MY AN­CES­TOR WAS A... PRIN­TER

An­thony Bur­ton re­mem­bers the work­ers who earned their wages by putting words on pages

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS - An­thony Bur­ton is an au­thor who spe­cialises in in­dus­trial and trans­port his­tory

An­thony Bur­ton re­mem­bers the work­ers who earned their wages putting words on pages

The de­vel­op­ment of type­set­ting and print­ing as we know it dates back to the days of Jo­hann Guten­berg who is cred­ited with de­vel­op­ing the first presses and Wil­liam Cax­ton who brought the tech­nol­ogy to Bri­tain in the middle of the 15th cen­tury.

The ba­sics that they de­vel­oped re­mained more or less un­changed for the next four cen­turies. At its heart was the process of move­able type. The first job in any print­ing of­fice in the early days was to make the in­di­vid­ual pieces of type by pour­ing molten lead into a mould. Among the ear­li­est jobs printed was the 42-line Bi­ble and, as two pages were printed at a time while other pages were be­ing set, it would re­quire about 20,000 pieces of type to be made for the day’s work. In later years, print­ers could buy in type from spe­cial­ist type founders.

The first stage in print­ing was com­po­si­tion. The type to be set was con­tained in two cases, the top one for cap­i­tal let­ters, other let­ters in the lower, hence the names “up­per case” and “lower case”, still in use to­day. The com­pos­i­tor worked with a ‘stick’ in one hand, while with the other he picked out the ap­pro­pri­ate let­ters and char­ac­ters and added them un­til he had a full line of type. This was then trans­ferred to a case – the form – and the process re­peated un­til a full page had been laid out. This was a highly skilled oc­cu­pa­tion as the com­pos­i­tor had to work in re­verse so that the text would come out the right way round when

Print­ing’s ba­sics went al­most un­changed for four cen­turies

printed. Once a page was com­pleted, the form was locked tight and it was ready for the press.

The flat bed presses

The ear­li­est and sim­plest presses were sim­i­lar to wine presses, in that the print and pa­per were ar­ranged on a flat bed. The type was inked with ink balls, made from leather and kept sup­ple by soak­ing in urine. The flat bed was then moved un­der the press, which was screwed down to cre­ate the im­pres­sion.

The wooden press was first re­placed in 1800 by a cast-iron press in­vented by the aris­to­cratic am­a­teur sci­en­tist Earl Stan­hope. By us­ing a com­bi­na­tion of screw and lever, far greater pres­sure could be ex­erted and larger ar­eas printed at any one time.

This was a boon for news­pa­per pro­pri­etors and Wil­liam Bul­mer in­stalled a whole bat­tery of Stan­hopes for The

Times. Later im­prove­ments were made in Amer­ica with the Columbian Press, which was worked en­tirely us­ing a lever and coun­ter­bal­ances. It was very ac­cu­rate and re­quired far less man­ual ef­fort than the old screw press ver­sions.

Af­ter print­ing, the type had to be bro­ken up and re­dis­tributed back to the cases in the right or­der. This was time con­sum­ing, be­cause, like ev­ery­thing else in print­ing, ac­cu­racy was es­sen­tial.

The ma­jor changes in the in­dus­try came in the 1800s, first with the de­vel­op­ment of presses, in which a cylin­der, car­ry­ing the pa­per, rolled over the inked type. This con­cept was de­vel­oped through­out the 19th cen­tury and in later mod­els was adapted to cre­ate the ro­tary press with one mas­sive cen­tral cylin­der and smaller print­ing cylin­ders grouped round it. One set of men or boys fed in the pa­per while an­other set took out the printed pages. One of th­ese ma­chines was dis­played at the Great Ex­hi­bi­tion of 1851 and

The Times in­stalled a mas­sive ma­chine re­quir­ing a staff of 25 to feed it which could pro­duce 20,000 im­pres­sions an hour.

Even at the be­gin­ning of the 19th cen­tury com­pos­i­tors were still set­ting by hand – as some print­ers still are to this day. There were nu­mer­ous at­tempts to mech­a­nise type­set­ting. The first re­ally suc­cess­ful ver­sion be­gan when a Wash­ing­ton lawyer James Cle­phane em­ployed an in­ven­tor Charles Moore to de­vise a method of pro­duc­ing type us­ing a papier mâché mould.

This was im­proved upon by the Ger­man watch­maker, Ottmar Mer­gen­thaler, who had em­i­grated to Amer­ica.

In its fin­ished ver­sion this con­sisted of two com­po­nents.

