandler & Price (with feeder) could do it, but there was an easier, obvious solution with the Heidelberg – problem solved.

The T platen, or Tiegel platen as the German’s called their brilliant little press, can feed and deliver virtually anything. From one-up business cards to folded signatures, thin stitched booklets, odd-shaped labels and – yes – even round Made in Canada cardboard wrappers for garden hoses. The platen quite literally came with everything; initially, there were no options one could buy. It came standard with two chases, small-size kit, two-up kit, odd-shape kit, die-cutting plate and ink knife.

Since the creation of metal type there has never been such a successful printing machine as the Heidelberg T platen. Even today, you would have a tough time finding a commercial printer without one of these versatile, solid machines still working away in their pressroom.

Birthing the Tiegel
Schnellpresse, as Heidelberg was called in the early days, truly began building its now massive business around the Tiegel platen when it was born in 1912. T platens were sold all over the world and by the time mass production stopped, in 1985, more than 165,000 had been sold. There was of course, competition. The British Thompson was a close facsimile of the Heidelberg machine, especially before WWII when Thompson used the same rotary gripper system.

A few years after WWII, the Czechoslovak Grafopress appeared as an almost identical T platen clone. Many suggest this was the driving force behind why Heidelberg began to use the branding term Original Heidelberg, as the German press maker tried to separate its products from Iron Curtain machines impervious to litigation. I have doubts about this connection, however. German manufacturers regularly employed the word Original and Schnellpresse mostly likely used it well before the Czech clone arrived.

We called the Grafopress the Scrap-o-Press, because it was such an inferior printing machine to the T platen. Grafopress, however, did have one key feature incorporated into the Heidelberg machine by Drupa 1967: The ability to lock out form rollers. Both the Soviet Union and China also made knock-offs of the Heidelberg T platen, but they were terrible machines.

Over the years at Howard Graphic Equipment, which primarily sells and reconditions used printing machinery, we have hauled Heidelberg platens out of and into basements, garages, through windows, and often stripped down in order to fit through narrow doorways, as if the old building itself had been built around the press. It seems no place existed where a Heidelberg platen could not go. I lost track years ago of how many platens our company has overhauled and sold.

When crash numbering reached its apex, it was not uncommon to see one operator in control of four presses. The operator could keep track of each machine’s progress by listening to its click-clack as they hurried the loading and unloading of feeders and deliveries. The Heidelberg platen faced many challenges as safety concerns increased when unionization returned to manufacturing plants. Some Ts were encapsulated by Plexiglas and wire mesh to keep the inspectors at bay. Eventually it became impossible to operate these presses in such situations. Greeting-card companies, with an ideal T platen application, might have had more than 10 machines and discarded them all for fear of injuring workers.

This amazing and still relevant printing machine was born when Schnellpressenfabrik Heidelberg purchased the patents from a Köln print shop owner and tinkerer named Karl Gilke. Not much is known about Gilke, but his platen with the “propeller-gripper” changed the world. Previously, essentially all platen presses required intensive labour for both feeding and delivering each sheet by hand. It was incredibly slow production amid a new world of industrialization.

Growing the Tiegel
Gilke forever changed the efficiency of platens by using the favoured Boston Principle, which equates to a platen with a stationary bed, and incorporating both feeder and delivery into it.  Back in 1896, the Harris Brothers of Niles, Ohio, developed a similar game-changing machine in the EI rotary card press. It had a unique shuttle feeder and could run at an astounding 15,000 sheets per hour. Because the E1 was rotary, however, it required a stereo plate, which is a curved lead cast plate common on letterpress newspaper presses. This lead cast plate was its Achilles Heel and why the Harris E1 failed to make nearly as much impact as Heidelberg’s T. Small print shops used type and printers could not afford the cost of making stereos needed by the E1.

In 1921, American Robert Miehle came out with his revolutionary Vertical Miehle. This press was later called the V-36 for its high running speeds of 3,600 sheets per hour. It employed a cylinder in a vertical incline – a very unique press design. The Vertical Miehle was well received and had a bigger sheet size of 14 x 20 inches, as compared to Schnellpress’ 10 x 15-inch size. But the Vertical was also a harder press to run, particularly when it came to make-ready. The Heidelberg platen was so quick to set up and feed that it ran circles around the Vertical. Only when run lengths were bigger, and the sheet size increased, did the Platen begin to lose some of its advantage. Before WWII, it was common to see both a Vertical and a Tiegel in the same shop. One’s weakness was the other’s strength and this environment remained throughout the letterpress era.  

Schnellpressenfabrik Heidelberg has roots going back to 1850, before Andreas Hamm and Andreas Albert joined forces in 1863. Hamm owned an iron foundry specializing in bells. Albert was a foreman at C. Reichenbach’s Press Works in Augsburg (later to become MAN). But the two partners had a falling out and Hamm continued on with the company. Albert, on the other hand, formed a new company called Albert & Cie, which grew exponentially. After Hamm’s passing in 1894, his son sold the company to Wilhelm Müller.

Not much happened at Schnellpress during the years 1873 to 1912, when press building gave rise to powerful players. VOMAG, Koenig & Bauer, MAN, Maschinenfabrik Johannisberg-Geisenheim (MJG), Dresdner Schnellpressenfabrik Coswig (Planeta) and Hamm’s former partner, Albert & Cie. all became major makers of mostly cylinder presses. Tiny Schnellpress made facsimiles of the standard German stop cylinder press, as well. Although Schnellpress released the Exquisit cylinder, in 1921, there was no magic in this press.

