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Machine Press Inventor Edward Cowper Chronicles and Analyzes the New Developments in High Speed Machine Printing

The image of the Cowper & Applegath perfecting press that Cowper reproduced was first published by Hansard in his Typographia (1825) facing p. 698.
Creative Commons LicenseJeremy Norman Collection of Images - Creative Commons

The image of the Cowper & Applegath perfecting press that Cowper reproduced in this paper was first published by Hansard in his Typographia (1825) facing p. 698.

Having studied and collected the history of the technology and the incunabula of machine printing for more than ten years, in January 2018 I had the opportunity to purchase and read for the first time the remarkable article by printing machine inventor Edward Cowper entitled "On the recent Improvements in the Art of Printing" published in The Quarterly Journal of Science, Literature, and Art, January to June 1828, 183-191. This article, written for the educated public by one of the key inventors in the early history of machine printing, is so little-known and so informative regarding the early development and adoption of the technology that I will quote it in its entirety below with an occasional comment. My comments are in brackets.

"It is a remarkable fact, that from the invention of the art of printing, to the year 1798, a period of nearly 350 years, no improvement had been introduced in this important art. In Dr. Dibdin's interesting account of printing, in the Bibliographical Decameron, may be seen representations of the early printing presses, which exactly resemble the wooden presses in use at the present day,—The immense superiority of the press over the pen induced, perhaps, a general belief that nothing more was possible, or it might be that the powers of the press were quite equal to the demand for its productions.

"A new era has, however, arisen, the prompt and extensive circulation of the public journals and other periodicals requiring powers which the ordinary press could never reach.

"The first important improvement of the common press was the invention of the late Lord Stanhope. This press is composed entirely of iron; the table, on which the types rest, and the platten (or surface which gives the impression,) are made perfectly level; he has thus introduced better materials and better workmanship, to which, however, he added a beautiful combination of levers, to give motion to the screw, causing the platten to descend with decreasing rapidity, and consequently with increasing force, till it reaches the type, when a very great power is obtained. There have been, perhaps, twenty contrivances for obtaining the same effect; but as a press, Lord Stanhope's invention has not been surpassed. Still it is only a press, and in point of expedition,  has little superiority over its wooden rival, producing 250 impressions per hour.

"Lord Stanhope was also the successful reviver of the art of stereotype founding, —the process of which is as follows, — a brass frame is placed round the form of types; plaster of Paris, mixed with water to the consistence of cream, is then poured on the type, the superfluous plaster being scraped off. When the plaster is hard, the mould is lifted off by means of the brass frame, and from which it is readily detached— it is now baked in an oven, and when well dried and quite hot, it is placed in an iron box or casting-pot, which has also been heated in the oven; it is now plunged into a large port of melted type-metal, and kept about ten minutes under the surface, in order that the weight of the metal may force it into all the finest parts of the letters, — the whole is then cooled, the mould broken and washed off, and the back of the plate turned in a lathe. This manufacture has been carried to a considerable extent; Mr. Clowes, the proprietor of one of the largest and best conducted printing-offices in London, has on his premises between 700 and 800 tons of stereotype plates, belonging to various book-sellers, —the value may be estimated at £200,000.

[This is probably the best brief description of the stereotype process that I have read; Cowper's estimate of the commercial value of the stereotype plates at Clowes' printing plant is also of note. Cowper addresses publishers as "book-sellers", indicating the overlap between publishers and booksellers at the time.]

"In connection with the Stanhope press, may be briefly noticed a little improvement for the particular purpose of printing music, after a new process, and for which I have obtained a patent.—In this new process the lines are formed of thin slips of copper driven into small blocks of wood, and the notes are formed of copper driven into a separate block. Two note blocks and two corresponding sets of lines are placed on the table of the Stanhope press; to the ordinary tympan of the press is attached another tympan, which revolves in the direction of its plan on a pin in the ordinary tympan. Two sheets of paper are placed under two friskets, hinged to the revolving tympan; an impression being now taken, one sheet will receive the notes, the other the lines. The revolving tympan is then turned half round, when the sheets will have changed places, another impression is taken, when both sheets will be perfected.—This plan is now in operation at the printing-office of Mr. Clowes, to whom I have assigned the exclusive use of the patent.

