Every Saturday, from March 31, 1832 to October 31, 1845. English writer and publisher Charles Knight published The Penny Magazine sponsored by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK). Each issue of the magazine, which was marketed to the English working classes and the developing middle class, consisted of 8 pages—one printed sheet, on which four pages were printed on each side, and then folded twice— liberally illustrated with wood engravings. The images allowed even the semi-literate to derive enjoyment from its pages. The images were particularly important as in 1832 over 75% of school children in England were illiterate, and another 300,000 did not attend school during the first year of publication of the magazine. Similarly, in 1841 over 30% of males and nearly 50% of females remained illiterate. Using illustrations, Knight and the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge were able to appeal to an audience with limited reading skills, while also enabling self-education. The illustrations became highly popular with Knight’s target audience; during the years of its existence the magazine published 1,887 illustrated articles, and was the first large circulation magazine to be extensively illustrated. However, the cost of the wood engravings forced Knight eventually to raise the price of the magazine to 4d per issue, reducing its circulation and commercial success. Throughout the 13 years in which the magazine was published it contained only positive, educational content, free of any scandals, or sensationalism.
The idea of publishing a large circulation magazine to promote "useful knowledge" among the working and middle classes did not originate with Knight or the SDUK. Six months earlier, in October 1831, Emile de Girardin launched the Journal des connaissances utiles. However that magazine had a more modest format and featured very few basic woodcuts.
As its title indicated, The Penny Magazine first sold for only a penny per issue, the price being the same anywhere within the United Kingdom, making the magazine affordable to virtually anyone. In the April 7, 1832 issue Knight published an essay by the American writer, educator and politician Edward Everett entitled "Advantages of the Diffusion of Knowledge" about the value of education in improving the mass of society, a view that Knight, and other members of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, sponsor of the magazine, undoubtedly shared. Besides literary and historical books, Knight, sometimes in cooperation with the SDUK, published many works oriented toward social and economic reform. Among the most famous books that Knight published during the 1830s were all four editions of Charles' Babbage's On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures. Coincidentally, Knight published the first edition of Babbage's book the same year that he began publication of The Penny Magazine with the SDUK.
Knight, a frequent writer as well as a publisher, sometimes communicated with his readers by writing articles for the magazine himself. At the end of the first year of publication, on December 18, 1832 he wrote a preface to the first volume. In that he stated that the magazine was very successful, with circulation reaching 160,000 by the end of the first month after publication, and reaching 200,000 the first year. From this he assumed that the magazine, delivered all over English by coach and the new railroads, was being read each week by a million people. Only forty years earlier, Knight wrote, Edmund Burke had written that there were only 80,000 readers in all of England.
To print and distribute 200,000 copies weekly required large quantities of machine-made paper, and pushed the limit of printing technology at the time, using stereotype plates on mechanized presses invented by Augustus Applegath, which were in operation at the printing house of William Clowes in London. In printing this illustrated magazine Clowes pioneered the use of steam powered presses to print illustrated publications on a large scale. Clowes machine managers first developed methods for printing illustrated books by printing machine in 1829 when they printed the first volume in the SDUK's Library of Entertaining Knowledge's work on Menageries.
Obviously proud of the technical aspects which made the magazine affordable and widely available, in the magazine's second year of publication Knight wrote and published a memorable series of articles in four "Monthly Supplements" to the regular issues under the general title "The Commercial History of a Penny Magazine." "No. 1--Introduction & Paper-Making" appeared in Issue 96, August 31 to September 30, 1833, pp. 377-84. "No. 2. Wood-cutting and Type-founding" appeared in Issue 101, September 39 to October 31, 1833, pp. 417-24. "No. 3. Compositors' Work and Stereotyping" appeared in issue 107, October 31 to November 30, 1833, pp. 465-72, and "No. 4. Printing Presses and Machinery—Bookbinding" appeared in issue 112, November 30 to December 31, 1833, pp. 505-11. These articles represent the one of the best illustrated introductions to the history and technology of printing, woodcut illustration and binding as practiced during the first third of the nineteenth century. They also appear to be the earliest widely circulated general descriptions of the new processes of machine papermaking and high speed printing technology. In Issue 96, p. 381 there is a full-page woodcut of a papermaking machine--undoubtedly the first image of a device of this type seen by a very large number of people. Incidentally the paper on which my copy of the first three volumes was printed is of very good quality. In issue 112, p. 509 there is a full-page woodcut of an Applegath and Cowper steam-powered press as used in Clowes' machine room, with detailed explanatory captions. This was undoubtedly the first very widely seen image of a high speed cylinder press.
