A Brief History from Walnuts to Capsules
You probably know that the tiny print on medicines is meant to help doctors, patients and pharmacists recognize which drug is which. But have you ever wondered about how that tiny imprint is made? How is it that manufacturers are able to print clearly on tablets that come in so many different shapes, textures and sizes?
Many pharmaceutical manufacturers use a method of offset rotogravure printing to mark their tablets and capsules. This method of printing uses a flexible rubber roll to transfer ink onto the medicine that is being marked. The pliable rubber conforms to the shape of the surface and allows the imprint to be gently transferred without damaging the tablet or capsule underneath. Although this method has been in use for marking pharmaceuticals since the 1950’s, similar techniques were used earlier in the century for printing on everything from walnuts to citrus fruits.
In 1920, the race to build a “brand imprinting” machine became a bit of a nationwide sensation when the Diamond Brand Walnut Company was seeking a way to distinguish their premium California walnuts from cheaper, imported nuts. To keep the inferior, foreign products from being passed off as premium Diamond nuts, the company needed to find a way to stamp each of its walnuts with the Diamond brand name. However, no existing machine could print on the intricate nooks and crannies of a walnut’s irregularly-shaped sloping surface, so the company launched a contest offering a grand prize of $10,000 to the inventor who could come up with the best design for a walnut branding machine.
Did you know?
The $10,000 grand prize offered in 1920 would be the equivalent of a prize of over $125,000 today. Many thousands of inventors designed machines and competed for the prize.
Soon, inventors throughout the US were frantically competing to win the grand prize. According to the January 1920 issue of Scientific American Magazine, there were over 12,000 replies to the contest. Over 1,000 inventors sent in blueprints and 127 sent in actual working machines hoping to claim the $10,000 reward. Their designs used techniques such as airbrushing, stencils and even burning to mark the nuts, but it was a machine designed by A.S. Wysong, of Los Angeles, CA, that captured the judge’s interest.
Wysong had grown up in a family of inventors and held numerous patents, but was drafted into military service as a young man, where he served as a machinist’s mate. After returning to civilian life, a mine he owned suddenly collapsed, leaving him virtually penniless. Wysong heard about the contest sponsored by the Nutgrower’s Association and became determined to claim the big prize. Although the deadline for the contest was just weeks away, Wysong worked around the clock, building and testing prototypes of his machine. His design featured a type of offset printer that used a series of rubber balls to transfer ink onto the surface of the nuts. His ingenious design used circulating water to offset the heat generated by friction to cool the machine down during the printing process. He worked night and day and experimented with many different ink formulations, until he found one that dried quickly, producing an imprint clean and clear enough to win him the grand prize.
Armed with the new machine, the Diamond Walnut company was able to brand their nuts to set themselves apart from their inferior foreign competition. They started using different color inks to grade their walnuts – red ink for larger nuts and black ink for smaller ones. The new technology was soon adapted for other uses. During the 1920 Holiday Season, the American Fruit Grower’s Association launched a promotion that printed “Merry Christmas” onto oranges using what they called their “electric fruit marking machine”. An advertisement announcing the campaign, boasted that “Thousands of people will be made happy the coming holiday by a real “Merry Christmas” orange.” Imprinting company logos onto oranges and lemons soon became a common way to brand and grade citrus fruits.
Similar types of machines have been used since then for marking everything from gumballs to candies to vitamin tablets. And while the technology has changed over the last 10 decades, independent engineers keep arriving at the same design conclusion – that a ramp feeder leading to roller system is the best way to singulate bulk products and produce high quality ink imprints.
Imprinting is especially important in the pharmaceutical industry, since the FDA requires medicines to have a unique imprint to help doctors, pharmacists and patients understand which drug is which. Modern pharmaceutical tablet printing machines are capable of operating at speeds of over 1 million products per hour, and can print one- or two-sided, in almost any combination of colors imaginable. But the concept still owes thanks to the prize-winning design of A.S. Wysong, and his mad dash to imprint the humble walnut.
As we approach the 100 year anniversary of Wysong’s design, Ackley Machine Corporation is proud of its role in the evolution and improvement of machinery designed to imprint pharmaceutical products such as tablets, capsules and softgels, as well as confections such as gumballs and hard candies. We invite you to contact us to see how we can put the latest pharmaceutical tablet printing technologies to work to ensure that your brand gets a crisp, clear imprint on your product, every time.
- Diamond Brand News – Volume 2, March, 1920
- Scientific American Magazine – January, 1920
- Printer’s Ink Magazine – November, 1920