Anonymous Letter Provides Insight into the Early Mechanization of the Typefounding Industry


Very early in his career engineer and inventor in the steel industry Sir Henry Bessemer, son of typefounder Anthony Bessemer, was involved in the transformation of typefounding from a purely manual to a mechanical process, receiving patents for improvements to the typefounding process. Legros & Grant, Typographical Printing Surfaces (1916) p.17ff quote from Bessemer's Autobiography (1904):

"When I was experimenting with plumbago (about 1838) I was engaged in designing a new system of casting types by machinery, some features of which are of sufficient interest to be recorded. The moulds in this machine were entirely composed of hardened and tempered steel, shaped by laps, as the metal could be neither planed nor filed. From fifty-five to sixty types were cast per minute in each of the two compartments of the mould; and in order that the solidfication of metal should take place in the exremely small interval of time allowed for that purpose, the moulds were cooled by a constant flow of cold water through suitable passages made in them...."

Bessemer continued to describe the technical aspects of his invention, ending as follows:

"The valve through which the metal was injected into the mould, being extremely small, required to be fitted very closely to prevent its leaking; it was found that after it had been opened and closed some six or seven thousand times, a portion of the fluid metal would, by friction against the sides of the valve, be rubbed into powder, and more or less obstruct its action. Otherwise, the really beautiful mechanism of this casting machine performed all its functions with perfect precision, and formed the bodies of the type so parallel and so perfect in other respects, that it soon began to create much jealous feeling and opposition among the type-founders, whose occupation was threatened by it. For this reason, Messrs. Wilson, the well-known type-founders, of Edinburgh, to whom I had sold the invention, preferred to make no further efforts to improve the valve arrangements, and allowed the whole matter to sink quietly into oblivion rather than face the storm they saw was brewing."

Talbot Baines Reed, A History of the Old English Letter Foundries (1877) pp.265-66 discusses the business problems of Alex. Wilson & Sons, suggesting that their business may have failed because of losses incurred in their efforts to introduce the new mechanized process.

In November 2018 I acquired a long and intriguing autograph letter written by a young man trying to interest his father in providing funds to invest in Alex. Wilson & Sons' machine typefounding process that Wilson purchased from Bessemer. Some of the information in the letter is written; some must be inferred. I have published a text of the complete letter below. In it is a wealth of interesting details concerning the size and character of the type founding industry on the verge of mechanization.

"12 Dover Street Feb 22 1838

"My dear Father,

"I write to you on a subject on which I have had a good deal of Conversation with Alex. Wilson that you may have some notion of it and some time to consider it before he comes to Scotland which will be in a week or two, when he intends going to see you. The subject is a proposal of partnership in the foundry, and the circumstances of the case are the following ؙ— Machinery has never been successfully applied to casting types — all machine made types being porous and full of air bubbles — English Type founders have gone on using the old mould and clumsy method of hand casting — which was very expensive even with good steady workmen, but rendered much more so from the insubordination and dissipation of the workmen.

"Some time ago Alex introduced in to his Hertfordshire foundry anew mould which simplified the operation very much. Two or three months practice enabled country lads to cast more & better types than the most experienced workmen under the old system, and the Two Waters Foundry is in a very flourishing condition — About the beginning of this year an engineer who had been brought up as a type founder [Henry Bessemer] came to him — Told him that he had heard he was making improvements in the method of casting at Twowaters & that it might be for their mutual advantage if he told him what his father & he had done — the father had worked for many years at a machine for casting types but from want of funds he could not bring it into action himself & the typefounders would not help him. The father is now dead — the son said that he had been brought up as a type founder was now an engineer gave Alex. most respectable references and showed him some types made by an imperfect machine constructed by his father — Alex. had a very good character of him — examined his machine & plans, & was so satisfied of the practicability that he forthwith entered into an agreement with him to pay him so much a thousand for all the types made by the machine to give him £500 as soon as he was satisfied that it would work & advanced him funds to get one constructed. The Engineer has given up every thing else is now employed in the construction which will be completed in about a month & ready for action and Alex. has got or is getting patents for England & Scotland.

"As soon as he has quite satisfied himself of the actual performance of the machine he intends to do the same in America France, &c. which he expects will sell for considerable sums. I have not seen the machine but as far as I have had the principle explained it seems to leave little doubt of success. Alex. is very sanguine & says he has not the least doubt — half a dozen machines which will be contained in a room 30 feet long & driven by a steam engine of one or two horse power will do the work of 3 or 400 men & supply the whole kingdom with types. With this machine he expects to be able to sell better types at half the present price and at the same time to make a profit of 100 pct. If he succeeds in reducing the price so far it is evident that he must at once put a stop to all competition drive all competitors from the market.

"On a rough calculation he supposed that at present there are £100 000 worth of types made annually in the kingdom — the demand is increasing & if the price were halved the demand would be very much increased — you may therefore form some idea of Alex's magnificent expectations.

"His proposal is that I should do nothing till the machine is finished & its performance put beyond doubt. That then I shd join them, having £10 000 or at least the power of that sum in order that the thing may be brought into full play at once — He says that he thinks I may not actually want above 5000 and that he shd be very much disappointed if in 3 or 4 years I were not making 3 or 4000 a year.

"Such an offer is too good not to deserve serious consideration and can ____ with the uncertainties of law — but it lies of course with you to determine which is to be my course. Were the offer made by a stranger one would of course suspect it from its very brilliance but I can see no good reason to doubt Alex's fairness & sincerity. He says what is of course true — that he would not take any one else into partnership but that I am the nearest relative & likely to be so as [brother?] Patrick _____ are likely to marry & they shd like me to have me to fill up their place in case of their death. My prospects then in this matter are —I have nothing to do with it till the machine has succeeded. If it does there shall be no doubt of the whole speculation succeeding most brilliantly and I should in a few years be able to repay you whatever you advance, make myself independent & have every chance of making a good fortune before the expiration of the patent.

"I should neither have much labour nor much responsibility — have as long vacations as I choose — and receive all my earnings to myself for any independent literary or scientific pursuits. I really don't see that I shd be at all justified in refusing such an offer for anything I have any chance of even making or getting at the bar. I doubt very much if I have talents for success at the bar I mean for great success even with the most persevering industry and I am not so enamoured of the prospect of a life of hard work as to think it worthy of being endured for the chance of a merely moderate success — making my one or two thousand a year being a burthen upon you for 10 years & at last making my one or two thousand a year among a crowd known among the attorneys but little known to the world.

"I have now my dear father stated my case at great length as in [keeping?] and the decision I leave entirely to you whatever you wish me to do I will do & with good will when you see Alex. Wilson he will be able to give you a better idea of his & my prospects, of the how much & the when the money wd. be reqd. I do not wish you to some to any conclusion till you see him, but if you would let me know what you think of the plan generally as soon as you can you would do me a great favour."

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