[The elaborate process that Cowper describes, somewhat irrelevant to his discussion of the development of machine printing, is reflective of the difficulties in printing music on a hand-press. Lithography had an obvious advantage for the printing of music; however, when music needed to be combined with letterpress there was clearly a technical challenge. Note also that Clowes was one of the earliest adopters of machine printing, but for at least the first half of the 19th century, and possibly later, Clowes maintained a press room in which hand presses were operated, as well as a separate machine room.]

"It was in the year 1790 that Mr. Nicholson took out a patent for certain improvements in printing, and on reading his specification, every one must be struck with the extent of his ideas on this subject; to him belongs, beyond doubt, the honour of the first suggestion of printing by means of cylinders; the following are his own words, divested of legal redundancies—

'In the first place, I not only available myself of the usual methods of making type, but I do likewise make and arrange them in a new way, viz. by rending the tail end of the letter gradually smaller, such letter (he erroneously says) 'may be imposed on a cylindrical surface; the disposition of types, plates, and blocks upon a cylinder are parts of my invention.' See Fig.1.

'In the second place, I apply the ink upon the surface of the types, plates, &c. by causing the surface of a cylinder smeared with the colouring matter) to roll over, or successively apply itself to the surface of the types, &c., or else I cause the types to apply themselves to the said cylinder,—it is absolutely necessary that the colouring matter be evently distributed over this cylinder, and for this purpose I apply two, three, or more smaller cylinders, called distributing rollers, longitudinally against the colouring cylinder so that they may be turned by the motion of the latter,—if this colouring matter be very thin, I apply an even blunt edge of metal or wood against the colouring cylinder.

'In the third place, I perform all my impressions by the action off a cylinder, or cylindrical surface, that is, I cause the paper to pass between two cylinders, one of which has the form of types attached to it and forming part of its surface, and the other is faced with cloth, and serves to press the paper so as to take offan impression of the colour previously applied— or otherwise,I cause the form of types, previously coloured, to pass in close and successive contact with the paper wrapped round a cylinder with woolen' (Fig.1 and 2.) He also describes a method of raising the paper cylinder, to prevent the type from soiling the cloth.

"These words specify the principal parts of modern printing machines, and had Mr. Nicolson paid the same attention to any one part of his invention which he fruitlessly devoted to attempting to fix types on a cylinder, or had he known how to curve stereotype places, he would, in all probability, have been the first maker of a printing machine, instead of merely suggesting the principles on which they might be constructed.

"The first working printing machine was the invention of Mr. Koenig, a native of Saxony. He submitted his plans to Mr. T. Bensley, the celebrated printer, and to Mr. R. Taylor, the scientific editor of the Philosophical Magazine. These gentlemen liberally encouraged his exertions; and in 1811 he took out a patent for improvements in the common press, which however produced no favourable result; he then turned his attention to the use of a cylinder, in order to obtain the impression, and two machines were erected for printing the Times newspaper, the reader of which was told on the 28th of November, 1814, that he held in his hand a newspaper printed by machinery, and by the power of steam.

"In these machines the type was made to pass under the cylinder, on which was wrapped the sheet of paper, the paper being firmly held to the cylinder by means of tapes; the ink was placed in a cylindrical box, in which it was forced by means of a power screw depressing a tightly-fitted piston; thence it fell between two iron rollers; below these were placed a number of other rollers, two of which had, in addition to their rotatory motion, an end motion, i.e. a motion in the direction of their length; the whole system of rollers terminated in two which applied the ink to the types. (Fig. 4.)

"In order to obtain a great number of impressions from the same form, a paper cylinder (i.e. the cylinder on which the paper is wrapped) was placed on each side of the inking apparatus, the form passing under both. This machine produced 1000 impressions per hour; susequent improvements raised them to 1800 per hour.

"The next step was the invention of a machine, (also by Mr. Koenig,) for printing both sides of the sheet. It resembled two single machines placed with their cylinders towards each other, at a distance of two or three feet,—the sheet was conveyed from one paper cylinder to the other by means of tapes—the track of sheet exactly resembled the letter S, if laid horizontally, thus ____: in the course of this track the sheet was turned over. At the first paper cylinder it received the impression from the first form, and at the second paper cylinder it received the impression from the second form—the machine printed 750 sheets on both sides per hour. This machine was erected for Mr. T. Bensley, and was the only one Mr. Koenig made for printing on both sides the sheet—this was in 1815 (Fig. 5).

