interior static banner

Gutenberg to Gordon

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).

Moveable type and wooden presses

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).

Metal presses

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 50-51).

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.

Cylinder and "Bed and Platen" presses

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. (Moran, 102)

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, 121)

Jobbing presses

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. (Moran, 143)

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."

Works Cited

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.