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A Brief History of the Printing Press, Part I: Gutenberg to Clymer

By Alex Marcondes. Aug 4, 2015. 9:00 AM.

Topics: Fine Press, Book History

High school history told us of the invention of the printing press: when Johannes Gutenberg, in the Holy Roman Empire, launched the world into a new age, defined by the mass producibility of literature. What is not often considered, though, is the initial genius the invention was and the ingenuity required to improve on his design.

The first page of the Gospel of Luke from the Gutenberg Bible, Library of CongressGutenberg Sets the Standard

Gutenberg's genius was in his casting movable letters out of a matrix, or hand mold, arranging these letters into a chase, which holds the type together, and attaching the chase onto a screw press. Screw presses worked by rotating a screw that in turn lowered the platten. An allen wrench provides a good visualization. Imagine the short stem of the allen wrench as the lever, and the long arm as the screw. Pulling the lever rotated the screw and lowered the platten which was threaded onto the screw. The care that Gutenberg and company took to make the press work so perfectly is phenomenal, and watching a video of replications of the press at work is fascinating.

 A quick glance at the pages of the first two publications, the Gutenberg Bible and the Mainz Psalter, reveals two clear perfections that are a result of the thoughtfulness that went into the press. First, the text is perfectly square with the page, and the columns line up perfectly on both sides of the pages. This was a feat; it took more than one press to adequately transfer the ink to the page with the early wooden press. In this same vein, we see that the letters are crisp and consistent, even the capital letters in the Mainz Psalter and the illuminated letters, a remarkable accomplishment when one considers that these letters were printed in the same manner as the rest of the text. For the quality of these productions to have come out of the first public version of the press seems almost unnatural.

Initial Improvements to the Gutenberg Model

Still, there were improvements to be made. The printing process was hard work, and to produce a reasonable amount of pages per day, the printer and his apprentices had to work quickly. Between inking (and repairing the inking blotters), setting the pages each time, pressing both sets of columns sufficiently to create a clean print, and setting the chase for each new set of pages, there was plenty of work to be done. So, the first step taken to ease the printing process was to make the actual pressing a smoother operation.

A wooden screw press must have been a chore to maintain and hard to use. Wood splinters under stress, and it is quick to expand in heat and humidity. When it gets stuck, it takes even more force for the pressman to press the page onto the inked chase.

The easiest solution to this problem, coming about in the late eighteenth century, was to slowly replace as many parts as possible with metal ones. These metal parts allowed smoother operation and, most importantly, allowed for increased stress on the press which in turn led to the developments toward a single press print, as the force behind the press was increased. Along with weighted pull bars to add momentum to the pull, ingenious technical improvements to the design of the screw allowed for an increase in power without an increase in the speed or momentum of the pull. This type of wood and metal hybrid with a weighted pull bar was the type of press used by Benjamin Franklin to print the Pennsylvania Gazette and Poor Richard’s Almanac. 

Stanhope Press and Columbian Press

The first two widely successful full metal presses were the Stanhope Press (1800) and the Columbian Press (1814), invented by Earl Stanhope and George Clymer, respectively. Both innovated primarily in the manner in which the platten was lowered. The Stanhope used a series of connected levers to multiply the power of the pressman’s pull, reducing the stress on the machine. Because of this increase in power, Stanhope was able to widen the base of the platten allowing for a single press to print sides of the paper, effectively printing two pages or an entire face of a newspaper page at once.

Stanhope’s press was manufactured in England, where it originated, and in America, France, and Italy. As of the late nineteen seventies, a French-made Stanhope was still being used to print bullfighting posters in Ciudad Real, Spain: this is the only example of a Stanhope continuing its commercial function on a large scale into the age of modern printing. Stanhope’s press would only last until the mid-nineteenth century, when it would be surpassed by the Columbian press.

The Columbian Press invented by George Clymer, Library of CongressClymer invented his press in Philadelphia, later moving to London, having exhausted the American east coast market. Instead of just a series of levers, Clymer also implemented a series of counterweights and fulcrums to create both a powerful yet easy pressing process. While the Stanhope press’s levers were operating a screw, the Columbian used a piston, an idea Clymer based on the operation of the steam locomotive. One testimonial remarked that a boy of fifteen could easily operate the press without strain. The Columbian was unusually ornate, with a golden eagle sitting on top, acting as both decoration and as a counterweight. A half-naked Columbia sits on the middle of the fulcrum, while serpents lash out from the top of the press. These decorations were so powerful a marketing strategy that once the patent for the press was up, at least twenty British press makers were producing it with variations in decoration despite the exorbitant price of about £8,050 in today’s currency. This set a precedent for the ornate presses of the nineteenth century.

The likes of Lewis Carroll, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Emily Dickinson were all published using Stanhope and Columbian press (along with a few other popular presses of the time). A variant of these presses, the Washington press, is used by Rollin Milroy to print at Heavenly Monkey.

The speed of innovation was typical of the early industrial revolution and with time would come the innovations of the cylindrical press and the automated press. We’ll find out more about these in the next part of this series on the history of the printing press.

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Alex Marcondes
Spinning hot wax, rolling cassettes and writing about books. Captivated by the early history of printed literature and its effects on the philosophical mindsets of those reached.


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