The Communication Revolution: Developments in Mass Publishing during the Nineteenth Century

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The Communication Revolution: Developments in Mass Publishing during the Nineteenth Century


James Watt's invention of the steam engine in 1765 brought rapid and expansive changes to many areas of culture including transportation, manufacturing, and science. Another major change resulting from the advent of steam power was in the area of mass publishing, where it was incorporated into the three major areas of production—paper making, typesetting and casting, and printing.


One of the major advances in the printing industry was the invention of a device to produce printing paper quickly and inexpensively. This contribution came from Nicholas Louis Robert, who patented his automated paper-making machine in 1799. Robert's persistent efforts resulted in a machine that could produce a continuous sheet or roll of paper. His employer, St. Leger Didot, brought the plans for the improved machine to his brother-in-law, Gamble, who acquired a new patent for it in 1801. During the first decade of the nineteenth century, two brothers, Henry and Sealy Fourdrinier enlisted the services of an engineer, Bryan Donkin, to improve upon the idea. It was Donkin who actually received the financial benefits of the patent they received for an improved paper-making machine in 1807. By 1851, Donkin had designed 191 machines. In addition to the 83 machines that were put into production in England, over 100 were sold to mills in Europe. Another machine was sold for use in India, and by the end of the 1820s there were two in the United States. The first of these two was imported from England to Saugerties, New York, in 1827, while a second was built in Connecticut by George Spafford and James Phelps in 1829.

Machine paper making automated several processes previously done by hand—mixing pulp with water, coloring material, sizing, and distributing the fibers uniformly across the width of the paper form. The pressing and drying process was also automated: first, some of the water was removed from the paper mat by suction; then most of the water was removed as the roll, or "web," of paper moved through roller-presses and felt blankets; finally, all but a small percentage (about 5%) of the water was removed by passing the paper through steam-heated cylinders.

In addition to the "Fourdrinier," as the machine came to be known by modern paper makers, a cylinder-type machine was developed in 1809 by the Englishman John Dickinson. Around the same time, Thomas Gilpin of Brandywine Creek, Pennsylvania, built a cylinder machine, one which could produce a thirty-foot wide sheet at about sixty feet per minute.

Mass publishing also benefited from several inventions that improved the speed and accuracy of casting and composing type. A major problem for production printing had always been the slow and cumbersome way that type was set. Individual lead blocks of letters, numbers, or symbols had to be inserted by hand into long casting sticks and placed by a "composer" onto the printing form. In the 1880s two machines for typecasting and composing revolutionized prepress production.

Ottmar Mergenthaler (1854-1899) developed a system of casting type that streamlined the process to such an extent that his invention is often said to have been the most important contribution to the industry since Johannes Gutenberg (c. 1398-1468) developed moveable type. The German-born Mergenthaler, who had settled in Washington, D.C., in the 1870s, moved to Baltimore where he went to work to solve the problem of typesetting and casting. The result, the Linotype machine, was patented in 1884 and installed first at the New York Tribune in 1886.

The advantage of Mergenthaler's design was that one operator could perform the work of several people in a shorter period of time than handtype casting and composition. The Linotype machine consisted of a keyboard and a casting unit. An operator adjusted the machine for the size of type and length of the line of type needed. As the operator typed characters on the keyboard, metal in the casting unit, which had been heated to about 550 degrees Fahrenheit, stamped out the actual slugs. These matrices, or small pieces of stamped brass characters, moved from channels in the casting unit along a conveyor belt to the assembler box, or "composing stick," creating a whole line of type—thus the name Linotype.

Like the Linotype machine, Tolbert Lanston's Monotype machine consisted of a keyboard and casting unit. The system, however, differed in the way that the type was composed. The American-born Lanston devised a system of setting type based on precise mathematical calculations for the size and spacing of individual units, or characters. When the operator typed into the keyboard, perforations were made in a cylinder of paper that would then be used to cast the individual slugs and create accurately spaced characters of uniform sizes. Lanston's machine entered the publishing industry in 1887, just a year after Mergenthaler's.

