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William Clowes Introduces High Speed Printing in Large Scale Book Production


The distinction between printing by "machine" and handpress printing seems to have originated in the language of the first patents on steam-driven mechanized printing granted to Friedrich Koenig in London between 1810 and 1814. High speed presses initially attempted to meet the increasing demand for higher production output from newspapers, beginning in 1814 with The Times of London. Nevertheless, the technology did not catch on rapidly. In 1820 there were only eight steam-driven presses in the huge printing industry of London, nearly all being used by newspapers, except for those of Strahan, the King's Printer, by then owned by Andrew and Robert Spottiswoode. According to The Story of a Printing House, Being the Account of the Strahans and Spottiswoodes (1912), p. 36:

"One of the first steps taken by the Spottiswoodes was to install steam printing. Thus in 1819 we find them purchasing from Maudslay a steam engine at a cost of £782, as well as a patent perfecting cylinder machine from Applegath for £1200, and a foundry for £785."

In the 1830s we find the earliest detailed confirmation that high speed presses were in wide use for other applications in Charles Knight's exposition of the latest advances in papermaking and printing technology used in his Penny Magazine, printed on the steam-driven Applegath & Cowper presses at W. Clowes & Sons.

According to Samuel Smiles, Men of Invention and Industry (1884) chapter 8 "William Clowes: Book-printing by Steam",  the London printer William Clowes (1779-1847) was the first to exploit the advantages of high speed printing in book production. Before 1823 the recently developed fast steam-powered presses were used primarily for printing newspapers. In 1823 Clowes installed his first steam-powered printing press designed by Cowper & Applegath. Clowes's facility happened to adjoin the palace of Britain's wealthiest man, the Duke of Northumberland, who instituted a court action for noise and pollution abatement caused by Clowes's machines. The presses were excessively noisy, but Clowes succeeded in forcing the Duke to pay the huge costs of moving Clowes's heavy machinery, and in 1827 the firm took over Applegath's premises in Duke Street, Blackfriars. Within "a few years" the firm operated 25 high speed Applegath & Cowper steam presses, 28 hand-presses, six hydraulic presses, and employed over 500 workers. It is notable that the firm reached this extent before Clowes died in 1847, indicating the enormous increase in book production made possible by the new high speed presses and machine-made paper. That they also operated 28 hand-presses during the same period reflects the continuing use of hand-presses for short-run printing, as was the case with many books. Iron hand-presses continued in wide use throughout the nineteenth century.

"Besides the works connected with his printing-office, Mr. Clowes found it necessary to cast his own types, to enable him to command on emergency any quantity; and to this he afterwards added stereotyping on an immense scale. He possessed the power of supplying his compositors with a stream of new type at the rate of about 50,000 pieces a day. In this way, the weight of type in ordinary use became very great; it amounted to not less than 500 tons, and the stereotyped plates to about 2500 tons--the value of the latter being not less than half a million sterling.

"Mr. Clowes would not hesitate, in the height of his career, to have tons of type locked up for months in some ponderous blue-book. To print a report of a hundred folio pages in the course of a day or during a night, or of a thousand pages in a week, was no uncommon occurrence. From his gigantic establishment were turned out not fewer than 725,000 printed sheets, or equal to 30,0000 volumes a week. Nearly 45,000 pounds of paper were printed weekly. The quantity printed on both sides per week, if laid down in a path of 22 1/3 inches broad, would extend 263 miles in length" Smiles, op. cit., 218).

Clowes was also an innovator in terms of working practices, and in 1820 became one of the first employers to start a benevolent fund for this workforce. Clowes' high speed printing establishment was also one of the main producers of the huge publishing output of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge.

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