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Economy & Business

Local inventor is key in printed books' future

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 10, 2009 - Jeff Marsh, the St. Louis inventor of the first machine that's said to print and bind a book without human intervention, credits his creativity to his grandfather. Marsh has fond memories of the rambling Victorian house where he grew up in a Detroit suburb. Within that house, he said, “I’d walk past the ceramics lab, the electronics lab, the geology lab. We made all our own bullets for our private shooting range. Growing up in that house gave me the feeling that I could do anything.”

Grandfather Albert Marsh was an important inventor of the early 20th century. In 1905, just eight years out of high school, Albert Marsh perfected the formula for an alloy called chromel (90 percent nickel, 10 percent chromium), the first alloy that could be made into stable heating elements.

That invention, along with later designs of electric furnaces, toasters, ovens, and modern stoves, earned Albert Marsh the title of “father of the electrical heating industry.”

Those of us who love the feel and smell of a printed book in our hands may well one day thank Jeff Marsh for preserving it in the digital future. His machine has made the cost and quality of even a single book, printed to order, indistinguishable from those in bookstores — if you supply the text pre-formatted.

Jeff, 66, has lived south of Wentzville for 24 years. There, he has followed his grandfather’s example, attaching a workshop and lab complex to his house. He holds six patents, with another immediately pending and four more in the works. He hopes to match his grandfather’s 14.

Among the patents he holds is one for anti-lock automotive braking systems, from when Marsh worked for Kelsey-Hayes. Marsh spent 24 years in the automotive industry, leaving in 1984. After that, he “knocked around the steel-fabricating industry” and consulted widely with manufacturing companies.

Patent Attorney Was Link

While writing operating systems software for the legal firm of Polster, Lieder, Woodruff and Lucchesi, Marsh became friends with St. Louis patent attorney Bill Cunningham. Cunningham put Marsh in touch with St. Louis engineer Harvey Ross. In 1989, Ross had conceived of a system to print, bind and store books, even a single copy, according to Patent No. 5,465,213, issued Nov. 7, 1995, and titled, “System and method of manufacturing a single book copy.”

But Marsh made it happen, and he holds the patents on the current book machine. With the eyes of a production engineer, he saw the glue pot as the key.

“I would tour a book-binding plant, bringing along an associate to distract the official guide while I wandered around trying to find ‘Old Joe,’ who really knew what was going on. I was told that after a binding was glued, you had to let it sit for 24 hours to cure it.

“Well, coming from the automotive industry where we custom-designed solutions and only had to wait six seconds between parts, I said, ‘Uh-uh.’ I got right to work on speeding up the glue process, and eventually came up with an ultrasonic glue-curing method. The only problem is cost. It’s not yet incorporated into the book machine. We still use a hot melt.”

The first printed book produced completely without human intervention emerged on July 7, 2001, in Chesterfield. (It was a sado-masochistic tale, Mistress Ruby Ties It Together. “That’s what Random House gave me,” Marsh said at the time.)

Legal Speed Bump

Ross and Marsh had solved the physical problem of producing on-demand copies, but needed a backlist to publish. It got its list of books in a very roundabout way. After lawsuits and appeals between On Demand Book Machine Inc. and Ingram publishing over patent issues, the two companies decided to work together. Ingram’s on-demand division, Lightning Source, became a content partner of On Demand Books, which markets the latest version of Marsh’s machine, now called the Espresso Book Machine.

Through mutual friend Michael Smolens, a displaced St. Louisan living in New York, Marsh met with Jason Epstein, the New York publishing legend. Epstein had started The Readers’ Catalog, a mail-order business with 40,000 backlist titles. But he found that the costs of handling individual copies were eating up profits. Today, Epstein chairs On Demand Books, with backing from Dean & Deluca founder Dane Neller, who serves as CEO.

Commercial Break-out?

According to On Demand’s website, 15 Espresso machines are now functioning. Epstein installed Espresso machines at the World Bank and the library at Alexandria, Egypt (site of a fabled library in classical times), as well as at several university libraries and bookstores. The spring of 2009 is supposed to be a break-out period for the 2.0 version of the Espresso machine. With its transparent walls that allow viewers to see the books being created and bound, it created a sensation at the Feb. 9-11 “Tools of Change” trade show sponsored by tech publisher O’Reilly in New York. It printed about 20,000 pages over 8 or 9 hours, according to Tim Metz, press contact for On Demand Books.

Looking something like a large copying machine with transparent sides, the 2.0 Espresso Book Machine will print and bind a book in less than four minutes for a penny a page — or less, if part of a series. Its books match bookstore volumes in quality. On Demand Books hasn’t settled in a final price for the machine, but it’s said to be well below $100,000. That’s partly because the “2.0” version now uses more standard components.

On-demand publishing shows signs of maturing. Lightning Source claims to have printed 50 million books on demand already. In May 2008, media information company Bowker (descendant of dead-tree database Books In Print) broke out on-demand books as a separate category in its publishing figures for the first time. According to Publishers Weekly, while traditional titles rose 29 percent between 2002 and 2007, on-demand titles rose 313 percent.

Remaining bottlenecks to on-demand printing are no longer physical, but contractual (i.e., copyright agreements). Many (not all) of them were resolved in the groundbreaking agreement announced Oct. 28, 2008, between Google and publishing interests, including the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers, that ended a three-year dispute over Google’s book-scanning project.

Future Of Libraries

The publishing world’s reconfigurations are provoking intense discussions in library circles. The New Orleans and New York public libraries are two of the 15 places that have book machines. Apart from the aesthetics of hard copy, scholars warn that digital-only texts can easily be lost beyond retrieval when software changes or storage systems malfunction.

“I certainly see us having a book machine within five years,” said Shirley Baker, vice chancellor of scholarly resources and dean of university libraries at Washington University. The University of Alberta, McMaster University and McGill University in Canada has one, and Brigham Young University will install a book machine this spring.

Innovate and Move On

The book machine is only part of Jeff Marsh’s life. It was never an obsession for him, as it was for Ross.

“You cannot eat off of your innovations,” Marsh says. “You have to move on, and can’t make any single innovation your life’s work, because often you have to wait for the time to be right for it to really make money.” He continues to consult; one of his clients is working on a high-tech fishing reel.

Marsh’s pastimes are those you might expect of an inventor. He has been a ham radio operator since 1956, a commercial pilot since 1964, and a flight instructor since 1972. He is working on a Ph.D. in organization and management from Capella University, on online college. He had almost finished a doctorate in business administration in 1984 when he was forced to reinvent himself professionally. “I realized I had to start over” with the current degree, he says; “Everything I knew was obsolete.”

Ross died in 2002, having never seen Espresso reach its full potential.

David Murray is a freelance writer.

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