Innovations in the press room also improved the possibilities for mass communication. In the early 1800s Frederick Koenig adapted the steam engine to a cylinder-type printing press. After earlier unsuccessful attempts to automate the printing process by incorporating steam power, Koenig produced the first twin-cylinder steam-powered press in 1812. In 1814 Koenig's improved model was installed and put to work in the press room of the London Times. The power press increased the Times's output to 1100 sheets per hour, a 400% improvement. This increased rate of production allowed the Times to expand its distribution to over 30,000 papers per day by the end of the 1830s.

In 1830 Richard Hoe, at the age of eighteen, and his cousin Matthew Smith took over the Hoe Printing Company in New York City. Before retiring, Hoe's father, Robert, and Sereno Newton had developed and put into production an improved cylinder press. Hoe immediately set about trying to improve the rate of production beyond the 200 impressions per hour achieved by his father's machine. In 1837 he designed and produced the first large cylinder press used in the United States. Hundreds of these machines were in use in the printing industry within a decade.

Hoe continued to work out press designs to meet the ever-increasing needs of newspaper publishers. The result of his efforts was a "typerevolving machine," or rotary press. The first of these presses based on Hoe's patent was put into use at the Public Ledger in Philadelphia in 1847. The key feature in Hoe's design was an apparatus for securing the printing plates, or type forms, onto a large cylinder.

This type cylinder was surrounded by several impression cylinders, through which operators fed sheets of paper. This version of the rotary press was able to print 8,000 newspapers per hour. The increased output capability made the rotary press popular worldwide.

Other improvements followed. In 1865 William Bullock constructed the first press to print from a continuous roll (web) of paper. By 1871 Hoe and a partner, Stephen Tucker, had also built a web press. The first of these machines was put into production at the New York Tribune. The great advantage of Hoe and Tucker's web press was that it could print on both sides of the paper at once. This "perfecting press" allowed for even an higher rate of production. The Tribune could produce up to 18,000 newspapers per hour. In 1875 Tucker patented a rotating folding cylinder which allowed papers to be folded as they came off the press. The Hoe Company improved upon this feature in 1881 by creating a triangular folder. The folding apparatus and several other improvements incorporated by the Hoe company created the modern press as it was used in the printing industry until the advent of computerized printing in the last quarter of the twentieth century.


Enterprise was a key factor in the development of mass publishing. Creative, motivated inventors took advantage of the growing demand for educational and entertaining reading material by devising technological innovations that could serve that demand. To a certain extent, the expansion of mass education and the growing popularity of penny novels, newspapers, and periodicals contributed to this trend through their need for cheap, fast, and efficient methods of production.

The Fourdrinier paper-making machines not only made paper cheap and plentiful but changed the way that the industry operated. Previously, paper making had been a cottage industry, involving production by a lot of small companies. By the turn of the century, the industry was dominated by a few large companies that produced tremendous amounts of paper. These companies sold their inventory through a system of specialized wholesale distributors.

Improvements in typesetting and printing created advantages for book publishers, but the advantage of steam-powered printing to "jobbing printers"—those who produced all the nonbook print matter—was enormous. The costs of book printing were not necessarily lower as a result of power printing, but volume printing saw significant cost savings.

The impact of mass production was particularly important to the newspaper industry, where the inexpensive creation, composition, and distribution of information on a mass scale had to be repeated daily. As in the paper-making industry, the cost of purchasing power machinery resulted in a change in the industry's profile. By the end of the Victorian era, fewer, but larger-scale, printing companies were in business.


Further Reading

Bruno, Michael H., ed. Pocket Pal: A Graphic Arts Production Handbook. Memphis, TN: International Paper Co., 1997.

Comparato, Frank E. Chronicles of Genius and Folly: R. Hoe Company and the Printing Press as a Service to Democracy. Culver City, CA: Labrynthos, 1979.

Feather, John. A History of British Publishing. London: Routledge, 1996.

Hart, Ivor B. James Watt and the History of Steam Power. New York: Schuman, 1949.

Moran, James. Printing Presses: History and Development from the Fifteenth Century to Modern Times. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.

Williams, Kevin. Get Me a Murder a Day: A History of Mass Communication in Britain. London: Arnold, 1998.

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The Communication Revolution: Developments in Mass Publishing during the Nineteenth Century

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