Victorian newspaper proprietor,
publisher and entrepreneur
Invaluable guidance on the rotary press has been given to us by Matt McKenzie of Paekakariki Press in Walthamstow, London. It was set up in 2010 to ensure that the tradition of letterpress printing is preserved in the digital age.
Printing Presses: History and Development from the Fifteenth Century to Modern Times, by James Moran, contains a full account of the incremental progress towards the rotary press made by dozens of engineers over two centuries.
History of R Hoe & Company, 1834-1885, by Stephen D Tucker, a brilliant engineer working at Hoe & Co. He worked alongside Richard Hoe and contributed to his inventions as well as creating many of his own.
Progress in Printing and the Graphic Arts during the Victorian Era, by John Southward, 1897.
Friedrich Koenig came to London in 1806. To have invented the steam press should alone have secured fame and fortune for him and Andreas Bauer. As it was, he got no reward and was cruelly treated by his business partner, the printer Thomas Bensley, who wanted to claim the invention as his own.
Bensley first refused to support Koenig’s lawsuit for infringement of the steam power patents, so denying Koenig his royalties. After Koenig’s return to Germany in 1817, Bensley claimed the invention for himself, so robbing Koenig of his reputation. Bensley later went bankrupt.
Fortunately, Koenig and Bauer were welcomed in Germany where their presses were a total novelty. The Spenersche Zeitung was the first newspaper to be printed on a cylinder press in 1823.
After Koenig’s death in 1833, Bauer and Koenig’s widow continued it. Many staff left to set up works of their own. Today’s companies, such as Heidelberger Druckmaschinen, can trace their descent back to the K&B workforce.
Koenig’s legacy includes the German ascendancy in printing press manufacture that prevails today. König + Bauer, now KBA, is still a world leader based in Openzell near Würzberg where the founders relocated in 1817.
A Short History of The Printing Press was published for Robert Hoe in 1902. Its view of the European industry was not entirely flattering:
“Most of the English machines, however, show defects in mechanical construction. In fact, the supremacy of the American printing press is maintained in a large measure by the simplicity, accuracy and perfection of its mechanism. Foreign presses, made by the cheap labor of Europe, have been repeatedly brought to this country and introduced into printing offices. They have never, however, lasted long, most of them having perished in the using and been found unprofitable.”
Richard M Hoe, 1812-1886
The press imported by Lloyd in 1856 that transformed Fleet Street production
The press bought by Lloyd in 1864
An alternative, but not for newspapers
A Gutenberg-style model made of metal
Headquarters of R Hoe & Co at 504-520 Grand Street, New York, in 1884. The company filed for bankruptcy in 1969 and ceased production of presses. Its saw business was bought by Pactific Saw and Knife Co in 1984
The rotary press
When Edward Lloyd started his working life in 1829, printing was advancing more rapidly than it had for four centuries. It is no surprise that it caught his imagination at the London Mechanics’ Institute.
The dynamic effect of the rotary press has been compared with Gutenberg’s innovations in the 15th century. He had multiplied the printer’s productivity hundreds of times over and a similar feat was achieved in Lloyd’s lifetime. In the intervening centuries, it had barely doubled.
Two elements transformed a sluggish manual trade into the slick industrial process that took over in the mid-19th century: the use of a cylinder to press paper on to inked type and the placing of the printing surface on the cylinder. Only a press using both is properly called a rotary press.
Gutenberg, a goldsmith, introduced a lead alloy for making type. In a wine-type press, the type was laid out as the printing surface in a flat bed, it was then inked, a sheet of paper was laid on it and a board (platen) was lowered by means of the screw to press the paper to the type.
Pressing the paper on to type at the point of contact with a cylinder needs only a fraction of the force that pressing the entire surface at the same time calls for. This saving of energy speeded the process and enabled larger sheets of paper to be printed.
Friedrich Koenig’s use of a cylinder in 1811 was the novelty that set development of the rotary press in motion, and Richard Hoe’s fixing of the type on the outside of the cylinder in 1843 secured its progress.
However, invention does not mean that the idea embodied in it is original – inventiveness lies in the originality of the application of ideas, old or new, to practical problems. Many people had the underlying ideas; Koenig and Hoe were first to think of ways to make them work. Koenig was largely honoured for his invention of the steam press, not his use of the cylinder, and Hoe’s enabling solution only lasted for a couple of decades before improvement of the stereotype plate made it redundant.
Cylinders had been in use for printing fabric since the 17th century, usually with two cylinders operating like a mangle. Patents were filed from 1662 onwards, and possibly as early as 1634 if that was what a “pressinge or printinge engine with wheels & rolls after his peculiar manner” meant. A patent filed in 1764 incorporated the turning of an engraved copper cylinder by horse, water or wind power.
