Today, speed outruns us. 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.
I've mentioned the19th-century print revolution before.
A series of improved hand presses had finally gone beyond the presses used by both
Gutenberg and Ben Franklin. But they still pressed one sheet of paper at a time
against inked type -- not good enough for a public that cried out to have cheap
and available books.
Finally, in 1810, German inventor Friederich Koenig built a steam-powered cylinder
press that printed sheets of paper flowing through its rollers. Throughout the
mid-19th century, a dizzying array of cylinder machines sped the flow of printed
paper sheets to thousands per hour.
And those weren't just pages, those sheets, printed on both sides, would fold into
signatures of maybe 16 pages. A book that would've taken most of a day to print
on a hand press could now be printed in, not minutes, but seconds.
Then the so-called web-fed press really sped output. You've watched one of those
if you've ever visited a newspaper press -- a huge roll of paper feeding a machine
that covers the length of a factory floor. Paper flows in one end and, every second,
dozens of folded newspapers come out the other.
The genius behind this was Richard Hoe. Born in 1812, Hoe was raised in a family
deeply involved with the new fast presses. In 1846, he built a new press which,
instead of using rollers to press flat paper against flat type, held type on curved
But that was just the beginning. Others had tried means for feeding a press with
paper rolls instead of single sheets. Hoe bought up patents of other people's idea
and he fused them into the first fully-evolved press fed by a paper roll. That was 1873.
Three years later, web-fed machines equipped with folding apparatus could handle 15,000
folded signatures per hour. Soon, presses more than doubled that output; but here an
old technological limitation arose. I offer an analogy.
Speed was our great desire two centuries ago. We went from seven mile-an-hour steamboats
to rocket-powered airplanes. Then speed outran utility. As the airport, not the
airplane, limited our speed of travel, we quit building for speed. Now we focus
on the beginning and end of our journey. (Remember how SSTs came and went.)
So too with the web-fed press: All my later books have been made on web-fed presses that
deliver maybe 15,000 printed signatures per hour. At that rate, the whole print run takes
only a few hours. It takes longer to set the press up for the run, and to get the inking
process stabilized, than it does to print the book.
There's more. The startup process for a web-fed press wastes a lot of paper. That's
tolerable for large runs -- especially for newspapers. But, for small print runs, the
printer goes back to modern forms of the older sheet-fed press.
Technology is a strange beast. We push it and push it, and often reach the end of our
tether only after we've pushed it beyond the brink of utility.
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).
For more on the 19th-century print revolution, and on the 19th-century quest for speed, see
J. H. Lienhard, How Invention Begins: Echoes of Old Voices in the Rise of New Machines. (New
York: Oxford University Press, 2006).
I am very grateful to Richard Hollick and Helen Mules of Oxford University Press for their