History of Lettering printing

Koenig, Bauer, John Walter, James Moran (and Uncle Tom Cobley and all)

This being Sunday I feel slightly preachy. That being said today’s text is taken from Stan Morison’s The Typographic Arts (Sylvan Press, 1949). Stan writes: ‘…John Walter, with Koenig and Bauer, proved at the office of The Times  what could be done for printing by driving the press by steam. This was the greatest revolution in printing since Gutenberg’ (p.39). Quite a statement and one that sent me to James Moran’s magnum opus, his superb Printing Presses. History and development from the fifteenth century to modern times (Faber and Faber, 1973). If you do not possess a copy and  have a passion for printing then source a copy at your earliest opportunity – you will not be disappointed. (I bought my edition from a bookshop in Cambridge, UK, back in the 1980s, as new, and for 15 pounds sterling.)

Moran notes that Friedrich Koenig (born 1774) came up with the idea of a mechanised press in 1803 when he was in Saxony. Nothing came of the idea (Europe was rather taken up  with wars at the time), so he came to London where he contacted some printers in Fleet Street. It was here he joined forces with Andreas Bauer, an engineer. By 1811 a machine had been built using the conventional platen process. While this worked the principle, writes Moran, was a ‘dead-end’, pushing Koenig to the cylinder, a patent being sought in October of the same year. For those into minutiae, ‘sheets G and X of Clarkson’s Life of WIlliam Penn, volume 1, were the first ever to be printed by a cylinder flatbed machine’ (p.106). Interestingly, the rollers were leather-covered since composition rollers were still being developed around this time. While the press could produce 800 impressions an hour one newspaper proprietor, James Perry of the Morning Chronicle,  was not impressed leaving the field open to the entrepreneurial John Walter. He ordered two machines stipulating that ‘none were to be sold during the life of the patent within ten miles of the City of London’. In a subterfuge  that would later also be adopted much later by another Times proprietor currently in disgrace (Mr RM formerly of Australia), Walter had the first machine installed in secret in a building adjoining the print works – it was here that the issue of 29 November 1814 was printed, to the surprise and frustration of the pressmen working on the old machines. These machines cost plenty – by comparison a Stanhope went for 95 pounds; the Koenig double cylinder for a princely 1400 pounds.


The Albion Press, with particular reference to New Zealand

Hello New Zealand. This article is prompted by a piece written by Reynolds Stone, an eminent wood engraver, in the Journal of the Printing Historical Society, 1966, 2, 58-73, too which I either subscribed or obtained a back copy. (Actually the latter, as I did once have an Albion and was curious as to antecedents.) 

Stone starts his piece with reference to Cockerell and the Kelmscott Press (which I have alluded to in this blog), and states that in the 1890s Albions “were still two a penny…They were taken for granted; but it is now possible to see them as a product peculiar to the nineteenth century. Like a sailing ship of the same period they were the last flowering of a traditional method brought to something near perfection: efficient and beautiful objects, and both dependent on skilled and cheap labour.” How often does that arise – ‘cheap labour’? Think of Apple and iPads and China.

The reference to my comrades in NZ is the fact that when this article was written, according to Stone, an Albion was still in daily use at the National Printing Co. of Auckland, in fact a 1825 model used for proofing. If those readers of this live in or near Auckland could do a bit of sniffing and find this press much gratitude will ensue (and no doubt another piece in the blog).

History of Lettering printing

William Morris and his printing presses

The source of this article is a booklet called William Morris’s Printing Press, published by the William Morris Society at Kelmscott House in 1983. A limited edition, my copy is 142 of 300 (with a number printed on handmade paper and signed). The illustrations are by Rosalind Bliss. The booklet was printed on an Albion owned by Morris. In the text Anthony Eyre writes that of three presses run by Morris: one went to America; the second was bought by Ananda Coomaraswamy in 1907, used until 1910 and then made its way to Stratford for the Shakespeare Head Press, and put to use especially in the production by AH Bullen of the Stratford Town Shakespeare (a copy of which I have, and may write about at a later date). This press later went to Oxford before returning to Kelmscott. As for the third press? Eyre reports ‘whereabouts unknown’.

The typeface used is Monotype Van Dijck, set by hand.


Elements of Lettering lettering printing

Curwen sanserif – forgettable

I recently posted about the Curwen Press (catch it here) and the same volume revealed this example of a sanserif of highly undistinguished characteristics. It was ‘designed’ by Harold Curwen, and issued in 1928.

curwen sanserif
printing Thoughts on lettering

Monotype Composition caster and keyboard – Part 1

Of all the advances made in typography during the last century none surely rates more important than the Monotype Composition caster and keyboard. Okay, I declare an interest. In the 1990s I owned one of these  machines and on it cast the type for the private press books I printed under the Beeches Press imprint.

Nevertheless, this machine, or machines (there is also the Super Caster, which casts display faces), revolutionised the printing industry (in tandem with the Linotype). Not only that but Monotype, the company, initiated what can only be described as a revolution in best practice in the design of and revival of type faces. (Another story – this happened largely due to Stanley Morison.)

Those who have only known computer-setting may be at a loss to fathom how this machine, illustrated above, worked using nothing more than compressed air, the molten lead when injected into the mould cooled by water. It is a marvel of engineering, of exact engineering, for the tolerances are so fine that should anything be out of alignment the thing won’t work. And yet it is a machine whose moving parts can be understood by any mechanic – nothing is hidden – and it can be disassembled fairly easily. That’s why Monotype became so successful throughout the world, with machines, possibly, still in use somewhere out there – from China to Turkey, from New Zealand to Sri Lanka. (PS – if anyone knows of one for sale please do let me know! Also I have a reasonable library of Monotype manuals and instruction manuals – if anyone needs to know something please let me know.)