Paper was considered, but only in the sense of wallpaper. A popular decorative design might call for a million replications from a single casting. A book would need separate engravings for each page for tens of thousands of copies at most. Naturally no one thought of it for the transient daily press.
Caution is needed when comparing printing speeds. Pre- and post-Gutenberg, it was measured by impressions per day, then by sheets per hour in the 18th century and newspapers per hour in the late 19th century. Sheets per hour makes no allowance for the size of the sheet, so it can be actively misleading as a measure of productivity.
In addition to the spinning cylinder, the features needed to develop a modern rotary press were the stereotype plate, metal construction, steam power, continuous reels of paper (“web”) and printing on both sides of the paper (“perfecting”). Automated inking of the typeface by composition rollers fed by an ink duct had been introduced by Donkin and Bacon in 1813 in place of manual application using leather swabs.
A stereotype created a single metal plate from hand-set moveable type. A plaster mould pressed on to it was filled with lead to make a plate identical to the type. It could be used again and again to do fresh print runs. A 16th century Dutch precursor solved this problem by soldering the lines of type together, but the cost made printing the first impression too risky for the practice to catch on generally.
An Edinburgh goldsmith, William Ged, developed a stereotype in 1725. His typesetters, feeling threatened, smashed all his moulds and plates, and left him a pauper. The concept was developed from 1784 onwards, but the problems of fixing the plates to a cylinder and finding the best substance to make a curved mould were not fully solved until the 1860s.
Lord Stanhope, a scientist as well as a statesman, built the first press to be made entirely of metal in 1800. It gave the operator more control and accuracy and is said to have saved 90% of the force needed to move a wooden press. This allowed bigger sheets to be used at greater speed. He also improved the stereotype.
From 1810, steam power ratcheted up printing speed at least five times over. It was Koenig’s brainchild, although he made only modest progress before his friend Andreas Bauer, the practical engineer, joined him in England. Steam was not itself the key to progress that it might seem, though, thanks to relatively cheap labour and metal presses.
In Britain, web printing from continuous reels of paper was delayed by a wholly extraneous factor: the Stamp Office insisted that newspaper sheets be submitted for stamping and payment of the paper duty before printing. If it arrived as a continuous reel, it first had to be cut into sheets. For that reason, sheet-feeding had to prevail until 1861 when the duty was abolished.
Since all paper was delivered as a continuous reel, this imposed an unnecessary burden on newspapers, aggravated by having to pay the tax in advance. It also made the taxman an unlikely friend of those who fed the sheets into the presses.
Book-printing from a continuous reel was conceived in the 18th century and in use as early as 1819. In the US, the first newspaper to use web printing was the South-Western Sentinel in 1840. The need for damp paper held up web development in the early days, but this was overcome by running the paper past a roller laden with wet felt or directing a fine spray of water at it.
Two-sided printing – perfecting – was introduced more haphazardly. Koenig did it first by joining two presses together in 1814. This “two-feeder” enabled a single run of paper to be printed sequentially on both sides. Although too complicated for general sale, it printed 1,000 sheets an hour on both sides for The Times. In the US, James Trench patented a machine for two-sided book printing from a continuous reel using two cylinders in 1837. In 1839, it is said, he was printing two common Bibles in a minute.
As I hope this layman’s summary indicates, the seeds of the rotary press were sewn before and alongside its development. Some ideas emerged before the technology to support them existed. Some were developed for other industrial uses. Some fell by the wayside.
In this way, it was only to be expected that several people thought they had invented the rotary press. There is no reason to doubt their good faith. They may have been unaware of what others were doing, or considered that their idea was the crucial inventive step.
Plenty of copying went on and there were many disputes. The cost and technicality of litigation made patents a doubtful asset. The James I notion of monopoly had given way to an exclusive right to profit from the invention on condition that the details were made public. In a fast-moving field, it was all too easy for others to use this information, add a new feature or two and overlook the royalties. Historically, patents are an invaluable source of information.
The first full articulation of the rotary press was probably in a patent filed in 1790 by William Nicholson, editor of the Journal of Natural Philosophy (“Nicholson’s Journal”), engineer and patent agent. His specification was purely theoretical and he never converted it into a working machine.
However, he acted as patent agent for Koenig. It is therefore possible that he helped Koenig figure out how to use a cylinder to print text on paper. Although his reputation as an engineer is not the highest, he may have contributed to Koenig’s ground-breaking innovation in 1811.