"About this time Messrs. Donkin and Bacon were also contriving a printing machine; having, in 1813, obtained a patent for a machine in which the types were placed on a revolving prism—the ink was applied by a roller which rose and fell with the irregularities of the prism, and the sheet was wrapped on another prism, so formed as to meet the iregularities of the type prism: one of these machines was erected for the University of Cambridge, and was a beautiful specimen of ingenuity and workmanship; it was, however, too complicated, and the inking was defective, which prevented its success. Nevertheless a great point was attained; for in this machine were first introduced inking rollers covered with a composition of treacle and glue; in Koenig's machine the rollers were covered with leather, which never answered the purpose well.

[Treacle is a British term for molasses.]

"In 1815 I obtained a patent for curving stereotype plates, for the purpose of fixing them to a cylinder. Several of these machines, capable of printing 1000 sheets per hour on both sides, are at work at the present day, and twelve machines on this principle were made for the Bank of England a short time previous to the issue of gold. (Figs. 6 and 7.)

'It is curious to observe that the same object seems to have occupied the attention of Nicholson, Donkin and Bacon, and myself, viz. the revolution of the form of types. Nicholson sought to do this by a new kind of type, shaped like the stones of an arch.—Donkin and Bacon sought to do this by fixing the types on a revolving prism, and at last it was completely effected by curving a stereotype plate. See Diagram.

"In these machines two paper cylinders are placed side by side, and against each of them is placed a cylinder for holding the plates; each of these four cylinders is about two feet diameter, —on the surface of the plate cylinder are placed four or five inking rollers, about three inches diameter; they are kept in their position by a frame at each end of the plate sylincer, the spindles of the rollers lying in notches in the frame, thus allowing perfect freedom of motion and requiring no adjustment.

"The frame which supports the inking-rollers, called the waving frame, is attached by hinges to the general frame of the machine; and the edge of the plate cylinder is indented, and rubs agains the waving-frame causing it to wave, or vibrate to and fro, and consequently, to carry the inking-rollers with it, thus giving them a motion in the direction of their length, called the end motion.—These rollers distribute the ink upon the three-fourths of the surface of the plate cylinder, the other quarter being occupied by the curved stereotype plates. The ink is held in a trough; it stands parallel to the plate-cylinder, and is formed by a metal roller, revolving against the edge of a plate of iron; in its revolution, it becomes covered with a thick fom of ink; this is conveyed to the plate-cylinder, by an inking roller vibrating between both. On the plate-cylinder the ink becomes distributed, as before described, and as the plates pass under the inking rollers, they become charged with colour; as the cylinder continues to revolve, the plates come in contact with a sheet of paper in the first paper cylinder, whence it is carried, by means of tapes, to the second paper cylinder, where it receives an impression on its opposite side, from the plates on the second plate syclinder, and thus the sheet is perfected.

"These machines are only applicable to stereotype plates, but they formed the foundation of the future success of our printing-machinery, by showing the best method of furnishing, distributing, and applying the ink.

"In order to apply this method to a machine capable of printing from type, it was only necessary to do the same thing in an extended flat surface, or table, which had been done on an extended cylindical surface; accordingly, I constructed a machine for printing both sides of the sheet  from type, securing, by patent, the inking apparatus, and the mode of conveying the sheet from one paper cylinder to the other by means of drums and tapes. A full description of this machine is given in J. Nicolson's 'Operative Mechanic,"and in the supplement to the Encyclopedia Britannica; in the latter, by some mistake, it is called 'Bensley's machine.' A more brief acount, and also a cut of the machine appeared in the 'London Literary Gazette,' the editor of which has obligingly lent the cut for illustrating this paper. See the Cut and Fig. 9 and 10.

"My friend, Mr. A. Applegath, was a joint-proprietor with me in these patents, and he also obtained patents for several improvements. I had given the end motion to the distributing-rollers, by moving the frame to and fro in which they were placed. Mr. Applegath suggested the placing these rollers in a diagonal position across the table, thereby producing their end motion in a simpler manner. Another contrivance of Mr. Applegath's was to place half of my inking apparatus on one side, and one-half on the other, and so have a less distance to travel.

