Today, the Britannia Two-Pound Coin remembers the first printing by a steam press of The Times in London on November 29, 1814.
From the Boston Journal of Chemistry, Volume XII, Devoted to the Science of Home Life, the Arts, Agriculture, and Medicine, edited by James R. Nichols, M. D., Editor and W. J. Rolfe, A. M., Associate Editor, published in August 1877:
Practical Chemistry and the Arts.
The First Newspaper Printed by Steam.
It is remarkable that the steam-engine was not called to the aid of the printing-press sooner than it was; but it had long been used in many of the industrial arts before it became a hand maid to “the art preservative of all arts.”
The first printing by steam was on the issue of the London Times for November 29, 1814.
The improved hand-presses of that day could strike off only from two to three hundred impressions an hour, with one man to ink the types and another to work the press.
At that rate a very large edition of a daily paper was simply impossible, for one day’s work could not be completed before the next day’s must begin.
The Times then printed from three to four thousand copies daily, and Mr. John Walter, the proprietor (the second of that name), began as early as 1804 to consider whether the work might not be expedited in some way.
In that year Thomas Martyn, a compositor in the Times office, got up a model of a self-acting machine for working the press, and Walter furnished money for the continuance of his experiments.
As usual in the early history of labor-saving machinery, this attempt met with bitter opposition from the workmen, who supposed their craft was in danger.
Martyn was in fear of his life because of the threats of the pressmen, and partly on that account, partly because Walter had small capital at that time, the scheme was given up.
As soon, however, as Koenig’s printing-machine was invented, in 1814, Walter consented that it should be tried on the Times; but for fear of the workmen the experiment was made, not in the regular printing-office of the paper, but in an adjoining building.
Here Koenig and his assistant, Bauer, worked secretly for several months, testing and perfecting the machine.
On the 29th of November everything was ready for actual work on the paper, and the result is thus told in a biographical sketch of Mr. Walter, which appeared in the Times in July, 1847:—
“The night on which this curious machine was first brought into use in its new abode was one of great anxiety and even alarm. The suspicious pressmen had threatened destruction to any one whose inventions might suspend their employment,— ‘destruction to him and his traps.’ They were directed to wait for expected news from the Continent. It was about six o’clock in the morning when Mr. Walter went into the press-room, and astonished its occupants by telling them that the Times was already printed by steam; that if they attempted violence there was a force ready to suppress it; but that if they were peaceable their wages should be continued to every one of them till similar employment could be procured. The promise was no doubt faithfully performed; and, having so said, he distributed several copies among them. Thus was this most hazardous enterprise undertaken and successfully carried through, and printing by steam, on a most gigantic scale, given to the world.”
The Times of November 29, 1814, had a leading article on the great event, from which the following is a quotation: —
“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 hands 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 this invention may be justly appreciated by its effects, we may inform the public that, after the letters are placed by the compositors and enclosed in what is called the ‘form,’ little more remains for man to do than to attend upon and watch this unconscious agent in its operations. The machine is then merely supplied with paper. Itself places the form, inks it, adjusts the paper to the newly-inked type, 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 wait for 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 eleven hundred sheets are impressed in one hour. . . . . Of the person who made this discovery we have but little to add. Sir Christopher Wren’s noblest monument is to be found in the building which he erected; so is the best tribute of praise, which we are capable of offering to the inventor of the printing-machine, comprised in the description, which we have feebly sketched, of the powers and utility of the invention. It must suffice to say further that he is a Saxon by birth, that his name is Koenig, and that the invention has been executed under the direction of his friend and countryman, Bauer.”
Koenig’s machine was very complicated, and, with all the improvements made in it, never succeeding in running off more than eighteen hundred impressions an hour.
In 1827 it was superseded in the Times office by Applegath and Cowper’s press, which at first gave four thousand impressions in an hour, and as it was gradually improved increased the number to five and six thousand; and with Applegath’s new machine this was brought up, in 1848, to eight thousand, and eventually to twelve thousand copies.
On the progress since made, which is more or less familiar to the readers of the Journal, we need not dwell. Suffice it to say that the best presses of our day are as far in advance of the early steam-presses as those were ahead of the old-fashioned hand-presses they superseded.
The Britannia Two-Pound Coin shows with an image of Koenig’s machine initially used in 1814.