Saturday, 1 March 2008

A Brief History of ATN Machins

For those of us in love with Machin Minutiae™, the years 2003 to 2005 were very exciting. During that period, De La Rue produced Machins with six varieties of paper and three types of gum, a veritable treasure trove of challenges for those of us who like to exercise our ultraviolet lamps.

These were the first ATN Machins, so-called because they were printed by De La Rue on the ATN press. (ATN is the abbreviation for Applications Tecnologies Nouveaux, the name of the company that makes the press.) The varieties weren't directly related to the press; they stemmed from the various papers fed into it. Roy described these Machins here, here and here, so I won't repeat those details. However, the history of the ATN Machins - why and how they came about - hasn't been told here.

The story starts with Harrison & Sons, the venerable (founded in the 16th century) printer that had been printing British stamps since, well, a long time ago. Harrison & Sons printed all low-value Machins from their introduction in 1967 until 1979 and produced most of them in the years since then except for a period in the mid-1990s.

In 1997, Harrison & Sons was acquired by Thomas De La Rue and Company, a larger company but a relative newcomer to the printing business (founded in 1813). At that time, Machins were undergoing conversion to the new, computerized printing process known as electromechanical engraving, or EME. However, the purchase of Harrison & Sons by De La Rue didn't have any direct effect on Machins.

Five years later, De La Rue went on the prowl again and came home with The House of Questa, a mere child (founded in 1966) in the printing business. Questa had been printing Machins since 1980, first by lithography and then, starting in 1998, by gravure.

Under the guidance of De La Rue, the youthful Questa put the aged Harrisons out of business and took over the Machin printing duties. Machin production was moved from Harrison's plant in Hy Wycombe to Questa's location in Byfleet and was carried out on Questa's ATN press. These stamps had a number of differences from their predecessors (that's a topic for another day), so collectors started referring to them as the Byfleet Machins.

However, De La Rue consolidated its facilities and soon moved the ATN press to a different plant at Dunstable. Having been burned by the short-sighted nature of their nickname, collectors started referring to these stamps as the ATN Machins, a name that doesn't depend on the physical location of the printing press.

But we still haven't gotten to the cause of the many paper and gum varieties, so here it is. It was Harrison's practice to buy unfinished paper from its supplier, Tullis Russell Ltd. (formerly named Coated Papers Ltd.). Harrison then added a coating to one side (on which the stamp was printed) and gum to the other side. This practice didn't change when De La Rue first took over.

When De La Rue combined the Harrison and Questa businesses, they decided to stop finishing the paper themselves. They told their supplier, Tullis Russell, to provide finished paper to them.

TR (as I will call them, with only a slight nod to the most famous TR on my side of the Atlantic, Teddy Roosevelt) apparently didn't have any experience in producing finished paper. And even though Harrison transferred their technology and some employees to TR, TR's production of finished paper was, shall we say, erratic.

There were three types of gums - shiny gum with a blue tint, dull gum with a pale yellow, or cream, color and a colorless, matt gum known as layflat gum (because it didn't curl the way some other gums did). However, I won't bother with gums here because if you have a mint stamp, it's pretty easy to identify the gum. If you have a used stamp, you don't care.

The real fun was with the paper, and specifically with the brightness of the paper under long-wave ultraviolet light. The unfinished paper used for stamps is dull under UV light. At times, printers have added an optical brightening agent (OBA) to the coating. The OBA makes the paper look whiter under normal light - making the stamp more attractive.

The amount of OBA added to the coating can vary. This variation isn't readily visible under ordinary light, but the brightness under UV light varies with the amount of OBA. Paper with a lot of OBA looks bright white under UV. Paper with a lower amount of OBA looks gray, sometimes with a faint purple color.

As I said before, there were six different papers used for the initial ATN printings. However, collectors break them into three categories - dull (very little or no OBA), intermediate (some OBA) and bright (lots and lots of OBA). There is only one intermediate and one bright paper. It is the dull category that has four different papers, some of which can be inferred by identifying the gum, but that's beyond the scope of this already long post. Roy's previous posts, linked above, have some additional information.

In 2005, Royal Mail gave De La Rue a single specification for the paper to be used for all Machins. This is generally known as RMS (for Royal Mail Specification). This paper was actually first used by Harrison and Sons in 1997 for the metallic gold-colored Machin issued to mark the Queen's Golden Wedding Anniversary. This paper is smooth on both sides, shiny, and thicker than other papers. Its coating has no brightener, so it is considered a dull paper. (It is one of the four dull papers mentioned above, but in the 2003 to early 2005 period, it was only used for the metallic gold first-class non-denominated Machin.)

Starting in the spring of 2005, De La Rue standardized on this paper. Some Machins that had previously been printed on other papers were printed on RMS when new supplies were needed. All newly-issued Machins were printed on RMS, so the fun and games ended. Well, almost.

There was one more tweak to the ATN Machins. After several Machins were printed on RMS paper, Royal Mail's quality assurance division decided that the colors were not quite right. Most noticeably the head was too pale. They decided that a new set of cylinders was needed, with the depth of etch varying for each color. Douglas Myall calls these "colour-tied" cylinders.

Pictured here are the first 2p on RMS paper (cylinder D1, printing date 22 April 2005) and the colour-tied 2p (cylinder D2, printing date 16 March 2006). The difference in the Queen's head is easily visible. On this value, the background color is also darker, but that's not noticeable on all denominations.

Several denominations were reissued with a colour-tied cylinder. All new Machins since the beginning of 2006 were, of course, printed with colour-tied cylinders.

That's where the ATN Machins rest as this is written. We'll see what other surprises Royal Mail and De La Rue have in store for us in the future.


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