Today, let the presses roll.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
It's a visceral thrill to watch a large press in action --
paper leaving huge rolls that weigh over a ton, flying through a vast machine
that prints, cuts, and folds it, all faster than the eye can follow. Compare
that with a Gutenberg-style hand press, where two printers might finish a few
hundred sheets per day. Printers still used presses like that during the
eighteenth-century Industrial Revolution. Only after that did things begin changing.
First, French printers began adding metal parts and clever mechanisms to presses.
Then, around 1800, the Earl of Stanhope built an all-metal press. He used compound
levers to drive a conventional screw mechanism. It imposed very high pressure
at the end of the printing stroke. Printers who once had to impress each half of
the paper separately could now, with far less effort, print a whole sheet in one
pull of their lever.
During the War of 1812, George Clymer of Philadelphia built his famous
It was lighter than Stanhope's, with a pure lever system. Clymer eliminated the
screw drive entirely. He also used a dramatic iron American eagle for the counterweight
that lifted the platen after each impression. Historian James Moran tells how, as
Columbian presses went international, other countries would replace the eagle with a globe,
a lamp, or a lion.
In any case, hand presses now provided far greater outputs of printed matter;
but, compared with our huge newspaper presses, they seem intolerably slow. They
would clearly have to give way to a steady flow of paper through rollers.
That was first hinted at by an early seventeenth century Italian inventor. He
proposed rolling a heavy wheel over paper lying on inked type. But it was 1790
before William Nicholson patented a rotary printing system, and then he failed to
build a prototype.
Not until 1810 did German inventor Friedrich Koenig began developing a steam-powered
machine whose inked roller printed paper as it flowed by. Koenig also figured out
how to print on both sides of paper. Think about that for a moment; just imagine
the problem of inverting the paper and causing a second roller to place an image
correctly on its back.
It took a generation for those complex cylinder machines to make serious inroads on
the Columbian press and its kin. As they did, the printed word began reaching the
general public in ways that would transform the world and transform knowledge. Still
it took a steam engine to run those machines. And that high technology could be hard
to come by. Iron hand presses were still in wide use until we had electric motors,
late in the 19th century.
And so, good listener, we in America came into the joy of cheap books. We became a
literate people. We learned the sheer pleasure of reading -- under the elm tree,
behind the plow -- aloud after supper and in the quiet of our room.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
J. Moran, Printing Presses: History and Development from the fifteenth Century to Modern Times.
(Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1973).
Images below from The Edinburgh Encyclopędia (David Brewster, ed.) Vol. III
(Philadelphia: Joseph and Edward Parker, 1832).