The first was the com­pos­ing ma­chine, op­er­ated by a gi­ant key­board, usu­ally with 90 keys. In­stead of di­rectly pro­duc­ing words on pa­per, it moved a matrix into po­si­tion. This was rather like an in­di­vid­ual piece of type, but not in­verted and cut into the body in­stead of stand­ing proud. It was the mould into which molten lead would be poured. The ma­chine con­tains all the ma­tri­ces nec­es­sary for the job in hand, and a sep­a­rate se­ries of wedges was used for spac­ing.

Once the com­pos­i­tor felt the line was al­most full he de­pressed the cast­ing lever and metal was poured. The ma­chine pro­duced a com­plete line au­to­mat­i­cally. It got its name from a vis­i­tor to the in­ven­tor, who was as­ton­ished and cried out – “You’ve made a line of type!” – and so the Lino­type ma­chine was chris­tened.

It proved par­tic­u­larly pop­u­lar with news­pa­per print­ers, but book print­ers pre­ferred a slightly dif­fer­ent ver­sion that pro­duced char­ac­ters one at a time, the Mono­type. They felt it gave them greater con­trol and fi­nesse, lux­u­ries not al­ways avail­able in the busy world of news­pa­pers where dead­lines are all im­por­tant.

Il­lus­tra­tions could also be added to pub­li­ca­tions. At first th­ese were all pro­duced by wood en­gravers and could be things of great beauty.

At the end of the 19th cen­tury, a new tech­nique was de­vel­oped us­ing the newly dis­cov­ered pro­cesses of pho­tog­ra­phy. The artist would pro­duce his draw­ing, which was then pho­tographed. The neg­a­tive was then placed on a light­sen­si­tive zinc plate, lightly rolled with ink. Af­ter ex­po­sure and clean­ing, the artists’ lines were left, which could then be en­graved for print­ing. A more so­phis­ti­cated pho­to­graphic process was also de­vel­oped at the end of the last cen­tury, in which a pic­ture was bro­ken up into thou­sands of dots of dif­fer­ent den­sity to give sub­tle gra­da­tions – the half-tone process.

A skilled work­force

Print­ing was a highly skilled oc­cu­pa­tion and work­ers were usu­ally among the bet­ter-paid mem­bers of the com­mu­nity, but con­di­tions dif­fered tremen­dously from one prin­ter to the next. At one end of the scale was the job­bing prin­ter, pro­vid­ing ev­ery­thing his lo­cal com­mu­nity needed, from wed­ding in­vi­ta­tions to posters ad­ver­tis­ing lo­cal events and, in many cases, print­ing small runs of lo­cal news­pa­pers. Of­ten th­ese would be quite small con­cerns, op­er­ated per­haps by just one man and an ap­pren­tice – a boy who was given all the worst and dirt­i­est jobs and was known as the “prin­ter’s devil”.

Al­though wages were con­sid­ered good in the larger print firms, it was an in­dus­try in which un­em­ploy­ment was a con­stant threat. In the 19th cen­tury, ap­pren­tice­ships gen­er­ally lasted for seven years. Long be­fore that pe­riod was over, the ap­pren­tice would have been a ca­pa­ble op­er­a­tor and was re­garded by un­scrupu­lous em­ploy­ers as cheap labour.

There was no guar­an­tee that an ap­pren­tice would be kept on as a fully paid jour­ney­man at the end of his seven years. The old guilds that had con­trolled the in­dus­try had, by this time, been largely re­placed by trade unions.

There were no na­tional unions dur­ing this pe­riod, but a mul­ti­plic­ity of smaller lo­cal unions: there were at least 10 sep­a­rate print unions in Lon­don alone in the 19th cen­tury. It was only in the 20th cen­tury that there was any real move to uni­fi­ca­tion.

The in­dus­try changed dra­mat­i­cally in the lat­ter part of the 20th cen­tury, trig­gered by News In­ter­na­tional mov­ing out of Fleet Street to new premises in Wap­ping. They traded let­ter press print­ing for new elec­tronic tech­nol­ogy, but not with­out a long and bit­ter dis­pute with the unions. How­ever, let­ter press print­ing hasn’t died. In fact, it has be­come more com­mon in small presses, where qual­ity is of paramount im­por­tance. A tra­di­tion that has lasted for over 500 years is still alive and well.

A good 19th cen­tury com­pos­i­tor, work­ing by hand, could have set and im­posed a whole page of the Cax­ton Bi­ble – around 2,750 char­ac­ters – in lit­tle

more than three hours.

Al­bert Hol­combe, aged 81, op­er­ates the print­ing press for the South Devon Weekly Ex­press – a news­pa­per he owned

and pro­duced sin­gle-hand­edly – in Septem­ber 1952

Rolls of newsprint are fed through the presses at the Morn­ing Post print works in Lon­don, 1920

A com­pos­i­tor makes up a line of text at the Cam­bridge Univer­sity Press

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.