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Joseph Moxon Issues the First Comprehensive Printing Manual

1683 to 1684

In 1683 and 1684 English hydrographer, printer, punch cutter, globe maker, and instrument maker Joseph Moxon published in London his Mechanick Exercises on the Whole Art of Printing as part of his survey of the chief trades of his day. This was the first printing manual published in English, and the first comprehensive manual in any language published on printing—a trade that was passed down through apprenticeship, without truly useful printed manuals, since the mid-15th century.  

Moxon's Mechanick Exercises was intended to furnish his readers with basic instruction in all the chief trades of his day. Fourteen numbers, devoted to smithying, joining, carpentry and related arts, were issued between 1677 and 1680, before possible disappointment with sales, and the "breaking out of the [Popish] Plot"— which "took off the minds of my few customers from buying. . . ." (Moxon's "Advertisement," Vol. ii)— forced Moxon temporarily to cease production.  

¶ Volume 1 was the first book in England to be published in parts, or fascicules. Moxon resumed the series in 1683 with Mechanick Exercises on the Whole Art of Printing, issued in twenty-four parts during 1683 and 1684. The general title page was issued with the first number in 1683, and bears that date in its imprint. The numbers were each two printed sheets (16pp., 4to) with one or more copperplate engravings, at 2d. per sheet and 2d. per plate. "Although 500 copies were printed, very few complete sets have been preserved, the work being, perhaps, the most difficult to obtain in the whole range of typographical literature" (Bigmore & Wyman, A Bibliography of Printing II (1880) 54). Bigmore & Wyman describe a second edition of 1693-1701, and a third edition of 1703, a portion of which they say is the "fourth edition." It is not unusual for sets of this very rare work to combine parts from different editions.

Moxon had worked for years as a master printer. He had also cut steel punches for letters, made moulds and matrices, and cast and sold type. In 1676 he published Regulae trium ordinum literarum typographicarum, or the rules of the three orders of print letters... Shewing how they are compounded of geometrick figures, and mostly made by rule and compass. Useful for writing masters, painters, carvers, masons, and others that are lovers of curiosity. (Bigmore & Wyman II, 56).  His type in that work were based on Dutch originals that he knew from experience in Holland.  

In the second volume of Mechanick Exercises  Moxon provided detailed technical accounts of the tools of the compositor and pressman, the art of typefounding, and the work of the compositor, corrector, pressman and other members of the printing trades as they had come down to his day. Most of these skills had not changed materially for nearly two hundred years, and would remain unaltered until the mechanization of printing in the nineteenth century. Moxon's manual "put into writing a knowledge that was wholly traditional" with such success that it was copied by virtually every writer of printing manuals and served as a standard text for over two hundred years.  

On February 8, 2021 John A. Lane of Leiden reported to the Ex-Libris newsgroup these details from Moxon concerning occupational risks and health hazards of printers:

"Joseph Moxon, in his Mechanick exercises (1683-84) says little about printers’ diseases or injuries, but he does discuss (pp. 82-84 in the Davis & Carter editions) one of the printer’s most dangerous tasks: boiling varnish for making ink, ‘dangerous of Firing the Place it is made in’: ’should the flame rise too high, ... taking off the Cover of the Caldron, the fume of the Oyl might be apt to take Fire ... Firing the House’ and if the cauldron is more than half full, ’the Scum will Rise too fast, ... For if it Boyl over into the Fire never so little, the whole Body of Oyl will take Fire immediately.’ Due to these dangers some printers sensibly made their ink outside the city walls (perhaps some cities prohibited it within the walls: does anyone know?)....

"Moxon also gives a telling account of preparing type metal for casting type: ‘now comes Labour would make Hercules sweat'. After they finish ‘is Half a Pint of Sack mingled with Sallad Oyl, provided for each Workman to Drink; intended for an Antidote against the Poysonous Fumes of the Antimony, ...’. Lead of course has long term dangers, but the antimony was a much more acute and immediate danger. They probably got their antimony in the form of sulphide, so sulphur fumes came off during the smelting as well."

Moxon, Mechanick Exercises, edited by Davis and Carter [1962] vii ff.  


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