Regarding the advantages of the high speed rotary press developed by Koenig and improved by Applegath and Cowper, Knight first explained how two men, using the fastest iron hand press, such as that invented by Earl Stanhope, could produce 250 impressions per hour. He then compared this output to that of the new printing machinery:
"Before the invention of stereotyping it was necessary to print off considerable impressions of the few books in general demand such as bibles and prayer-books, that the cost of composition might be so far divided as to allow the book to be sold cheap: with several school-books, also, it was not uncommon to go to press with an edition of 10,000 copies. Two men, working eight hours a day each, would produce 1000 perfect impressions (impressions on each side) of a sheet per day; adn thus if a book consisted of twenty sheets, (the size of an ordinary school-book,) one press would produce the twenty sheets in 200 days. If a printer therefore, were engaged in the production of such a school-book, who could only devote one press to the operation, it wouldrequire nearly three quarters of a year to complete 10,000 copies of that work. . . .
"But take a case which would allow no time for this long preparation. Take a daily newspaper, for instance, of which great part of the news must be collected, and written, and printed within twenty four hours. Before the application of machinery to the printing of newspapers, in 1814, there were as many daily London newspapers as at present; but their average size was much smaller than those now published. The number of each paper printed was less than at present; and the later news was much more incompletely given. The mechanical difficulties of printing a large number within a limited time required to be overcome by arrangements which involved considerable expense; and thus less capital was to be expended upon that branch of the outlay by which the excellence of a newspaper is mainly determined,--namely, the novelty, the completeness, and the accuracy of its intelligence. Let us take, for example, the 'Times' newspaper for some years prior to 1814, when it began to be printed by machinery. When that was originally established, somewhere about forty years ago, the present system of reporting speeches in parliament on the same night that they were spoken was scarcely ever attempted. A few lines mentioning the subject of the debate, and the names of principal speakers, were sometimes given, but anything like a sektch of the general debate or a report of any remarkable speech, was deferred to a future day, if it were published at all. . . . .
"The printing press, as we have mentioned, will, at the ordinary rate, enable two men to take off two hundred and fifty impressions in an hour. By the most violent exertions the pressmen of a daily newspaper were enabled, with relays, to work off about five hundred copies in an hour. One press would therefore produce ten thousand copies in about twenty hours. It is manifest that such a rate of speed, if such a quantity were demanded, would be incompatible with the production of a daily paper, the condition of whose existence is that it must be wholly printed and issued in four and twenty hours. Let us double the speed by printing in duplicate; and we find that ten thousand copies can be produced in about ten hours. But even this rate carries the publication of several thousands of the ten thousand printed into the next afternoon. We may, therefore, assume that without triplicates, which we believe were never resorted to, no daily paper previous to 1814 could aim at the sale of a greater number of copies than could be printed off even with duplicates in six hours--of which number the publication would often not be complete till after mid-day. The number printed of the most popular daily paper, would therefore be limited to five thousand; and this number could not be produced in time without the most perfect division of labour aiding the most intense exertion, provided that paper were printed by hand. The 'Times' newspaper now produces ten thousand copies in two hours and a half, from one set of types.
