By: Hailey Tang
From Gutenberg’s invention of the wooden screw printing press to the more modern electrically powered Heidelberg Windmill Press, the mechanics behind letterpress printing have significantly evolved in the past 500 years. Here is a timeline to summarize the different features that emerged as letterpress printing became increasingly popular and commercialized.
In 1450, Gutenberg invented the wooden screw printing press, the basic foundation for presses to come. His mechanism was based on a wine press, but could’ve also been adapted from a binding press. After the rise of Gutenberg’s press, the wooden screw was eventually replaced by iron.
Gutenberg introduced letterpress printing to the world, and this form of printing was viewed as superior to others of the time, such as wood-block printing, because of the crisp impressions made by the type. To further improve the quality of the relief, in 1570, a double hinged chase was added to prevent ink spotting and combat the varying height of type, resulting in cleaner prints.
In 1620, the Dutch Press was invented by Willem Janszoon Blaeu. This press had a counterweight attached to the pressure bar of the press, which allowed the platen to rise automatically. However, after this, the printing press experienced a fairly static period in innovations. It wasn’t until the late eighteenth century that new features were once again developed for the printing press.
In 1790, rotary movement was first associated with printing by the work of William Nicholson. He theorized with a method of inking involving a leather-covered cylinder, filing a patent for his idea. Althoguh he was never able to create a successful mock up of his invention, this revolutionary idea of pairing large rollers in the printing process later inspired other inventors to make many of the cylinder presses that exist today.
With the end of the eighteenth century and movement into the 1800s, the first all-metal press came into fruition. Soon after came the “Columbian” and the “Washington,” which were characterized by their replacement of the screw mechanism with a series of metal joints. These new presses could print about 250 sheets per hour. However, that output amount skyrocketed with Friedrich Koenig’s 1811 invention of the steam-powered stop cylinder press, reaching a speed of 1,100 sheets per hour.
From there, duplex printing was added as a feature, as well as grippers, to add convenience and efficiency to the printing process.
Most of the press development up until this point was accomplished by European scientists, engineers, and printmakers. However, in America the “Liberty” pedal platen was perfected in 1857 and was the first mechanized platen in commission. However, this version of the pedal platen was eventually replaced in America by Gordon style platen presses, and today, there are only a few that remain in existence.
1865 marked the introduction of a roll fed rotary press. Previously, there had been no real mechanization of feeding paper into the press--it all had to be done by a person. With this innovation though, paired with auto folding and cutting devices, companies were able to produce 12,000 fully complete and folded newspapers in one hour.
As time progressed, lithography became more and more popular, letterpress printing in commercial businesses was largely replaced. New letterpress machines did continue to emerge, a notable instance being the Heidelberg Windmill press, but there was less and less demand for the practice. Although letterpress printing has partially left the commercial printing world, it has recently been revived in the modern world as a highly appreciated art form for printmakers and designers.