[A point that Cowper makes here is that several of his inventions were patented jointly by him and Applegath.]

"Another contrivance of Mr. A. was a method of applying two feeders to the same printing-cylinder; these latter inventions are more adapted to newspaper than book printing. 

"We have constructed upwards of sixty machines upon our combined patents, modified in twenty-five different ways, for the various purposes of printing books, bank-notes, newspapers, &c. They have, in fact, superceded Mr. Koenig's machines, in the office of Mr. Bensley (who was the principle proprietor of Koenig's patent,) and also in the office of the 'Times,' was was announced in that journal a few days since.

[This is the first statement that I have seen of the extent of production (60 machines) of Applegath and Cowper printing machines by this date.]

"It may not be uninteresting to state that no less than forty wheels were removed from Mr. Koenig's machine, when Mr. Bensley requested us to apply our improvements.

[This seems like a rather dramatic indication of the degree to which Applegath and Cowper simplifed the machinery invented by Koenig.]

"Having, on the first trial of our machines, discovered the superiority of the inking-roller and table over the common balls, were immediately applied them to the common press, and with complete sucess; the invention, however, was immediately infringed through the kingdom, and copied in France, Germany, and America; and it would have been as fruitless to have attempted to stop the infringement of the patent as it was found in the case of the Kaleidoscope. (Fig. 8).

"This invention has raised the quality of printing generally,—in almost any book old book will be perceived groups of words very dark, and other groups very light; these are technically called 'monks and friars,' which have been 'reformed altogether.'

[I believe that Cowper's contribution to inking technology is often overlooked.]

"The principal object in a newspaper machine is to obtain a great number of impressions from the same form, on one side of the sheet and not from two forms, or both sides of the sheet, as in books.

[Another significant point. Presumably this was in the interest of maximizing speed, and therefore foregoing the perfecting process, which at this stage of development slowed down printing. The printing of books, which at this time did not require maximum speed, were printed on the Applegath and Cowper perfecting press.]

"In the Times machine, which was planned by Mr. Applegath, upon our joint inventions, the form passes under four printing cylinders, which are fed with sheets of paper by four lads, and after the sheets printed, they pass into the hands of four other lads; by this contrivance 4000 sheets per hour are printed on one side.

[An indication of how child labor was exploited in the early industrialization of printing, in this case to maximize printing speed, and, of course, to control labor costs. One should bear in mind that child labor was legal at this time, and that working with a printing machine was probably safer for a child than working with some other large machines. Though some industrial accidents would have been inevitable, I have not found reports about injuries from printing machines.]

"Machines upon our joint patents are also used for printing the—

"Morning Chronicle, Bell's Messenger, St. James's Chronicle, John Bull, Morning Herald, Standard, Whitehall Evening Post, Atlas, Examiner, Sphynx, Sunday Times, &c., &c.

"The comparative produce of the above machine is as follows:—

Stanhope Press     250 impressions per hour

Koenig's Machine  1800 i.e. 900 on both sides.

Cowper's (stereotype) 2400 i.e. 1200 ditto

Applegath and Cowper's (book) 2000 i.e. 1000 ditto

Ditto (newspaper) Chronicle 2000

                              Herald 2400

                              Times  4000— 66 per minute.

"A variety of machines have been invented by other persons, which have not been attended with sufficient success to make me acquainted with their merits, with the exception of Mr. Napier, who has perfected several machines for newspapers.

"Although the success of the inventions in which I have been engaged has rendered frequent reference to them unavoidable, I trust I have distinctly assigned to Mr. Koenig the honour of making the first working machine, and to Mr. W. Nicholson the honour of suggesting its principles, and that I have fairly stated the origin, the progress, and the success of the recent improvements in the art of printing."

A final note:

After writing this entry I returned to my copy of the original printing of the Quarterly Journal of Science, Literature and the Art and noticed in the colophon that the January to June 1828 volume was printed by William Clowes, one of the printers who pioneered the development of machine printing in book production. Thus, it is very likely that the printed periodical in which Edward Cowper's paper appeared was printed on presses developed by him and Augustus Applegath.

Timeline Themes