"If the difficulties that existed in producing any considerable number of newspapers before the invention of the printing machine were almost insurmountable, equally striking will the advantages of that invention appear when we consider its application to such a work as the 'Penny Magazine.' Let us suppose that the instruction of the people had gone on uninterruptedly in the schools of mutual instruction, and that the mechanical means for supplying the demand for knowledge thus created had sustained no improvement. In this series of papers we have endeavoured constantly to show that the price at which a book can be sold depends in great part upon the number printed of that book. But at the same time it must be borne in mind, that the number of any particular work thus produced must be limited by the mechanical means of production. If the demand for knowledge had led to the establishment of the 'Penny Magazine' before the invention of the printing machine, it is probable that the sale of twenty thousand copies would have been considered the utmost that could have been calculated upon. This invention has forced on other departments of printing, and larger presses have therefore been constructed to compete in some degree with the capacity of the machine for printing a large form of types. Twenty years ago there probably was no press in England large enough to work off a double number of the 'Penny Magazine.' One thousand perfect copies, therefore, could only have been daily produced at one press by the labour of two men. The machine produces sixteen thousand copies. If the demand for the 'Penny Magazine,' printed thus slowly by the press, had reached twenty thousand, it would have required two presses to produce that twenty thousand in the same time, namely ten days, in which we now produce one hundred and sixty thousand by the machine; and it would have required one press to be at work one hundred and sixty days, or sixteen presses for ten days, to effect the same results as the machine now effects in ten days. But, in point of fact, such a sale could never have been reached under the old system of press-work. The hand-labour, as compared with the machine, would have added at least forty per cent. to the cost of production, even if the sixteen presses could have been set in motion. Without stereotyping, no attempt would have been made to set them in motion; for the cost of re-engraving wood-cuts, and of re-composing the types, would have put a natural commercial limit to the operation. With stereotypes, the numbers printed would have been limited by the time required for the production of the stereotype-plates; in the same way as the number of a newspaper worked by hand is limited, as we have seen, by certain natural obstacles, which could not be passed with profit to those concerned in the production. At any rate the difference in the cost of printing by machinery and printing by hand would either have doubled the price of the 'Penny Magazine,' or in the same proportion diminished its size and its quality. Under those circumstances a sale at twenty thousand would have been a large sale. The saving of labour and the saving of time by the printing machine enable, in a great degree, this little work to be published at its present cost, and to be delivered, without any limitation to its supply, at regular periodical intervals throughout the United Kingdom. Without this invention a demand beyond the power of a press or two to meet would have become embarrassing. The work would have been perpetually out of print, as a failure in the supply of a book is termed. If extraordinary efforts had been made to prevent this, great expenses would have been created by the irregular exertion. The commercial difficulties of attempting a supply beyond the ordinary power of the mechanical means employed would have been insurmountable--the demand could not have been met.
"Having thus explained the general advantages of the printing machine for meeting the demand which now exists for books of large numbers, we will conduct our readers to Mr. Clowes's printing establishment, where there are more printing machines at work than at any other office in the world. It may be convenient, how ever, first to refer to the engraving of the sort of printing machine there principally employed, with the description of its several parts. The visitor to Mr. Clowes's office will be conducted into a room in which there are ten machines generally in full work. In an opposite room are six similar machines. The power which sets these in motion is supplied by two steam-engines. Upon entering the machine-room the stranger will naturally feel distracted by the din of so many wheels and cylinders in action; and if his imagination should present to him a picture of the effects which such instruments are producing and will produce, upon the condition of mankind, it may require some effort of the mind to understand the mode in which any particular machine does its work. Let us begin with one on which the 'Penny Magazine' is preparing to be printed off. One man, and sometimes two men, are engaged in what is technically called making ready; and this with stereotype plates is a tedious and delicate operation. The plates are secured upon wooden blocks by which they are raised to the height of moveable types; but then, with every care in casting, and in the subsequent