The illustrations shown above and below are taken from a tiny booklet (95mm by 115mm) called ‘The Pocket Picture-Book of ‘Monotype’ composing and casting machines” [undated]. Click to enlarge – back arrow to return to this page.

Elements of Lettering printing

Bruce Rogers and Proportion in printing

Bruce Rogers was an American type designer, known still for Centaur. This quote comes from Paragraphs on Printing (1979, Dover Publications reprint from the limited edition large paper edition first published in 1943). Its advice is as relevant today as it was then.

“As in architecture, and in many other arts, the most important element of beauty in bookmaking is PROPORTION: that is, proportion of type to page, proportion of leading and spacing to type, proportion of page of paper, proportion of margins to each other – it pervades the whole process. You may take the most beautiful type in your stock, and if it be carelessly set, if it be too large or too small for the page, or the page badly placed on the paper, then no beauty of type or paper will compensate for any one of these violations of proportion. On the other hand, if all these elements be in proper relation to each other, then even somewhat mediocre type and paper will make, if decently printed, not a masterpiece of printing, perhaps, but at least a pleasant book.”

eric gill lettering printing

Gill has his cake – and eats it

This document reproduced here is remarkable for a number of reasons: It is the only known example I have of something printed letterpress by Hague and Gill at their High Wycombe printing studio; it was written just a few short years before Gill’s death; it’s also typical Gillesque. Set in Bunyan it is well worth a read, whatever your opinion of Gill the man.

lettering printing Thoughts on lettering

Newspapers, printing, the future – it’s rosy (but not as we know it)

I have been involved in the newspaper industry since I was about 20 – that’s, on and off, 3o plus years. When I got a job in what was then known as Fleet Street (even though the paper I worked at, the Financial Times, was beyond that area, up near St Paul’s cathedral) there was a printing plant and shop in the basement and sub-basement. The FT was still, and this was the mid to late 1980s, being set letterpress. I subbed copy using a typewriter and the copy was then Linotyped by another person, who was a member of a separate Trade Union and, quite possibly, used a fictitious name, such as Mickey Mouse. Abuse was rampant; I remember being told by my senior colleagues how one year there was a strike and the journos managed to get the management to up wages by some staggering 30 per cent; or was it more?

Daily Telegraph
Daily Telegraph building in Fleet Street, London, early 1990s. [copyright John Pitt]
Then came computer-setting; the unions were broken by a bloke called Eddie Shah in London who started up a newspaper called Today; which eventually led to Rupert Murdoch taking the Times/Sunday Times/News of  the World and Sun to Wapping. I have an old  colleague who was on the picket line there. It was not a happy time. Murdoch won.

But that is now history. Very recent history. My history. Now the newspaper business, indeed printing on paper, faces its greatest battle. One which it will lose. Just as calligraphers on vellum lost to Guttenberg; just as Smiths Corolla typewriters lost out to IBM.

This blog is inspired by an article by John Lanchester in the London Review of Books. This is the link – but I doubt if you will be able to access it as it is for subscribers only.

Assuming you can’t, or can’t be bothered, and without permission from LRB, these are the guts of the piece:

“A recent OECD report, The Evolution of News and the Internet, makes the picture clear.[*] Between 2004 and 2009, the US newspaper industry lost 34 per cent of its readers; the UK industry lost 22 per cent. Since then, the speed of the downturn has increased. In the last 12 months alone, seven broadsheet titles in the UK have seen their sales decline by more than 10 per cent. In the US, in the first six months of this year, the Chicago Tribune lost 9.8 per cent of its remaining readers, and the Los Angeles Times 14.7 per cent…

“The global flagship of serious journalism, the New York Times, lost $74.5 million in the quarter to March 2009, and accepted an injection of $250 million in cash from the Mexican telecoms billionaire Carlos Slim; it emerged that the paper was carrying $1.3 billion in accumulated debt. And it is one of the healthier US newspaper companies: the Tribune group, which owns the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, had already gone bankrupt. In the UK, Times Newspapers lost £87.7 million in the year to June 2009, having lost £50.2 million in the previous year. These figures are not, by industry standards, especially bad. It was mayhem out there…

“A persuasive looking analysis in the Business Insider put the cost of printing and distributing the New York Times at $644 million, and then added this: ‘a source with knowledge of the real numbers tells us we’re so low in our estimate of the Times’s printing costs that we’re not even in the ballpark.’ Taking the lower figure, that means that New York Times, if it stopped printing a physical edition of the paper, could afford to give every subscriber a free Kindle. Not the bog-standard Kindle, but the one with free global data access. And not just one Kindle, but four Kindles. And not just once, but every year. And that’s using the low estimate for the costs of printing…

“So this, I think, is the future of newspapers. Their cost base will force them to junk their print editions. (I know some people would like a luxury product, only-for-nostalgics print version, but it’s not clear to me how the economics of that would be made to work.)…”

If you have got this far, he is absolutely right. Where I live a man drives round in a clapped out Toyota Hiace at 6am each morning and throws out a cling-film wrapped newspaper onto my driveway. Where’s the economics in that?

Instead I can turn on my iPad and source news from all over the world. The fact that I don’t have an iPad is no impediment. One day I will. And then I will not need print anymore. The printing presses can go; the distribution vans can go; the blokes who operate the printing presses will go; and the bloke who drives the battered Toyota? Well, he’ll be on his iPad at 6am…

It’s only a matter of time – certainly before the next decade is out. Maybe 5 years.

This is probably what those calligraphers felt like when they heard about printing from movable type. “It’ll never take on,” they scorned.

Let us not bury our heads. Let us take it on.


Some Monotype stuff

Here’s a couple of images from Monotype to whet the appetite.