Diagrams associated with Nicholson's cylinder press patent (1790).
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Diagrams associated with Nicholson's cylinder press patent (1790).

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William Nicholson Conceptualizes the Cylinder Press

1790 to 1797
William Nicholson, c. 1811. Engraved by T. Blood

William Nicholson, c. 1811. Engraved by T. Blood

The history of the cylinder press or printing machine began in 1790 when London chemist, translator, journalist, publisher, scientist, and inventor William Nicholson received British patent No. 1748 for "A Machine or Instrument on a New Construction for the Purpose of Printing on Paper, Linen, Cotton Woolen and other Articles in a more Neat, Cheap, and Accurate Manner than is effected by the Machines now in use." In this patent Nicholson made sketchy but prophetic proposals for printing with cylinders, and was undoubtedly the first to refer to a printing device as a machine. It was understood at the time that Nicholson never actually constructed a working press based on his design.

"Nicolson's patent consisted of three parts. The first was for casting types in a multi-letter mould, so that 'two, three or more letters' could be cast at one pouring of the metal, but the resulting types were to be scraped into a shape so that they could be inserted around a cylinder. The second part called for cylinders covered with leather or cloth to distribute the ink. The third demanded that all printing was to be performed by passing paper or material to be printed between two cylinders, one of which 'has the block form, plate assemblance of types, or original, attached to or forming part of its surface' " (Moran, Printing Presses, History and Development from the Fifteenth century to Modern Times[1973] 102).

Nicholson's specification contains several drawings.

"In the first drawing, which as the outline of a hand-press A is the impression cylinder in gear with and driving the carriage HI to and fro. B is the inking cylinder, with distributing rollers; these take their ink supply from the 'ink block' (duct) at O as this advances with the carriage.

"In the second drawing, which shows three cylinders vertically arranged, B is an inking cylinder with distributors and an ink duct; A is a cylinder 'having the letter imposed upon it surface'; E is the impression cylinder" (Printing and the Mind of Man. Catalogue fo the Exhibitions at The British Museum and at Earls Court, London 16-27 July 1963 [1963] No. 402).

Nicholson's patent was first published in Repertory of Arts and Manufactures, Vol. 5, Number XXVII (1796) 145-170.

Apart from his patent, on the subject of the cylinder press Nicholson published only a rather generalized article in Vol. 1 of his Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry, and the Arts (1797) pp. 18-23, entitled "Observations on the Art of Printing Books and Piece Goods by the Action of Cylinders." This article discussed potential advantages of the method in a general way, and anticipated resistance from printers to a new approach to printing.

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