Gilke’s design was the one and only watershed moment for Schnellpress. German platen presses were all mostly knock-offs of the American Gally parallel impression design. At least 20 companies were making very good versions of this press; Victoria being the best known.

Any developments to automate feeding and delivery were all Band-Aid approaches with discombobulated devices affixed to an already mature handfed platen design. Schnellpress understood if they could make its little platen work, it would rip apart the whole industry. Even back in the early twentieth century, the majority of printers were small shops. Not everyone wanted or could afford large cylinder presses. Jobs were mostly handled 1- or 2-up on smaller handfed platens. If Heidelberg could make a press that would feed and deliver easily then the printing world would come calling.

By the end of WWI Heidelberg had such a press. Although the company faced management issues and very difficult times, Schnellpress had one more vital ingredient. It had a foundry. Richard Kahn, the owner at the time, also owned Maschinenfabrik Geislingen (MAG) and this allowed Schnellpresse to work completely autonomously on its design. Heidelberg castings are unique. When I was a young kid I could see even then the quality differences between a Heidelberg and any other machine – German, English, or American. There was a special quality to a Heidelberg.

Whatever notions one had prior to the Heidelberg platen, these were tossed aside because not only was the feed/delivery unique, so was the inker and adjustable bearers.  Having a windmill, as the platen was also often referred to, in your shop almost guaranteed success, because you could obliterate any competitors who were still hand-feeding work or trying to make the crude add-on feeders work.  

Heidelberg’s innovation to build the T platen on Germany’s first mechanical assembly line brought the prices down so that every printer could afford one. The small jobbing printer was the key customer for Heidelberg and its new machine was priced accordingly. Along with its small footprint, the T platen required nothing more than a drive motor or belt driven from a driveshaft.

Leveraging the Tiegel
Why then was Heidelberg able to eclipse much larger companies in Germany, such as VOMAG, MAN and Koenig & Bauer, the latter of which is recognized as the founder of printing machinery manufacturing. Heidelberg also faced stiff competition from Albert Frankenthal and Faber & Schleicher. All of these firms, however, were focused on making innovative but complicated cylinder sheetfed machines, Web presses and even offset machines in the early 1920s. So much that they all failed to notice a big hole in jobbing presses which is exactly what Schnellpresse filled.

Another major reason for Heidelberg’s meteoric rise was its unique sales approach. Instead of staying close to home, as many of the German builders did, Heidelberg sought out new markets and customers in America, Britain and around the entire globe. The early vision of globalization among Heidelberg’s leaders is a fundamental reason why its T platens, and the company itself, became so successful.

At the Bugra trade fair of 1914, Heidelberg displayed the first prototype T platen to the world. This early press, known as the Express, would be altered several times before it finally became legend. 1914 was also the year The Great War began and very little development or production materialized on the T platen until 1921. By 1927, the press had another facelift.

The gripper mechanism was vastly improved and remained remarkably similar to the last version of 1985. Impression throw-off and micro adjust was really easy. Changing packing was just as simple as on a Gordon. The use of a Geneva motion or Maltese cross allowed for better registration and more stable movement of the grippers. This feature alone was an incredible advancement for its time.

World crisis in the first half of the twentieth century had an impact not just on Schnellpress but every manufacturer. The crash of 1929 was a worldwide financial epidemic and Germany faced hyperinflation and eventually the rise of the Nazi party in the 1930s.

Loving the Tiegel
Why then does this little press mean so much to so many? History shows there was ample press competition and, certainly, for work like heavy embossing one must give the Parallel machine or Kluge a leg up. Why then? Heidelberg was very clever. The company designed its press to be the easiest to run. Feeding was easy, clean up, running difficult materials – even printing on paper bags is possible. Watching a Heidelberg run is precision in motion, exact and measured in its movements. Even when compared to a high-end Gordon platen, it is actually frightening how much better the Tiegel was. It worked in harmony with the operator. I remember my father showing me how to run the press, never forcing its workings and making it sing. The better the pressman, the easier the work.

My memories of the Heidelberg platen trump everything else. Its sound, its strength, the fact it was almost indestructible are fond recollections. Heidelberg built its company on the T platen, later followed by the GT (larger size) and the OHC (cylinder). What Heidelberg learned with the T platen can be seen still today. Its unique suction feeder was used on the cylinder S and K models, as well as the K, M and GTO offset presses. In fact, the unique hardware first used on the T can be seen on the Speedmaster as late as 1994.

The wonderful T platen made it possible for Heidelberg to move past all of the German press makers and stay on an incredible roll right up to its flagship Speedmaster line. Heidelberg owes everything to the platen. It took the unique machine-building genius of Heidelberg to refine and build it in their personal style.

Perhaps this affection has been lost on many of the greybeards in the industry, but to the new generation of letterpress artisans, the Tiegel is making them fall in love with printing all over again. Today, Heidelberg makes some of the finest printing machines in the world. Look at the XL 106 or XL 162 – amazing technology. The lithographic world is changing very fast. It’s fighting to keep digital devices away from their offset pages. I doubt there will ever be another printing machine that is truly loved like the Heidelberg platen. I remain in love my Heidelberg platens. We have a 1928 and 1985 in our collection.

In 1975, a Dutch artist created a musical about his Heidelberg T, running it on stages across Holland. One of Japan’s largest printers has a T monument ensconced in glass. Loved by so many, the Tiegel transcends printing. It was Heidelberg’s gift to the printing world.

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