Nicholson’s patent described a press that printed a sheet of paper running between a cylinder carrying inked type and a cylinder applying the necessary pressure. It gave an alternative – the paper could be attached to a cylinder that passed over a flat inked plate moving back and forth (such presses are often called “cylinder presses”).
Koenig opted for the second, so missing the formal definition of a “rotary press”. After improvement, Koenig’s appealed so much to the editor of The Times, the second John Walter, that he bought two presses on his inspection visit to the Koenig works in 1814.
The first copy of The Times to be printed entirely mechanically at a rate of 1,100 sheets an hour appeared on 29 November 1814. It had to be printed in utmost secrecy to avoid violence from the pressmen whose jobs were put at risk by steam power. Everyone was told that the paper was being held for late breaking news. At 6 a.m, a complete day’s production was revealed to the astonished staff. Times workers relieved of the “horse-work” were given other jobs in the machine-room. Elsewhere, redundant pressmen were less fortunate.
Catling wrote that The Times believed that heavy metal plates would never be able to resist the centrifugal force of a spinning cylinder. Preventing them from flying off was a major problem, although not the insuperable one that Walter imagined.
The stereotype was the answer, but it was not sufficiently developed until 1861. Hoe’s invention of the “turtle” (below) solved the problem by a different means. Other solutions proved impractical. In 1813, Donkin and Bacon had made the rotary part into a prism that turned in the manner of a cylinder while applying four flat plates of type to the paper (see Moran, p.172). In 1815, Edward Cowper had patented a cumbersome method of heating and beating the stereotypes.
The key lay in making a stereotype mould flexible enough to be shaped to fit the cylinder. Once plaster of Paris was discarded in favour of papier mâché, the solution was simple. The mould could be placed in a curved casting-box that exactly matched the cylinder to which it would be fitted. This was generally adopted from 1861 when demand for newspapers surged.
This happened just after Hoe had extended his English turtle patent for five years. He made the new stereotype beds in New York and Lloyd had them on 2 February 1862. Catling was annoyed by even this short delay because easily replicated plates (Tucker, p.411) greatly cut the time and effort spent on typesetting.
It turned out that the The Times had been gaining advantage for some time by using stereotypes of this sort, designed by the Dellagana brothers (secrecy, if attainable, can be more valuable than a patent). Catling looked into the subject and found that a French invention, patented in England in 1850, had detailed the method with great precision. It had apparently been ignored in England but may account for the name given to the mould in the trade: “flong” after flan, a French culinary term already adopted in France to mean the stereotype mould (the French for stereotype is cliché).
To go back to the rotary press in general, Cowper and his partner, Augustus Applegath, patented new presses in 1823 and 1827. Applegath had worked at the Times after Koenig's departure. In 1827, the paper abandoned the patched-up originals for new Cowper & Applegath presses. These still used a flat bed of type, but had four impression cylinders and were made by Thomas Middleton of Southwark, who had also supplied presses for Lloyd.
In 1848, Applegath developed a type-revolving press with a type-bearing cylinder, 6ft 6in in diameter mounted vertically. The type was set in columns and presented a polygonal surface to eight impression cylinders. It was rather labour-intensive and called for a complicated mass of tapes to feed the paper (Moran
Meanwhile, in Scotland, the honours for invention went to Thomas Nelson, son of the founder of the Edinburgh publishing house. His 1850 blueprint generated a lot of interest at the Great Exhibition in 1851. It was intended for book printing and was remarkable for its use of stereotypes, web printing and perfecting in a single machine. Nelson declined to patent it, taking the view that technological advances should benefit mankind, not enrich the inventor. He was motivated by a strong religious purpose.
In France, Hippolyte Auguste Marinoni is described as “inventeur de la rotative d’imprimerie” on the street named after him in Paris. He did this in 1845 and went on to become an important developer and manufacturer. In 1888, Fleet Street was using 29 Marinoni presses and 29 Hoe presses, along with 35 assorted others.
It is apparent from this that the meaning of invention varies with geography spiced by nationalism (this account focuses on the industry in London). There is no reason to question the talent or originality of those claiming invention, nor to dispute a claim if it was territorially limited.
Richard March Hoe
In New York, Hoe was developing rotary technology for the family firm’s steam-driven presses. Many of his US patents are accessible online, including those from 1844, 1847, 1859, 1869 and 1871. Drawings and descriptions in R Hoe & Co’s 1873 catalogue show the immense range of presses and accessories made by the company he had joined in 1827 and run since 1833.
As his fellow inventors had found, Hoe’s most daunting challenge was to fix the type to the cylinder. In 1846, his growing despair was interrupted by inspiration. He worked on it all night and had the turtle method finalised by morning. By its use of type rather than stereotype, the result was called a “type-revolving press”. Applegath in England hit on the same solution at about the same time – a classic example of coincident inventorship.
