The printing press has always been a marvel of human invention, and the printing of newspapers occupies a unique course in the history of printing machines. As demands grew for more pages, more news, and faster delivery, newspapers had to achieve greater speeds and higher efficiency.
Newspapers started on Gutenberg presses – individual type pieces arranged backwards by hand, secured in a flat bed, inked by hand, and a great leverage force applied to create the impression. The machine did one part of the job, and newspapers were often printed once a week as one, large, single-sided page called a broadside. The force required to get a good image was considerable, the wood that made up the printing press would crack or break over time, and the metal type would wear down. From the 1440s, the mechanics of the printing press were practically unchanged for 300 years! The first improvements to the press were to replace some of the wooden parts with iron and improve the lever used to press the paper to type.
The first printing press made entirely out of iron appeared around 1800 in England and is attributed to Charles Mahon, the third Earl of Stanhope. The power and durability of the Stanhope press allowed printers to get 200 pulls per hour – each ‘pull’ being a pressed side of a paper. 200 pulls would be 100 issues of a double-sided broadsheet. The Columbian press by George Clymer was the first entirely metal press in the United States, emerging in the 1810s. While other iron presses emerged in a variety of sizes, these two were the first big names in successful manufacturing companies.
One of the biggest jumps in newspaper press development at this time was from the flat-bed hand press (like the Columbian) to the rotary press – a machine run by steam, horses, or manpower that incorporated rotating cylinders in the printing process that skyrocketed production speeds.
While methods of printing with cylinders can be found as far back as 1616, it wasn’t until the 1810s that a practical method was manufactured. Frederick Koenig and Andreas Bauer, German immigrants in England, patented a machine that obtained an impression not by pressing but by rolling paper attached to a cylinder over the bed of type. Made first for the London Times’ November 29, 1814 issue, this steam powered press could produce 1,100 sheets per hour. The more cylinders the press had, the more pages it could print at once. It even had a cylinder to automatically roll ink onto the type, but it still only printed single sided sheets which were fed into and taken off of the machine by hand. Koenig and Bauer would go on to establish a company and press factory in an old monastery in Germany, and the company is still in the printing business today.
The R. Hoe & Company in New York City could be seen as the American counterpart to Koenig and Bauer. Started in 1805, Robert Hoe ran a wood and iron manufacturing plant that built printing presses well into the 1970s. Carried on by his son Richard in the 1840s, R. Hoe developed the type-revolving printing presses nicknamed “lightning presses.” Instead of paper on a cylinder, the type pieces were wedge-shaped in order to be secured tightly into the surface of a cylinder and rolled onto paper. The machines could be custom-built with up to ten cylinders in order to meet different newspaper needs.
The 1860s saw American press factories develop two major improvements for printing newspapers: the stereotype plates and the paper web. The stereotype is a thin piece of metal that has been cast from a mold of the composed type. The thin metal is curved to fit around a rotating cylinder in the printing press, thus eliminating type from the actual printing process for the first time. The stereotype process was developed over the course of the 1840s but did not enter the printing scene at-large until the 1860s. The stereos, as they were called, would remain an integral piece in the printing process until the 1970s. Large newspapers often had entire sections dedicated to casting stereos, and in some cases one stereo could be cast in 15 seconds, ready to go on the press. Casting stereos from type prevented the type from getting worn down by repeated use in the press and it freed up the type to be used in other compositions. R. Hoe & Co printing presses started incorporating stereo plates into their presses in 1861.
In 1865, William Bullock of Philadelphia collaborated with papermakers to design a web – a continuous roll of paper – to run through his rotary presses and be cut to size in the printing process. His rotary press also set the new standard for “perfecting” the paper – printing on both sides of the page.
Bullock’s early rotary press could get 8,000 – 10,000 copies per hour according to the New-York Tribune. The Tribune started printing with Hoe’s version of the web-perfecting rotary press in 1875, which produced 14,000 copies an hour.
The final touch was mechanized folding of the finished newspaper. Englishman George Ashley Wilson is credited with designing the Victory printing and folding machine combined. Other companies like R. Hoe created separate machines that could be hand-fed finished sheets or attached to the end of one of their existing presses. Folding would go on to become a standard function of large presses.
By the 1880s, newspaper presses achieved their highest speeds yet. Countless individual inventions followed by small adjustments, innovations, and tricks fill printing history, but these “headliners” would consistently be the standard for almost one hundred more years of newspaper printing.
The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Follow Chronicling America on Twitter @ChronAmLOC and click here to subscribe to Headlines & Heroes–it’s free!
Search the Library of Congress website for “printing press” to see photos of different presses, press rooms, and printing offices from across the decades.
Visit: Museum of Printing in Haverhill, Massachusetts
Explore: The International Printing Museum in Carson, California
Watch: American Newspaper Printing: from hot type to computers by the White House Chronicle (29:00)
A New Introduction to Bibliography by Philip Gaskell (1995)
A Short History of The Printing Press by Robert Hoe (1902)
The Story of the Newspaper Printing Press by George A. Isaacs (1931)
The American Printer by Thomas Mackellar (1883)
Printing Presses: history and development from the fifteenth century to modern times by James Moran (1973)
A Short History of the Art of Printing in England by Arthur C. J. Powell (1877)
The Power of the Press: history and development of printing presses from the fifteenth to the twenty-first century by Paul Martin Tonsing (1998)
How the Printing Press Changed History by Nel Yomtov (2016)