Industrial Prints

How the Industrial Revolution's printing machines led to greater literacy

While metallurgical improvements made for better fonts, that was only a knock-on effect of the real forces behind the improvements: military and commercial concerns. These heavily outweighed demand for more contrast in fonts. In the 18th century, the improvements driven by those sectors began to roll over, compound, and push further forward. Iron production exploded. The first steam engines appeared. Machines for making textiles emerged. The profusion of machines created a need for better machine parts, leading to the creation of new machines for machining machine parts. The job of the smith had industrialized.

By the 19th century, font creation hadn’t been the sole domain of smiths for centuries. But that wasn’t about to exclude letters from taking part in the industrial revolution.

The first industrial revolution for letters came courtesy of a machine that could create an endless roll of paper. Developed in part by Fermin Didot’s brother, Saint-Léger, these Fourdrinier Machines were first employed in the cradle of industrialization, England. The design was so successful that modern paper machines work on the same principles. As long as their operators kept the machines fed with their required inputs—water, power, and pulp—they could continually produce paper. With potentially endless rolls of paper available, printers had potentially endless opportunities. They only needed a press that could keep up.

Friedrich Koenig started work as a printing apprentice when he was 16. Manually pressing letters to the page was hard work, and even at that tender age Koenig understood that laziness was the father of invention. Taking inspiration from the new world of steam-powered machines emerging around him, Koenig developed a wooden prototype. It was promising, but didn’t actually work—like textile manufacturers before him, he needed better machine parts. He needed the full benefits of industry. He needed to move to England.

There, he teamed up with another German, the engineer Andreas Bauer. Together, they developed a steam-powered press, which fed sheets of paper through rollers and pressed them against a flat block of type. The machine’s production speed—five times faster than the best hand-press—easily convinced the publisher of The Times, John Walter, to purchase two machines.

On the night of 29 November 1814, Walter secretly published the first machine-printed edition of a newspaper, using a set of so-called modern types from Miller and Co. The next morning, the printers at The Times were out of work, usurped by what Walter called, The greatest improvement connected with printing since the discovery of the art itself.”

Koenig and Bauer, heartened by their success and Walter’s lavish praise, moved to Bavaria to set up a factory, train engineers, and build printing machines. Their machines revolutionized newspaper printing; their business was so successful that Koenig & Bauer still produces modern printing presses. 

Innovations kept on coming.

Fermin Didot had put in work developing stereotypes—single castings of chases, the blocks of letters that made up pages of text. These were useful enough when used in traditional, flat-bed presses, but they really came into their own when printers realized they could curve a stereotype and wrap it around a drum. With paper running between two drums, these new rotary presses could feed paper continuously, from a roll of the sort that Fourdrinier machines had been producing endlessly. The lighter touch afforded by rotary printing presses also meant that legible prints were possible on lower-quality paper.

The compounding effect of these innovations meant that by the middle of the 19th century, newspapers were cheap and available in abundance. It was the start of the age of mass media. It couldn’t have come a second earlier.

The story about John Walter and the Koenig-Bauer press is illustrative of a process that developed during the industrial revolution. When the entire printing staff at The Times lost their jobs, Koenig's machine displaced relatively unskilled labour. Meanwhile, making the machine required skilled labour in the form of engineers and machinists, which created work at the Bavarian Koenig-Bauer plant. As more complicated mechanized processes replaced simpler processes, manufacturers required better educated workers—workers who could, at the very least, read.

Literacy was no longer a mere leisure activity for the rich, or even just a useful tool for merchants and jurors. Literacy was a wide-reaching necessity for everyone engaged in an increasingly complex economy. In the last decades of the 19th century, knowing that continued industrial development required a more educated population, governments launched the first public education systems. The resulting expansion of literacy coincided perfectly with the emergence of mass media.

The industrial revolution caused massive upheaval in society. On one hand, it increased quality of life and allowed explosive population growth. On the other hand, agricultural production lagged behind industrial production—or was even displaced by it—while pollution from industry and overpopulation lowered quality of life. The people of the 19th century had a lot to talk about. In the next issues of Letters, we’ll look at how the new letters industry gave them the means to do so.