We live in a high-tempo world that demands information in volume and delivered at speed. And to satisfy the public’s insatiable appetite for news, over the years manufacturers have developed newspaper presses capable of producing dozens of copies per second.
Of course this need for speed is not new; since the dawn of printing inventors have sought ways to hasten the process. The first big step was finally made in 1814 with the launch of one of the most important inventions in the history of the printing press: the cylinder machine. Developed by two Germans, Koenig and Bauer, patented and financed in England, and first installed at The Times, this steam-driven machine romped along at 1,100iph, threatening the jobs of unsuspecting pressmen and astonishing the news-reading public.
At the end of the 18th century printing was still performed on wooden presses, which were inexorably slow, produced an inconsistent impression, and required much strength to operate. In addition, the small size of the platen often meant the publication of urgent news was delayed. To expedite the process, printers resorted to a practice in use since the 17th century: to compose pages in duplicate and work them on separate presses. The development, in 1800, of the English-built Stanhope press went some way to increase pressroom capacity. Made of iron, the Stanhope took advantage of new techniques in casting metal, had a platen double the size of the wooden press and allowed a full-size forme to be printed at one pull. As a result it could print up to 250iph. The Stanhope was a significant advance in the pressroom; it was, however, still based on human pulling power and not on physico-mechanical energy, which inevitably limited its speed.
Over the centuries, a number of inventors considered how to mechanise the printing process. In 1616, Faustus Verantius, polymath, inventor and bishop, suggested a rolling cylinder might be used in printing to overcome manual strain and increase speed. In his masterpiece Machinae Novae, Verantius illustrated his idea for a primitive rotary press, which was primarily intended for printing engraved plates rather than type. However, it took another 200 years before a practical printing cylinder machine eventually emerged: the Koenig and Bauer steam press.
Experiments in England
Friedrich Koenig, a printer and bookseller, was born in Thuringia, Germany, in 1778. In around 1808 he designed the Suhl press – a power-driven machine with inking rollers at right angles to the travel of the carriage, which inked the type forme as it passed to and from the platen. It is not known whether the machine was built but economic conditions in Europe meant there was little support for Koenig’s ideas, so, in 1806, he travelled to London in the hope of finding both financial and practical backing. Here he was introduced to Thomas Bensley, the printer of Bolt Court, Fleet Street, who was interested in improving printing machinery and who brought in two other printers to help finance Koenig’s experiments: Richard Taylor (whose firm is still active under the name Taylor & Francis Group) and typographer and book printer George Woodfall.
Koenig teamed up with compatriot and engineer, Andreas Bauer, and together they applied for a patent in 1810 for a machine based on the platen but driven by steam. Bensley was not interested in marketing the press, but wished to retain it both for himself and his partners. The press was built and installed in Bensley’s office in April 1811, from which sheet H of the Annual Register was reputedly printed. Running at 800iph the press was a great advance on the Stanhope, but the machine had few possibilities for further technical advances and so Koenig began developing what was to be the first cylinder machine, for which a patent was issued in October 1811, and a working version of which was ready in 1812. With this press Koenig discarded the platen in favour of the ‘pressing cylinder’, whereby a sheet was placed around the cylinder to bring the paper quickly to the point of impression. But the press was not without problems: in the absence of grippers the continuous motion of Koenig’s cylinder inhibited the feeding of sheets and so a stop motion was introduced; and because composition rollers were in their infancy it was difficult to obtain an even flow of ink. Despite the problems, the machine was set to work in Bensley’s office, printing sheets G and X of Clarkson’s Life of William Penn.
It was evident that the success of the printing trade would depend upon the extent to which the mechanisation was accepted and exploited. While Bensley’s interest in technical developments meant the cylinder machine was first applied to book printing, a more obvious use was for the printing of newspapers. Several newspaper proprietors were invited to see Koenig’s new cylinder machine, among them James Perry of the Morning Chronicle and John Walter II of The Times. Walter alone saw the potential in Koenig’s idea – but only if it could be developed as a double machine so it could be fed at both ends. Koenig said it could, and took the design of his 1811 press and adapted it to form a new double machine: a second cylinder was added by which the return movement of the bed was made productive; the friskets were abolished in favour of endless tapes conducted over rolls; and the inking system underwent modification to meet the demands of double printing. Koenig patented his new machine in June 1813 and Walter ordered two steam-driven, double machines for The Times with the proviso they be ready in 12 months and that none were to be sold during the life of the patent for newspaper production within 10 miles of the City of London.
To avoid difficulties with his pressmen, Walter insisted Koenig and Bauer conveyed, in secrecy, the machine parts to a workshop adjoining The Times offices on Printing House Square; here it was constructed away from the composing and pressrooms in order to avoid any anti-mechanical demonstrations.
The printing of the first issue was a clandestine affair, rumours were rife on Printing House Square and some of the compositors and pressmen threatened to withdraw their labour. At six o’clock in the morning, Walter entered the press room and astonished the men by announcing the issue of 29 November 1814 had already been printed by steam, that if they attempted violence there was a force ready to repress it, but if they were peaceable their wages would be paid until similar employment could be procured. In the event, the edition passed into circulation with little agitation from the workforce.
In 1814, the circulation of The Times was about 4,500 and the first steam edition did not differ from previous issues either in appearance or quality of impression, but the saving in time and the cost of both production and labour was considerable. Economies were made in the composing room where setting of duplicate formes became completely unnecessary, and this alone saved Walter upwards of 250 guineas a year (about £27,000 in today’s money), of which he bound himself to pay half to Koenig each year. In terms of presswork, the steam press produced 1,100 sheets an hour – considerably faster than the wooden presses and more than four times faster than the Stanhope. Walter and The Times were filled with ambition and proud of themselves for surpassing all competitors, as is evident from its editorial of 29 November:
“Our Journal of this day presents to the public the practical result of the greatest improvement connected with printing, since the discovery of the art itself. The reader of this paragraph now holds in his hand one of the many thousand impressions of The Times newspaper, which were taken off last night by a mechanical apparatus. A system of machinery almost organic has been devised and arranged, which, while it relieves the human frame of its most laborious efforts in printing, far exceeds all human powers in rapidity and dispatch. That the magnitude of the invention may be justly appreciated by its effects, we shall inform the public, that once the letters are placed by the compositors, and enclosed in what is called the forme, little more remains for man to do, than to attend upon, and watch this unconscious agent in its operations … of the person who made this discovery, we have but little to add. It must suffice to say farther, that is a Saxon by birth; that his name is Koenig; and that the invention has been executed under the direction of his friend and countryman, Bauer.”
Despite the clarity of Walter’s statements, and as a result of industrial jealousy, much was subsequently written in an attempt to repudiate Koenig and Bauer’s claim to have produced the first cylinder machine. However their experiment was a complete success and marked the greatest revolution in printing since Gutenberg.