25 Jul

A Brief History of Printing Presses – Part 3: The Industrial Revolution

By Kevin Crimmins

A Brief History of Printing Presses – Part 3: The Industrial Revolution

When thinking about the history of printing, the Gutenberg Bible often comes to mind (or China, if you’ve read Part 1 in this series). But what about all the developments that have happened since then?

Today’s presses can print more words in one second than even a 17th-century printshop could have accomplished in an entire day. Getting to that point took some revolutionary thinking … or to be more specific, some Industrial Revolution thinking.

And as it turns out, many of the printing press innovations that arose during mid-18th to mid-19th centuries are still in use today.

By the early 18th century, the business of printing was on the verge of a major growth period. In 1725, there were 75 printers in London. Just sixty years later, that number had grown to 124. Newspapers, magazines and books were becoming increasingly accessible to the masses, enabling knowledge to grow at an unprecedented rate.

This is largely due to the development of better print technology.

The Invention of Lithography

In 1796, aspiring playwright Alois Senefelder sought a more cost-effective way to reproduce copies of his plays. Preferring to avoid the tedious and costly process of making copperplate engravings, Senefelder chose instead to use less expensive pieces of limestone. Then through trial and error, Senefelder discovered a combination of wax, soap, lampblack, and rainwater that would repel water. By drawing an image onto limestone with this special fluid, wetting the stone with water, and then applying ink with a roller, the greasy ink would adhere to the image but would be repelled by the watery remainder of the stone.

This chemical process became a major building block of modern printing, allowing for clear and sharp print without the need for engraved type.

While this was a breakthrough in the world of printing, more major game-changers were on the horizon.

A Different Kind of Printing: The Beginnings of Braille

As with many inventions, Braille arose out of military necessity. In the early 1800s, Charles Barbier was serving in the French army under Napoleon Bonaparte. He had seen many soldiers who had been killed by the enemy due to being betrayed by their lantern light as they read combat messages. To allow soldiers to read in complete darkness, Barbier invented a “night-writing” system of raised dots to serve as letters.

This system was improved upon by Louis Braille, who had lost his sight at a very young age due to an accident with his father’s awl. At age eleven, Braille decided to modify Barbier’s system, and after nine years, came up with the six-celled dot arrangement that is still used today.

The Cylinder Press

Friedrich Koenig was born in 1774 in Saxony, Germany. An experienced printer, Koenig sought a way to use technology to make his job easier. After all, the Gutenberg press, while advanced for its time, was still labor-intensive, and even when operated by a master typically topped out at 250 pages per hour.

Koenig’s first prototype contained two elements that would completely change the industry. The first, steam power, allowed Koenig’s press to move at speeds and power heretofore unseen. The second element was self-inking cylinders — wooden rollers wrapped with layers of felt and sheathed in leather. A piece of paper would be pressed between a flat surface and the cylinder, with the cylinder rolling over the paper to produce an impression.

Because they were self-inking, these cylinders would ostensibly eliminate the need for the printer to manually re-ink plates, saving vast amounts of time and effort. Joined by his mechanically talented friend, Andreas Bauer, Koenig’s first customer was The London Times newspaper, which bought two of the machines in 1814.

The cylinder press was a marvel of efficiency, rolling out 1,100 pages an hour, giving The Times a major competitive advantage in printing and labor costs.

Soon, however, yet another new invention would make the cylinder press look positively sluggish.

The Rotary Press

Thirty years after The London Times bought their cylinder presses, a man named Richard Hoe invented the rotary press. This press used two cylinders: one to support the paper and one holding the print plates. This new press could print up to 8,000 pages per hour.

In 1865, William Bullock took presses to yet another level with the Bullock press, which contained rolls rather than sheets of paper. Once threaded, the press could print on both sides of the paper and cut it to size, resulting in print speeds of more than 12,000 pages per hour.

The Journey to Today

While Gutenberg tends to be the most widely known name in printing press history, it took Industrial era innovators – Senefelder, Koenig, Hoe, and Bullock, plus countless (and often nameless) others – to carry printing beyond the Renaissance and into modern day.

Indeed, today’s custom printers are indebted to these individuals for paving the way toward today’s modern printing press technology … which we’ll be covering in our next blog in this series.

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