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William Ged Issues an Incunabulum of Printing from Stereotype Plates

My copy of the 1744 edition may be the first edition that was published for public distribution.

My copy of the 1744 edition may be the first edition that was published for public distribution.

The earliest development in printing and typography that reflected significant innovation after the invention of printing in the 15th century was stereotyping. Even though the topic became the subject of historical research early in the 19th century its history is not completely understood. In 1739 Scottish goldsmith and printer William Ged first published Belli Catilinarii et Jugurthini Historiae by Galius Sallustius Crispus (Sallust). This small 12mo consisted of only a title leaf and 150 pages of Sallust's text printed in very small type. The imprint on the title page read:

"Edinburghi, Gulielmus Ged, Aurifaber Edinensis, non Typis mobilis, ut vulgo fieri solet, sed Tabellis seu Laminis fusis, excudebat, MDCCXXXIX." (Edinburgh: Printed by William Ged, Goldsmith of Edinburgh, not from movable type, as is commonly done, but from cast plates, 1739)."

Ged had precursors in the use of printing from metal plates, but this book was the first book to announce in print that it had been published from metal plates or stereotypes rather than from individual movable types. Ged reprinted this edition once, in 1744. A manuscript note in a copy of that printing in my possession reads that copies printed in 1739 were for presentation; only in 1744 were copies offered for sale. 

Ged is thought to have begun experimenting with stereotype printing plates asround 1725. About 1727 Ged successfully made plates reproducing pages of type.  The earliest known specimen of stereotype printing from his process is a Form of Prayer for June 11, 1728. With a stationer, William Fenner, he went into partnership with John James and his brother Thomas to exploit the invention, and in 1730 they applied to Cambridge University for the use of their privilege of printing Bibles and prayer books. They were granted a license and Ged began casting plates, but they ran into many difficulties and no book completely printed by this process is known. 

In 1733 Ged returned to Scotland, and in 1736 Ged published proposals for issuing an edition of Sallust to be printed by a new process, the nature of which he did not reveal. At his death in 1749 Ged left a memoir entitled, Biographical Memoirs of William Ged; Including a Particular Account of his Progress in the Art of Block-Printing, which was first published in London, 1781. This was first reprinted in 1818 by the Newcastle printer and historian of stereotyping Thomas Hodgson in an edition limited to 160 copies, and it was later reprinted in Kubler, Historical Treatises, Abstracts & Papers on Stereotyping (1936).

Printing and the Mind of Man. Catalogue of the Exhibitions (1963) nos. 311-313, includes a stereotype plate from his edition of Sallust presented to Faculty of Advocates in the hope that they might grant patronage to his invention in 1740. Perhaps because few printers appreciated the need for stereotyping at this date Ged's process appears not to have been adopted by other printers. In 1784 Andrew Foulis and Alexander Tilloch invented an improved method of stereotyping, but even their method did not begin to become widely accepted until the Earl of Stanhope purchased their patent and further improved the process in the early years of the 19th century. The development of stereotyping became a subject of historical research as early as 1801 when Armand-Gaston Camus published Histoire et procédés du polytypage et de la stéréotypie (Paris, An X).

Once the process became widely established in the 1830s printers appreciated the following advantages of printing from stereotype plates:

1. Using stereotype plates, which were easily duplicated, a work could be printed simultaneously on more than one press without duplicating the laborious process of hand typesetting.

2. Individual type could be redistributed and reused while the typeset work was being printed from stereotype plates.

3. Stereotype plates could be stored for reprinting without having to store standing type in formes.

4. Stereotype plates could store complex information such as mathematical tables for reprinting, thus avoiding the time-consuming laborious process of proof-reading that would be required if the tables had to be reset for a reprint.

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