Former Cornell photographer honored on U.S. postage stamp for developing halftone printing processes

When Frederic Eugene Ives (1856-1937) first tried to get a job running the Cornell photography laboratory back in 1874, he was turned down for being too young and inexperienced. But the young man's persistence paid off: he was hired on a "trial basis." Four years later, Cornell President Andrew Dickson White would try, unsuccessfully, to keep Ives from leaving the university with the enticing offer of a paid instructorship. But it was too late: Ives had made great discoveries in the lab, then located in the attic of a wooden building on the Arts Quad, and he was ready to transform those ideas into commercial photoengraving products. The world of printing would never be the same.

It was in Cornell's photo lab that Ives invented the "halftone" process, which is still used today to reproduce photographs on a printing press. This and Ives' many other invaluable contributions are now being honored with a commemorative postage stamp from the U.S. Postal Service. The Postal Service has issued 32-cent "Pioneers of Communication" commemorative stamps to honor four late 19th-century pioneers in modern communications who, in addition to Ives, include Ottmar Mergenthaler, whose Linotype solved the problem of setting printing type by machine; Eadweard Muybridge, who created the zoopraxiscope to convert still photographs into moving images; and William Dickson, who with Thomas Edison created the kinetoscope, a forerunner of the motion picture film projector.

The stamps were designed by collage artist Fred Otnes of Connecticut (coincidentally, Ives' home state) and feature portraits of the inventors with their inventions and signatures.

Ives first grew fascinated with the world of printing when he found a small hand printing-press in his father's Litchfield, Conn., shop. He became a printer's apprentice at the Litchfield Enquirer newspaper and was an apprentice at the Ithaca printer Andrus & McChain and another printer in Greene, N.Y., before applying for the position of photographic technician at Cornell.

In a 1928 address at a dinner of the Optical Society of America, Ives recalled, "I was only 18 years old, and [physics] Professor [William Arnold] Anthony seemed to think it was something of a joke for such a kid to undertake the work, but was persuaded to let me try it. I remained nearly four years. . . . I was so much interested in this experimental work that I slept in the laboratory, and worked at all hours, living principally upon crackers and milk. Once, I worked for a period of five days without sleep."

Such diligence led to Ives' most important invention, the halftone process.

Prior to this process, photos and illustrations were reproduced from wooden blocks or plates that had to be handmade by skilled woodcutters or engravers. In this way printers could reproduce line drawings, but not the shades of gray in a photograph.

The problem persisted with printing presses, because they also cannot print gray -- only black and white. Ives invented a screen that would convert a photograph or drawing into a pattern of tiny dots -- large dots forming where the image was dark and tiny dots where the image was light -- giving the illusion of shades of gray. By reshooting an original photo through this screen, Ives obtained a halftone -- which was then engraved onto a metal plate from which the image could be cheaply and quickly reproduced on paper.

A writer in a 1926 edition of The Cornellian Council Bulletin writes, "When one stops to think of the present extensive use of the half-tone photo-engraving process in news articles, advertising matter and illustrated 'copy' of various sorts, one can realize what a colossal effect the work done in the Cornell laboratory has had."

Ives left Cornell in 1878 to accept a contract with a Philadelphia wood-engraving firm, Crosscup & West, so that he could commercially produce his halftone screens as well as many others useful optical devices -- for which he received 70 patents.

Though Ives received dozens of awards from leading scientific societies around the world in his lifetime, he was not without his detractors. After refining the halftone process for black-and-white photos he turned his attention to color photography, and many colleagues responded to his inventions in this area with skepticism and ridicule. He also suffered a visit to his home from the Secret Service, after his Philadelphia neighbors wrongly suspected him of running a counterfeit operation out of his private workshop.

A century later, Ives is certainly vindicated. His technique "is still the best for printing black-and-white or color halftones," according to Optics News.

The "Pioneers of Communication" commemorative stamps are available at most U.S. post offices, including in Ithaca. They also can be obtained by calling the Philatelic Fulfillment Service Center at 1-800-STAMP24. The U.S. Postal Service news release about the issue is available at and a picture of the stamps at