Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The History of Letterpress, Part 2

Gutenberg's press design was pretty much unchanged from the 15th century until 1800. Our old friend here:

…kept that up for a good three hundred years, until a man named Earl Stanhope made three significant improvements that made our pressman friend's life much easier.

First, he built his press entirely out of iron, which made it much stronger and allowed for larger images. Second, he invented a series of clever levers that reduced the pressman's efforts by about 90%, allowing him to work faster and more efficiently. Third, he added a moving carriage—so instead of raising the platen (the surface that presses the paper onto the type, i.e. the top piece of sandwich bread) high enough to ink the type every time, he only needed to raise it an inch or so and the type bed would slide out from under it for inking.

Taken together, these improvements increased the speed of the printing press fourfold, to 480 pages per hour.

But the real innovation was to arrive several years later, when Freidrich Kroenig invented the first automated press, powered by steam.

He'd spent a decade of his life trying to put together a mechanized printing press, and the final concoction was not only the first press powered by steam, it was also the first to use a cylindrical platen–so instead of being impressed by a flat surface coming down all at once, the type bed went under a roller that would press the paper down an inch at a time.

Nobody in Kroenig's native Germany wanted to buy one of the presses; they were too weird. He tried instead in England, and found his first customer in the London Times. Once all the kinks got worked out, and Kroenig added a new invention called a "perfecting machine" that allowed for both sides of the paper to be printed at once, the steamy press was churning out over 2,000 pages per hour. Stanhope's 480, which had been a major breakthrough only a decade earlier, suddenly looked sad, and his press became obsolete.

Many historians credit Kroenig's invention with the spread of newspapers, and with an increase in literacy generally.

But meanwhile, in America! A Bostonian named Daniel Treadwell had seen Kroenig's steam-powered press and was not impressed with its impressions. Kroenig's press did have its drawbacks: its prints tended to be sloppy, with blurred text, and it was extremely difficult to register accurately. Treadwell saw that old-fashioned platen machines produced better work, and he sought to make a mechanical version that used the same basic principle (no cylinders here, thanks), but would be powered by steam and would be fast enough for industrial applications.

In 1824 he unveiled the "Bed and Platen" press. It was somewhat slower than Kroenig's machine, and it took three people to run, but it produced much finer work making it suitable for fine book editions (i.e. lots and lots of Bibles).

Treadwell's press could be rigged to run off of steam, waterwheel, or horse-whim. If your press was horse-driven, though, you would have a problem because at the moment when the platen actually pressed into the paper the horse would get a sudden lurch. As a result, you would need to employ a horse-restarter to kickstart the animal once per cycle, as it would usually stop walking at this point.

Treadwell's presses, and others modeled off his, had a good run in America (they never really made it across the Atlantic), but by the 1880s improvements to cylinder presses like Kroenig's made the bed-and-platen obsolete. Once the cylinder press, which had always been faster, dealt with its sloppiness problems, Treadwells fell out of favor–except, oddly, with one stalewart Bible maker in Tennessee who owned twelve Treadwells and refused to give them up until finally he was forced out of business around the turn of the century. The rest of humanity, though, moved on. [Correction by Doug Charles: The Bible printer may have been using the famous "descendant" of the Treadwell, the Adams press. It is most unlikely—verging on impossible—that any examples of the wooden-framed Treadwell would have survived so long. On the other hand, his ownership of Adams presses would not have been so unusual, as many were running after the beginning of the 20th century.]

In other innovations:

In 1857 Richard M. Hoe invented a rotary press that could print on rolls of paper, removing the need to feed individual sheets and greatly speeding up the process.

The linotype machine was invented in 1887. It allowed an operator to type an entire line of text that would then be cast as a single piece of metal, removing the need to reset individual letters. It was mainly used for newspapers, which had to be printed fast. The main drawback, clearly, was that if the operator made one mistake, the whole line would have to be recast.

The monotype machine, also from 1887, was similar to the linotype machine except that when it cast the letters they weren't actually attached to one another. This way a single letter could be replaced without having to redo an entire line.

So if Kroenig, Treadwell, and Hoe were the godfathers of modern industrial printing, Stephen P. Ruggles was the spiritual ancestor of today's small press movement. As he himself unambiguously put it, "In 1830 or 1831, I invented and built, in New York, the first card or job press, I believe, ever constructed in any part of the world."

A job press is a press designed specifically for the printing of small items, such as cards, billheads, envelopes, and stationery. While Ruggles claims to have built his first "jobber"–as the presses came to be called–in 1830, his design wasn't patented or put into use until 1851. It was called the "Card & Billhead" press, and it's the basic design of all the platen presses being used by craft shops today.

The Card & Billhead was run by a foot-treadle and required just one operator. Unlike larger industrial presses, it had a fast setup time, and it was actually remarkably efficient–a practiced pressman could turn out over 1,000 pages per hour without needing a steam engine or a horse.

Incidentally, Ruggles was also the inventor of a machine that produced Braille Bibles for the blind.

The descendants of Ruggles' press are the platen presses mainly used by craft pressmen working today.

In our next installment, we'll look at the very first movement to refer to itself as the "Private Press Movement," which arose in opposition to the mechanical fist of the Industrial Revolution.