turning operation, these plates, unlike moveable types, do not present a perfectly plane surface. There are hollow parts which must be brought up by careful adjustment; and this is effected by placing pieces of this paper under any point where the impression is faint. This process often occupies six or seven hours, particularly where there are casts from wood-cuts. Let us suppose it completed. Upon the solid steel table at each end of the machine lie the eight pages which print one side of the sheet. At the top of the machine, where the laying on boy stands, is a heap of wet paper. The visitor will have seen the process of wetting previously to entering the machine-room. Each quire of paper is dipped two or three times, according to its thickness, in a trough of water; and being opened is subjected, first to moderate pressure, and afterwards to the action of a powerful press, till the moisture is equally diffused through the whole heap. If the paper were not wetted, the ink, which is a composition of oil and lamp-black, would lie upon the surface and smear. To return to the machine. The signal being given by the director of the work, the 'laying-on boy turns a small handle, and the moving power of the strap connected with the engine is immediately communicated. Some ten or twenty spoiled sheets are first passed over the types to remove any dirt or moisture. If the director is satisfied, the boy begins to lay on the white paper. He places the sheet upon a flat table before him, with its edge ready to be seized by the apparatus for conveying it upon the drum. At the first movement of the great wheels the inking apparatus at each end has been set in motion. The steel cylinder attached to the reservoir of ink has begun slowly to move,--the 'doctor' has risen to touch that cylinder for an instant, and thus receive its supply of ink,--the inking-table has passed under the 'doctor' and carried off that supply--and the distributing-rollers have spread it equally over the surface of the table. This surface having passed under the inking-rollers, communicates the supply to them; and they in turn impart it to the form which is to be printed. All these beautiful operations are accomplished in the fifteenth part of a minute, by the travelling backward and forward of the carriage or table upon which the form tests. Each roller revolves upon an axis which is fixed. At the moment when the form at the back of the machine is passing under the inking-roller, the sheet, which the boy has carefully laid upon the table before him, is caught in the web-roller and conveyed to the endless bands of tapes which pass it over the first impression cylinder. It is here seized tightly by the bands, which fall between the pages and on the outer margins. The moment after the sheet is seized upon the first cylinder, the form passes under that cylinder, and the paper being brought in contact with it receives an impression on one side. To give the impression on the other side the sheet is to be turned over; and this is effected by the two drums in the centre of the machine. The endless tapes never lose their grasp of the sheet, although they allow it to be reversed. When the impression has been given by the first cylinder, the second form of tapes at the other end of the table has been inked. The drums have conveyed the sheet during this inking upon the second cylinder; it is brought into contact with the types; and the operation is complete.
"The machine which we have thus imperfectly described is a most important improvement of Koenig's original invention. That, like most first attempts, was extremely complicated. It possessed sixty wheels. Applegath and Cowper's machine has sixteen only. The inking apparatus of this machine is by far the most complete and economical that ever was invented. Nothing can be more perfect than the distribution of the ink and its application to the types. It has therefore entirely superseded Koenig's machine: and as the patent has expired, its use is rapidly extending, not only in England, but throughout Europe. Our limits will not permit us to attempt any description of the other machines which are employed in London. The most remarkable are the two now used by the 'Times' newspaper; each of which produces four thousand impressions per hour on one side of a sheet. These machines are modifications of Applegath's and Cowper's; and the additional speed is gained by having the sheets laid on at four different points instead of at one, and by employing four printing cylinders to press in succession upon one form. . . . "
According to the title pages of volumes 1-3 in my collection, after these volumes were completed the issues of volume 1 were available for 4s. 6d. in nine monthly parts or 6s. bound in cloth, and issues of volume 2 were available for 6s in twelve monthly parts and 7s. 6d. bound in cloth, the same low price maintained for volume 3. Besides his own series on printing and book manufacturing, from 1841 to 1843 Knight commissioned from George Dodd a series of 44 illustrated articles on various manufacturing industries in England for The Penny Magazine. These he reissued in book form in 1843 as Days at the Factories; or, the Manufacturing Industry of Great Britain Described and Illustrated by Numerous Engravings of Machines and Processes. This included expanded versions of Knight's articles on book production.