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Early English Critiques of the Quality of Machine Printing

1841 to 1875
William Savage

William Savage's printer's mark.

For several years I have collected the incunabula of the earliest mechanized presses. To me, at least, these are as significant in the history of books as those produced during the first half-century of printing. Over this period of collecting I have sometimes wondered how the "machine press" was appreciated by printers during the decades of its introduction. In February 2015 I happened to be reading portions of master printer William Savage's A Dictionary of the Art of Printing (London, 1841) and I came across his entry beginning on p. 448 entitled simply "Machines". From Savage's dictionary, which was intended for members of the printing trades, I learned, what I suppose should have been obvious, that, in addition to the speed advantage, cylinder or machine presses also provided the very significant advantage of being able to print on sheets of paper of much larger size than could be printed on any hand press. Here is the beginning of Savage's long article. Note that as late as 1841, decades after Koenig developed the cylinder press, Savage regarded machine presses as very novel, and this was certainly the case, as they represented the most significant advance in speed of production since Gutenberg's invention of the handpress circa 1450:

"MACHINES. Cylindrical printing, or, as it is generally termed, Machine printing, is a new mode of obtaining impressions from types, the introduction of which took place in the year 1814. It has caused a great revolution in the art, from the facilities which it affords for printing sheets of paper of a size of which no press worked by manual labour is capable, nor, were it capable, is the strength of one man equal to the exertion requisite for the pressure necessary to produce a respectable impression. In addition to this advantage of printing sheets of such larger dimensions, it possess the power of multiplying impressions so rapidly as to appear like the work of magic. This may seem hyberbolical; bu the average rate of working at a press for common work, that is the general run of book work, with two men, one to ink the types and the other to work the press, is but 250 copies an hour, while a machine will produce 1,250 copies in the same time; and consdierably more might be obtained were not its powers restrained by the limited human means of feeding it with paper, it being found by experience that the number stated is the extent in which one person could supply it, he having regard to laying on the sheets evenly, so as to preserve a regular margin; but his speed was not deemed sufficient to meet the wants that were felt, and the Times newspaper is now printed at a machine where the paper is laid on at four places, one form of which consisting of four pages, is printed at the astonishing rate of 4,320 an hour at its ordinary rate of working, a fact which I have seen and ascertained myself by counting its motions with a seconds watch in my hand. Mr. Richard Taylor has also a similar Machine at which the Weekly Dispatch is printed. Considering what has been done I cannot see a reason why the paper should not be supplied at six or eight places, if found necessary, so as to increase the number printed to 6,000 or 8,000 in an hour; as the wonder ceases when we remember that steam is the moving power. Of the comparative merits of the Machine and the Press I shall speak subsequently."

After a long discussion of the early conceptualization by Nicholson, and the development of machine, or cylinder press, by Koenig, Savage inevitably compared the quality of machine  output with hand press or "press" output. His remarks are strikingly analogous to comparisons made between offset and letterpress printing today:

"With respect to the comparative merits of the cylindrical method of printing and those of the press, the manufacturers of machines as well as most master printers, not content with the real superiority of properties which the machine does certainly possess, attribute to it properties which it does not possess, and which are incompatible with it, namely, those of producing the finest work, and printing the finest impressions from highly finished engravings on wood at the rate of eight hundred or one thousand per hour . . . . 

In spite of the limited quality available from cylinder presses during their early decades, Savage appreciated their value:

'The advantages that cylinderical printing possesses are of great importance in the art, and not less so with respect to the public. Its power of printing larger sheets of paper than was ever before contemplated, has enabled the proprietors of newspapers to enlarge them to a previously unparalleled extent. The rapidity with which impressions are multiplied is also an advantage of great consequence, as in the case of morning newspapers, instead of going to press on the evening preceding the publication, they can now wait until five o'clock in the morning, and even later, when if a dispatch or an express arrives with any important news, it is in the hands of the public at the usual hour of publication; neither is this rapidity of less advantage to periodical publications, more particular to those of which a large number is printed. . . .  Another advantage in machine printing is, the regularity and uniformity of colour through any number of impressions, as it can be regulated with the greatest nicety to any shade; in this instance it is superior to the press for the production of common work, in the uniformity of colour, but only superior to common work in its rivalry with the press."

Also in February 2015 I acquired a copy of the second edition of John Southward's A Dictionary of Typography and its Accessory Arts (1875). By the time Southward published mechanized printing was well established, and all the advertisements at the back of his book concern mechanized presses or "machines" rather than the hand press. In his definition of "Machine" Southward clarified some points made earlier by Savage:

"In England, a printing press in which the operations of laying-on the sheet, inking the forme, and effecting the impression, among others, are automatically performed is called a machine; although to speak correctly every press is a machine, and every printing machine is a press, as said in America. The invention of machines has given an impetus to the progress of the art of printing, and has thereby accelerated the diffusion of knowledge to an extent which cannot be contemplated without a feeling of amazement. By the use of machines, sheets of paper can be printed of a size which could not possibly be obtained on a press worked by hand, and at a speed which, compared with that of the hand press, is that of the express train to the tortoise. . . . "

On the other hand, early in March 2015 I noticed a copy of Charles H. Timperly's The Printer's Manual (1838) on my shelves. This appears to take a more conservative attitude than Savage (1841), as it is concerned entirely with handpress printing. On p. 94, however, Timperly did have these respectiful, but cautious, comments about what he perceived as the limited applications of the new Machines:

"The invention of machinery, for the purposes of printing, first came into operation in England in the year 1814, and after many efforts, has now arrrived at that state of perfection which seems to admit of no further improvement either for newspapers or for bookwork. To the ingenuity of Mr. Konig, a Saxon by birth, with the assistance of Mr. Bensley, Mr. Walters, and other eminent master printers, is the printing-trade indebted for this vast change in their profession. These machines are now principally manufactured by Messrs. Cowper, of London and Manchester; by Mr. Napier, of London, and by a firm at Belper, in Derbyshire. 

"After all, in the great variety of forms and qualities of work passing through any printing-office, with the exception of newspapers, recourse must still be had to the aid of good manual presses and experienced pressmen. The serious expense of a printing machine can only be repaid by executing an extraordinary quantity of work in a much less portion of time than that usually occupied for the same work done by ordinary means. As, therefore, the time consuming in laying-on, or making ready a form, must be valuable in proportion to the number of sheets which might be struck off in that time, so frequent repetition of the previous process for short numbers would counterbalance gains arising from the speed in working. Machine printing will, therefore, be only applicable to works of extensive sale. But those of which limited numbers are printed; those also requiring a superior description of press-work with fine ink; fine and large paper copies, with alterations of margin; and many other peculiar circumstances which are continually occurring, will always require a judicious choice of men and materials, for the old mode of working, varied as circumstances may at the moment require. Half-sheet work, or jobs printed on one side only, are either impractible or disadvantageous at a perfecting machine."

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