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The presses found in the Sign of the George are Chandler & Price clamshell jobbing
presses (circa 1900) and were developed after 400 years of European printing.
The Chinese invented printing itself in A.D. 175 by cutting letters and pictures into
blocks of wood for every page in a document (Moran, 17). Over a thousand years later
this practice spread to Europe, where the process of making paper was discovered in
the late thirteenth century (Chappell, 14). The earliest examples of block prints
in Europe date from the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. The spread of printing
throughout Europe was due in part, much to the chagrin of the Church, by the growing
popularity of playing cards (Chappell, 8-9).
Once Europeans began printing, they quickly produced improvements. The limited alphabet
of the Europeans enabled them to invent reusable, moveable type in the early 1400s.
Although Laurens Janszoon Coster of Holland first developed moveable type, his experiments
proved largely unsuccessful (Chappell, 5). Johann Gutenberg of Mainz, a goldsmith
also familiar with the money minting process successfully created moveable type around
1440 (Chappell, 8; Moran, 17-18).
Not only did Gutenberg develop a process for casting individual pieces of type, but
he also invented an appropriate printing press. Gutenberg based his press on a screw
press similar to winepresses. A form containing the type was placed in the bed of
the press with a piece of paper laid on top. The press was powered by pulling a rod
to turn the screw downward, pressing the platen against the form.
Over the next three hundred years, printers made improvements to the wooden press.
For example, innovative pressmen switched the screw for a spindle and the hung the
platen from hooks instead of attaching it directly to the screw. (Moran 21) A frisket
made of paper or parchment with holes cut out for the type held the paper in place
and protected the margins of the pages from stray ink. A tympan, soft cloth or vellum,
was also hinged onto the box that held the form to protect the type from the pressure
of the platen. (Moran, 23) Pressmen also made additions that allowed them to vary
the amount of pressure applied by the screw (Moran, 25).
Pressmen began experimenting with metal press parts as early as the late 1400s, but
not until the turn of the nineteenth century and the Industrial Revolution could anyone
create an all metal press. Many previous experiments failed because the presses tended
to crack under the added pressure. (Moran, 26, 49). Earl Stanhope created the first
successful all metal press in 1800. (Moran 49) As another major alteration, Stanhope
added composite levers between the screw and the platen, whose size had been doubled.
The added levers and larger platen allowed prints to be made with only one pull of
the lever, an improvement that pressmen had wanted for decades. (Moran 49) Stanhope
also reinforced his press by building it with rounded sides and a T-shaped base (Moran
The Columbian press, invented by American George Clymer in the early 1800s, was the
first press to be widely manufactured. (Moran 59) Clymer, like the Stanhope, used
a series of levers in his press; but he added a "great lever" which powered the press
by pushing down the platen with a pistonlike slider. (Moran 60) The Columbian became
known for decreasing the amount of labor needed to operate it as well as for its highly
decorative construction (Moran 59, 63).
Experiments with improved metal presses proliferated after the making of the Columbian.
Printers tried suspending the platen with counterweights or springs, lowering the
platen by a toggle or knee joint, or by a series of inclined planes and rollers.
(Moran, 71, 75, 77) One printer even tried powering the press by foot instead of by
hand (Moran, 72). Self-inking presses were developed but proved to be more trouble
than they were worth at the time.
In 1821 Samuel Rust designed the Washington press, which managed to maintain the power
of the other metal presses while being more lightweight and easily disassembled for
transportation. (Moran, 79) During this time, an acorn-shaped frame with improved
stability was also developed and sometimes used in the Washington press.
Printers began toying with the idea of a cylinder press as early as 1790, when William
Nicholson outlined ideas for a press consisting of at least three cylinders. The first
cylinder distributed ink onto the cylinder holding the type, and the paper would pass
between the type cylinder and the third cylinder, which acted as a kind of platen.
Several printers attempted to make such a press work with the final goal of creating
a press that could be powered by horse, water, or steam. Friedrich Koenig first succeeded
in 1812. The previous year Koenig had invented a self-inking, platen-based press that
could print up to 800 impressions an hour. (Moran, 105) His cylinder press
was steam powered and the friskets actually picked up the pieces of paper and wrapped
them around cylinders which rolled over the flat bed containing the type. Koenig later
modified the press to feed paper from both ends. (Moran, 106-107)
The cylinder presses required more specialized operators than hand presses and were
only suited for printing newspapers and periodicals. In search of better and faster
printing, the bed and platen presses were developed. Daniel Treadwell invented the
first version of the press in the early 1820s. It worked on the same principles as
the hand presses, requiring a pressman to feed the paper, pack the tympan, and lower
the frisket. (Moran 113) It could be horse or steam powered, was self-inked via a
turning disk and rollers, and produced 500–600 impressions an hour. (Moran, 114)
The Adams press, developed in 1830, improved the bed and platen press by adding an
automatic feeder and creating a moving bed, thereby increasing production to 1,000
impressions an hour. (Moran, 115) Many versions of the bed and platen presses were
used until the late 1800s, when cylinder presses were improved and deemed superior.(Moran,
During the early to mid 1800s, with the invention of the envelope and the growing
popularity of stationary and business cards, a fast but smaller press became necessary
and the jobbing platen press (like those found in the Sign of the George) was developed.
Treadwell, creator of the bed and platen press, invented the first version of the
jobbing press, which was never widely manufactured. The jobbing platen was operated
by one pressman and powered by a foot treadle, which lowered the platen by a series
of levers. (Moran, 143)
In 1839, Stephen Ruggles created the first self-inking, treadle-powered press, the
Engine, which could print 1,200 impressions an hour. Although Ruggles kept the bed
and platen horizontal, he switched the type and platen. The tendency of the type to
fall out inspired Ruggles create an improved press in 1851 with the bed and platen
held vertically. (Moran, 146)
George Gordon further improved the jobbing press by inking the type via a rotating
disk (borrowed from Treadwell's bed and platen presses) and by moving the platen,
which held the paper, from a horizontal position to a vertical position. (Moran, 147)
Gordon's jobbing press became immensely popular, and between 1840 and 1940 over 120
variations of the Gordon press were manufactured. Gordon himself offered a new version
in 1872 that included a "throw-off," which allowed the pressman to control the motion
of the platen. When Gordon's patents finally ran out, Chandler & Price (the company
that produced the Sign of George printing presses) bought Gordon's factory as well
as the rights to the name "Gordon."
Chappell, Warren. A Short History of the Printed Word. Boston: Nonpareil Books, 1970.
Moran, James. Printing Presses: History & Development from the 15th Century to Modern Times. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.