Illustrated News – Half-tone Photographic Printing

This article was originally written and submitted as part of a Canada 150 Project, the Innovation Storybook, to crowdsource stories of Canadian innovation with partners across Canada. The content has since been migrated to Ingenium’s Channel, a digital hub featuring curated content related to science, technology and innovation.

October 30, 1869 was an eventful day in the history of publishing. The roots of photojournalism can be traced back to that date when the Canadian Illustrated News made its debut. The picture on the front page of the News was the focus of attention. The photo in itself was nothing special, but the process that put it there was extraordinary. Publisher Georges-Édouard Desbarats and his printer, William Leggo, had worked together to achieve what many others had tried but failed to do. They came up with a method of reproducing pictures in print at a faster and more reliable rate than anyone else in the world. This meant that readers of periodicals and newspapers could now see actual photographs of the people and events in the stories the papers carried. It was indeed a breakthrough. Until that time, newspapers and magazines were largely text-heavy publications with a hand-drawn sketch inserted here and there. This was because the process of reproducing illustrations was so time-consuming and costly. Leggo and Desbarats invented a way to create half-tone images of photographs and a photo-engraving method (Leggotype) to print them that saved both time and money. And they did so eight years before American inventor Frederick Ives, who is sometimes credited with the achievement. Their innovation meant it was now possible to reproduce pictures fast enough to keep up with daily news reports. But it would be more than a decade before a photo did appear in a newspaper on a daily basis (The Canadian Illustrated News was a monthly) and many years still before the practice was widespread.

  • American Stephen H. Horgan is often named as the first to print a half-tone in a newspaper, as opposed to a magazine. The year was 1880. The paper was the New York Daily Graphic, which happened to be owned by Desbarats. And the man who trained Horgan was none other than William Leggo, whose half-tone screen was used by Horgan to print the image.
  • The halftone process works this way: a screen made of a piece of glass etched with fine lines is placed over the photograph. A camera is used to photograph both the screen and the photo. The grid of the screen breaks down the varying shades of the picture into countless tiny dots – larger dots for darker shades, smaller dots for lighter. When the dots are printed on paper, they recreate the original picture.

Georges-Édouard Desbarats on the virtues of his Canadian Illustrated News: By picturing to our own people the broad dominion they possess… such a paper would teach them to know and love it better, and by it they would learn to feel still prouder of the proud Canadian name.

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Janis Nostbakken