Frankly Speaking: Remembering Joe Gerber

Frank Romano
Feb 11, 2015

Later this year, Yale University Press will publish a biography of a person who truly made a difference in the printing industry.

H. Joseph Gerber (1924–1996) founded of the Gerber Scientific Instrument Company. He was imprisoned in a labor camp at the age of 13, and in 1940 he and his mother fled war-torn Austria, immigrating to the United States. After completing high school in just two years, he entered Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) on a scholarship, graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in aeronautical engineering in 1946.

In his junior year at RPI, Gerber invented the Gerber Variable Scale. With a $3,000 investment, the Gerber Scientific Instrument Company was born. On my first visit to his company in Connecticut, he literally dragged me to his office to show me the original scale.

Joe was a true innovator. He developed technology for automated devices that could cut cloth or other materials. Gerber developed expertise in techniques to convert numbers to designs and designs to numbers. In the mid-1960s, the company used this skill to develop a numerically-controlled device that could automatically draw a precise engineering design on the basis of digital information. Gerber himself invented and patented this first truly digital drafting machine.

Gerber modified its automatic drafting equipment, replacing the pencil with a beam of light. This allowed for the automatic production of printed circuitry. The light produced a design on a photographic negative, which was used to make a master plate for printed circuit boards. Gerber provided for computer photoplotting, which also helped to automate manufacture of integrated circuits.

In 1980, he introduced a method for making overlay masks for exposure of printing plates utilizing a photo plotter having an optical exposure head to precisely expose photosensitive film in a predetermined mask pattern. The pattern included “knock out” windows for cropping pictures in both gray and color halftones, and line work such as framing for pictures and other printing matter.

In 1981 the concept of an automated lettering system was born. Gerber began marketing Signmaker technology. His vinyl cutting machine revolutionized sign making. Compugraphic sold it for a time under the name Arty.

Gerber acquired Eocom in 1984 and began developing CTP technology. The Crescent CTP was among the first commercially-available platesetters and was shown in 1991. To Joe, it was just another plotter. In 1998 Gerber sold the unit to Barco Inc., the U.S. arm of Barco Graphics NV, Ghent, Belgium, for an undisclosed cash payment and royalties on future sales of certain products. Gerber pioneered computer-to-plate; and, today almost all printers and newspapers use CTP.

Gerber’s Autoprep was the first computer-automated system for production printing and represented the beginning of automated prepress. AutoPrep was designed to manage the entire digital workflow of a printing operation and addressed all aspects of prepress production, from pre-flight, trapping, and imposition to RIPing and archiving.

Gerber’s photo plotter (used for making maps) was the first computerized product used to automate the prepress printing process and was essentially the first filmsetter (although not a text-setter).

Gerber’s innovations, include plotting, CAD, pattern making, sign making (including cutting stencils for screen-print screens), billboard printing, as well as the photo plotter, AutoPrep, and Crescent platesetter, and ScreenJet direct-to-screen device. All are a significant part of the printing industry’s history. He also revolutionized the garment and other industries. And the reason you can get your eyeglasses in an hour is because of Gerber optical grinding systems.

From the horrors of the Holocaust to Ellis Island to the pages of Fortune magazine, Joe Gerber personified the American Dream. He invented the future. His technologies automated many industrial operations and revolutionized manufacturing workflows. These technologies allowed American businesses to compete and prosper around the globe. Joe Gerber truly made a difference for his adopted country.

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