When discussing steam-powered machines and the Victorian Era, many focus on the revolutionary additions made to travel. Steam-powered locomotives or ships are considered groundbreaking innovations that helped to shape the course of our world. Yet another steam-powered ingenious device created during the reign of Queen Victoria had what some would consider an even larger impact on the world: A steam-powered printing press revolutionized the print industry and improved the literacy rate throughout the western hemisphere.
During the 1800’s, a major technical revolution occurred in the area of communication—the invention of a non-manual printing press by Friedrich Koening and Andreas F Bauer. Although the manual printing press had been in operation for quite a while, their press was the first to use steam to provide the power.
In 1436, John Gutenberg had patented the first the manual printing press. Prior to Gutenberg’s invention, books in Europe were still copied out by hand from a scribe, and the accuracy of the text (whether one edition matched the next) was dependent upon the skill of the man doing the writing. Having a machine that could produce copies of texts that matched word-for-word was a dramatic leap forward.
Koening and Bauer’s press further increased the efficiency of printing. The machine was patented in April of 1812 and was built according to the same principle as the Gutenberg Press, but there were key differences. It employed a steam-powered drive rack that allowed a double cylinder. This fully utilized both the forward and backward motion of the type bed. It had a newly designed composition roller that supplied ink to both ends and endless tension tapes and rolls rather than traditional frames (Elligett, 2009)
Nothing of this kind had ever been invented before and rumors circulated. Mr. J. Walter, proprietor of The London Times, ordered two of the printing presses for his newspapers at a cost of £1400 each. Nearly two years passed before the presses were completed and during that time the work had to proceed in secret. The pressmen who worked for the Times (and would subsequently be out of a job once the new system was put in place) threatened to destroy Koening, Bauer, and their machines. Walter had to promise to find the pressmen other jobs in order to prevent violence (Elligett, 2009)
On November 29, 1814, the first newspaper printed on a steam-powered cylindrical machine was produced. The following note appeared in a Times article on that day:
Our Journal of this day presents to the Public the practical result of the greatest improvement connected with printing since the discovery of the art itself. The reader of this paragraph now holds in his hand one of the many thousand impressions of The Times newspaper which were taken off last night by a mechanical apparatus. A system of machinery almost organic has been devised and arranged, which, while it relieves the human frame of its most laborious’ efforts in printing, far exceeds all human powers in rapidity and dispatch. That the magnitude of the invention may be justly appreciated by its effects, we shall inform the public, that after the letters are placed by the compositors, and enclosed in what is called the forme, little more remains for man to do than to attend upon and to watch this unconscious agent in its operations. The machine is then merely supplied with paper: itself places the forme, inks it, adjusts the paper to the forme newly inked, stamps the sheet, and gives it forth to the hands of the attendant, at the same time withdrawing the form for a fresh coat of ink, which itself again distributes, to meet the ensuing sheet now advancing for impression; and the whole of these complicated acts is performed with such a velocity and simultaneousness of movement, that no less than 1100 sheets are impressed in one hour.
Finally books and newspapers could be produced on a mass scale. As Richard D. Altick (1973) notes in Victorian People and Ideas, this made the written word available to all aspects of society. Although education was “sketchy” at best for the lower classes, the literacy rate still rose from 67% (male) and 51% (female) in 1814 to approximately 97% for both sexes in 1900. The literacy rate would not have changed much for the upper class, so the increase in literate people came from the middle and lower classes.
During this time, the lower class also saw an improvement in working conditions—working fewer hours and receiving a bit more pay over what was required for necessities. Public libraries were built and included “reading rooms” where patrons could find a quiet haven to enjoy works of literature (Altick, 1973).
Publishing practices changed at this time. Rather than finding an upper class patron to sponsor a work, authors could afford to publish a run of works on their own to sell to the general public thanks to the efficiency of the steam-powered press. They could also publish by subscription—where the public agreed in advance to purchase a work based on an author’s prior works. Also, publishers themselves would purchase the right to produce one run of a novel or book of poetry or would purchase the copyright of a work outright, paying an author a lump sum of money.
It was a revolutionary step forward for the publishing industry—much as the advent of e-books and e-texts have been for this era. The steam-powered press made it easier for writers to get their words/ideas into print and for readers to afford those works. It helped to improve literacy rates, so that more people could read the texts being produced. Koening and Bauer’s steam press was an invention that changed the world.
Altick, R. D. (1973). Victorian people and ideas. New York: Norton.
Elligett, B. (2009). Koenig: His first powered printing machines. Letterlessprinting. Retrieved from http://letterpressprinting.com.au/page60.htm