Hoe’s 1847 patent was the critical one. The cylinder was large, with a diameter ranging from 4ft 6in to 6ft. It was laid horizontally in the press, with the pages set sideways so that the lines of type ran along the direction of spin.
This bore multiple ”turtles” that held the type for pairs of pages. A turtle was a curved frame attached to the cylinder by adjustable bolts. Hoe’s inspiration was to taper the blocks bearing the vertical rules that appear between newspaper columns towards the axis of the cylinder so that they acted as wedges holding the moveable type in place. Each turtle was customised for a particular newspaper and for each page when the layout varied.
The type segments were pressed on to the sheet when it passed secondary cylinders on the outer circumference of the central cylinder. These cylinders were interspersed with inking rollers.
Capacity was reflected in the number of secondary cylinders specified, so a 4-cylinder printed four copies on one revolution. All Hoe’s machines came with a wide range of options on paper size.
His first sale was of 4-cylinder presses to the Baltimore Sun and Philadelphia Ledger in 1848. These made 10,000 impressions an hour. Over the eight years before he broke into the London market, he sold 16 in the US along with six 6-cylinder and three 8-cylinder machines.
In 1856, Lloyd bought two 6-cylinder machines. Others in Fleet Street soon followed Lloyd’s example. The three sizes cost $12,500, $18,000 and $25,000 according to the number of cylinders (about £15.3m, £22m and £30.5m in modern sterling values). They printed 10,000, 15,000 and 20,000 sheets an hour respectively.
The 10-cylinder presses imported by Lloyd in 1861 had the capacity to print 25,000 sheets an hour – the maximum speed at which print workers could feed it with sheets. They were of double width, placing duplicate plates side by side. Hoe sent his colleague, James Hinchcliff, to London to maintain and run Lloyd’s presses. In 1865, R Hoe & Co opened a London office in Dorset Street, near Salisbury Square, and a factory in the neighbouring Tudor Street.
Until the mid-1870s, Hoe had built on the 1847 model, making 175 modifications en route. He produced a single perfecting press in 1862, acquired by Lloyd in May 1864. Work had begun on this in 1850, along with work on printing a continuous reel of paper. Neither yielded a quick solution (Tucker, pp.392-5). The complex 1859 patent was never put into use, and even a much simpler version patented in 1869 was unsatisfactory.
A patent filed in 1871 describes the perfecting process, the somewhat complex passage of the paper through the press and the method of fixing the stereotype plates. It was improved in 1872 (Patent No 131,217).
With this machine, Hoe incorporated a rotary perfecting press fed from a continuous reel. The problem of cutting the reel into sheets immediately after printing was solved by merely perforating it and then severing it by means of tapes.
Capable of printing 18,000 sheets, the average output was 12,000 8-page sheets in an hour. Lloyd bought the two-feeder perfecting press in 1874, made in London. An experimental delivery system was added. This proved to be highly successful and two other London newspapers ordered 14 more of these machines. It was patented in Britain in 1872 and in the US in 1877.
By the mid-1870s, Hoe’s delivery systems had more or less eliminated human intervention in collating and folding. Presses had been extended by placing two or four printing plates side by side on the main cylinder – the double or quadruple perfecting press. The paper was cut on its way out of the press and sheets were directed by the machine for collation as complete papers.
All processes were automated in Hoe’s “double-supplement press” from 1882. In 1887, Lloyd installed eight of these, each producing two copies at a rate of 24,000 an hour. In 1892, Lloyd’s Weekly had 20 pages and Daily Chronicle, 10 pages – by then, the Hoe machines could insert and gum a single page.
In 1906, Lloyd’s papers were printed on seven double octuple perfecting presses, first devised in 1895. They were driven by electric power, four decks high and each equivalent to 16 single machines in combination. They could print 144,000 papers of up to 16 pages or 72,000 papers of up to 32 pages in an hour.
A correspondent of the Cairns Post visited the Lloyd establishment in 1909. The machine room was “far underground” and pneumatic tubes were used to convey copy and other paper among the various departments. The composing room (linotype) and the foundry seem to have been above ground.
Each of the seven machines printing a 32-page newspaper used 128 stereotype plates weighing more than three tons, half a ton of ink and 18 men to mind them. Together they used enough paper to “make a pathway from London to St. Petersburg, and still leave enough over to reach from this office to Matlock”.
Since 2008, News International’s Waltham Cross plant – the largest printing centre in the world – has capacity to print one million 120-page tabloid size newspapers in full colour in an hour. Internet was hailed as the new Gutenberg, but some of us feel that it has yet to prove itself technically superior to print on paper.