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Prior to the first century A.D., documents were commonly kept on clay tablets, or long rolls of papyrus or cloth. During the first century, religious codices printed on sheepskin vellum began appearing in bound volumes that marked the beginning of the bookbinding approach that is still used today. For the next 1400 years, the art of bookbinding in the west was primarily practiced by the monks of various religious orders. Entire libraries were copied and recopied by these monks.

With the advent of Gutenberg’s printing press in 1447, the demand for binding led to more automated binding systems, although, by modern standards, these methods would hardly qualify as automated at all. Binding was still very much a craft, with each book constructed by hand. Nonetheless, the development of the printing press took the book out of the monastery and into the streets.

In the Nineteenth century, during the first industrial revolution, techniques were developed to make it possible to make paper from wood pulp. This reduced the costs of paper considerably and led science fiction author Jules Verne to speculate in his book, Paris in the 20th Century, that someday forests would be harvested for paper instead of firewood.

During the latter part of the Nineteenth Century and early Twentieth Century, bindery automation took several leaps forward. In 1868, David McConnell Smyth patented one of the first sewing machines designed specifically for bookbinding. Over the next three decades, Smyth went on to develop machines for gluing, trimming, casemaking (hard covers), and casing-in. Many of his machines are still in use, and the process of sewing through the fold in a signature is still referred to as “Smyth Sewing.”

Perfect binding was invented in 1895, but was little used for bookbinding until 1931, when the German publisher, Albatross Books, introduced the first paperback books as an experiment. In England, Penguin Books adopted the format in 1935 with their popular line of classic books. In 1939, Pocket Books in America started producing popular titles in paperback versions, which quickly caught on and soon everyone was reading paperback books. Early perfect binding was done with cold glues, which became brittle over time. In the 1940s the DuPont Company developed a hot-melt adhesive binding process, which made for more durable and longer lasting books, and improved the binding process.

The 1950s saw a shift away from the wartime economy of the 1940s to a technologically-driven economy and sharp increase in the national marketing of consumer goods and services. New approaches to office management developed, which led to a dramatic increase in the need for inter-office documentation. With this need came several new binding systems during the fifties and sixties, including plastic comb binding and Velobinding. Most of these office systems were based on the two-step process of punching the sheets and then loading them into the binding element. Other punch-and-bind systems include wire plastic coil and spiral binding (which had been around since 1924, but became an office binding solution much later on).

In 1983, Kevin Parker started Powis from the basement of his home. The company’s first product line, the Fastback Binding System, offered a method for binding that did not require the tedious punching and page insertion process of the punch-and-bind systems. The Fastback Binding System uses special strips coated with thermoplastic adhesives to create the binds. It represented a crossover, using materials and techniques that were previously only available to professional bookbinders.

With the advent of desktop publishing in the late 80s, and the development of electrophotographic printing presses in the late 90s, the concept of on-demand book publishing became extremely popular. A stumbling block remained with the post-press binding of the books. Fast and easy systems, such as the office binders, did not produce books that looked like anything other than office documents, while book production systems were too large, expensive, and labor intensive to qualify as on-demand systems.

Thanks to its use of a thermoplastic binding strip—essentially a variation on perfect binding—Powis was in a unique position to adapt its office binding machines to the on-demand market. It was during this period that Powis introduced two new products that brought true on-demand paperback and hardback book binding to the public.

The first was the Perfectback strip, which turned the Fastback Model 15xs into a perfect binding workstation. Using the thermal adhesive tape technology that Powis pioneered in the 80s, the Perfectback strip let you create soft cover books with the ease of an office binding system. At this time, Powis also introduced the Scoring Machine, which added the ability to score covers to the on-demand publishing mix.

The second development was the Fastback Hardcover Binding System, which made it possible to bind hard cover books one-at-a-time on the desktop. Although there had been other attempts to create on-demand hard cover bookmaking systems, most fell short in one way or another. The manufacturers of large-scale, professional binding equipment attempted to create scaled-down versions of their systems. This made for machines that did a passably good job of making books, but brought with them the maintenance and mess of their larger counterparts. Office binding equipment makers tried attaching hard covers to their binding elements. While this approach was quicker and less messy than the binding machinery approach, the finished books would never be mistaken for the books you’d purchase at a bookstore. Because of its perfect-binding pedigree, the Powis Fastback Binding System was able to offer the best of both worlds: the quality and appearance of professionally made books with the ease and simplicity of an office binding machine.

When you consider that most of the major advances in bookbinding have only occurred in the last 150 years, it becomes apparent that humankind is only at the very beginning of its exploration of bookbinding technology. Although the Internet, computer and electronic files have changed our relationship to books, the printed word lives on. In spite of predictions that society would shift away from the printed word, more documents and books are printed now than ever before. It is clear that books are here to stay.

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