By Hand or By Machine: Among the Most Basic Distinctions in HistoryofInformation

In December 2020, having developed HistoryofInformation for roughly twenty years, it occurred to me that one of the most basic concepts in the collection of data that I have written and assembled is the transition in various industries—especially industries having to do with printing and book production—from handcraft to mechanization. As I have researched and collected material around the history of printing, typography, papermaking, and bookbinding, I have become particularly interested in collecting the development of mechanization in all these fields. One of the reasons for focusing on these aspects is that I have always been interested in the history of technology as well as the history of books. Another reason is that the mechanization of these fields represented a second revolution in the history of printing and book production as significant historically as the invention of printing in the mid-15th century. A third reason is that I have found these fields to be fertile areas for collecting and research. Collecting is a serendipitous activity, depending as much on what is available as on what one can afford. Most of the items that I write about in many themes in HistoryofInformation are not available; most are unique items preserved in institutions, or extremely valuable items that would exceed the budget of all but the richest; however, the beginning of industrialization of book production and its development has turned out to be a neglected field that lacks the prestige or general interest of the handcrafted book, printed by a handpress from handset type or handmade paper and bound by hand. Elements of the early mechanization of aspects of book production have therefore been not only available but often reasonably priced, and because these aspects tend to be far less studied than the book as handcraft, many of the items that I find when collecting these aspects are little-known and worthy of writing about online.

As I thought about what I had documented in HistoryofInformation over the past twenty years I decided yesterday to divide up the Printing, Papermaking, Typography, and Bookbinding themes into "by hand" and "by machine." For printing this was easy to do logically since there was a clear, hard distinction between printing on a hand press and using a printing machine, whether the machine was powered by a man turning a hand crank, a foot pedal, a horse or an ox, or a steam engine. What has proven more difficult is collecting examples of printing done by the multitude of distinctive printing machines developed in the 19th century, since most printed material did not specify the type of press on which it was printed. However, some examples did provide this information, and whenever possible I have tried to acquire them.

For papermaking the distinction between handmade and machine-made was even clearer. Before Robert invented the papermaking machine (better known by its later iterations as the Fourdrinier machine) all paper was made by hand with the assistance of a few basic machines, mainly the Hollander beater. In terms of collecting, the early history of machine-made paper, there has long been a tendency of deluxe publications to emphasize that they were printed on handmade paper; however, few early publications mentioned that they were printed on machine-made paper. This has made identifying and collecting landmarks in the history of machine-made paper an interesting challenge.

For typography in the days of lead type, there was a clear distinction between typesetting by hand or and the many early and mostly unsuccessful methods of typesetting and distributing type by machine. As clear as that distinction was, printers or typesetters rarely indicated that they were using a typesetting machine, so identifying and collecting examples of printing typeset by the many different 19th century typesetting machines has been another challenge.

Only in the history of bookbinding was there less of a clear distinction between hand bookbinding and mechanized bookbinding, as even when the first bookbinding machines such as the stamping press were developed in the 1830s bookbinding remained a combination of handcraft and machine applications until the full process of mechanizing the binding of commercial books, including the adoption of capable machines for sewing printed signatures with thread, evolved at the end of the 19th century, and into the 20th century. As I write this at the end of December 2020, there are still many gaps to fill in for the development of industrialization of all aspects of book production;  I am optimistic that a good number of those gaps will eventually be filled.

Jeremy M. Norman
December 20, 2020