The Greatest Revolution since Gutenberg Printing House Square (City of London)

 

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The history of printing is a radical one. The invention of Johann Gutenberg’s movable type is generally referred to as a printing revolution. It quickened the spread of literacy in Renaissance Europe and contributed to the Reformation. Printing stands at the forefront of various revolutionary developments, both in a political and a socio-cultural sense.

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Seen from a different perspective, the printing trade has been at the forefront of the organised labour movement, creating trade unions, and being involved in the establishment of industrial relations practices. The art and skills of printing were relatively stable for a long time, but they have undergone many transformations since. At the end of the eighteenth century printing was still performed on wooden presses which were not only slow and cumbersome, but also produced an inconsistent impression. Attempts were made to mechanise the process. The use of a rolling cylinder to overcome manual strain and increase speed in printing was suggested as early as 1616 by Faustus Verantius in his remarkable study Machinae novae. It would take another two centuries before a practical printing cylinder machine eventually emerged.

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Printing House Square in the City acquired its name after the Great Fire of London when the King’s Printer settled there in order to publish official documents and the London Gazette, the official government journal of record. In 1785, John Walter began publishing the Daily Universal Register at the square which was renamed The Times in January 1788. In 1974 the paper moved to Gray’s Inn Road and then to Wapping in 1986. The fifty-four week Wapping dispute during the Thatcher era, along with the miners’ strike of 1984/5, has been one of the worst conflicts in British industrial relations. Target was the newspaper empire of News International (with its flagship publication The Times, and parent to The Sun, The News of the World, and others). Its owner, the Australian tycoon Rupert Murdoch, wanted to introduce technological innovations that would put 90% of typesetters out of work. It was a bitter and violent confrontation. This was not the first time that The Times had been at war with its employees. The introduction of advanced technologies and the restructuring of production processes have hit the workforce hard at times. The workers struck back. Faith in machinery was perceived as the danger; technology was the enemy. Work had lost its dignity; man was reduced to the level of a machine.

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In September 1712 a sea-sick German immigrant arrived on a yacht called the Peregrine in Greenwich from Rotterdam. He was fluent in French, but did not and never would speak a word of English. His name was George Louis, the Elector of Hanover – and the new Protestant king of Britain known as George I. The Glorious Revolution had brought William III to the throne. He created the Bank of England and attracted financiers from the Dutch Republic to settle in Britain. The officers in his army were predominantly French Huguenots. He also introduced a strong element of Continental aesthetics around Hampton Court and into the upper strata of society. Queen Anne did not produce an heir – enter King George. The Hanoverians created their own inner circle of German high-society around them, but the tone of their rule was pragmatic, business-like, and industrial. It acquired a Teutonic accent. The emerging industrial apparatus of the Hanoverian state was developed with the aim of strengthening Britain’s role in Europe. The dominant importance of an overseas British Empire emerged later. Amongst the more notable immigrants were industrialists, manufacturers, engineers, chemists, inventors, and skilled workers. Britain donned the hard hat and overalls. This general atmosphere continued under Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (they spoke German at home) and was exemplified in a spectacular manner by the Great Exhibition of 1851, the first international public display of manufactured products.

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One of the new arrivals in Britain was Friedrich Gottlob Koenig. The son of a farmer, he was born on 17 April 1774 at Eisleben, in Saxony. After school, he was bound apprentice for five years to printers Breitkopf & Härtel in Leipzig, which today is the oldest surviving music publishing house (founded in 1719). Having spent a year studying physics and mechanics at Leipzig University, he started experiments to improve the art of printing. Not finding any interest in his work at home or elsewhere in Europe, he settled in London in November 1806. Britain was the place to be. Business was booming there. It was an open society, keen to accept bright minds from abroad, eager to accept and develop new technologies, and there were no restrictions to the movement of migrants. The presence of the Hanoverian court was an additional stimulus for young Germans to make the journey across the Channel.

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In London Koenig was introduced to Thomas Bensley, a prominent printer in Bolt Court, off Fleet Street, who was interested in improving the firm’s machinery. He brought in two other printers to help finance Koenig’s experiments: Richard Taylor (whose firm is still active under the name Taylor & Francis) and typographer George Woodfall. On 30 November 1807 they signed a business agreement. Koenig was joined by fellow countryman and engineer (watchmaker) Andreas Friedrich Bauer. Together they constructed and patented the first printing machine powered by steam. After some experiments, plans were drawn up and a patent was taken out in October 1811. The press was tested in trial runs at the Koenig & Bauer workshop. The first sheets printed entirely from cylindrical pressure were sheets (G & X) from Thomas Clarkson’s book on the Life of Penn (1814). The trials proved successful. Several newspaper proprietors were invited to see Koenig’s new cylinder machine, but only John Walter of The Times realised its potential. To avoid difficulties with his workers, Walter insisted Koenig & Bauer conveyed, in secrecy, the machine parts to a workshop adjoining The Times offices on Printing House Square. Here it was constructed away from the paper’s composing and press rooms in order to avoid any anti-mechanical demonstrations or angry machine bashing.

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The printing of the first issue of the paper was a clandestine affair, but nervous rumours were rife on Printing House Square, and the atmosphere at the workplace was tense. At six o’clock in the morning, Walter entered the press room and astonished his employees by announcing the issue of 29 November 1814 had already been printed by steam. He warned against industrial action and promised that wages would be paid until alternative employment could be procured. In the event, the edition passed into circulation with little agitation from the workforce. The strategy of surprise had been a success. Koenig’s cylinder press, the output of which was soon increased to 1,100 sheets per hour, initiated the industrial revolution in printing and the age of the popular press.

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Critiques of mass culture, and of the press in particular, began emerging during the late eighteenth century. Writers such as Goethe attacked the banal diversions offered by the newspapers, noting that they were merely a means of escape from social reality. Journalism promoted passivity and conformity. Others offered more positive appraisals of the value of mass media. Karl Marx saw the press as a means of promoting democracy and civil liberties. The press became a contested terrain, with both fervent defenders and severe critics. Some saw it as an instrument of enlightenment, while others rejected it as a vehicle of banality and mass deception. Søren Kierkegaard was a relentless critic of the press. In 1854 he stated that if ‘I were a father and had a daughter who was seduced, I should by no means give her up; but if I had a son who became a journalist I should regard him as lost’. The role of an irresponsible and/or bias press remains a hotly disputed topic to this very day, recently fueled by the deplorable level of reporting leading up to the Brexit disaster.

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Friedrich Koenig in the meantime returned to Germany in 1817 where he established a printing press in Wurzburg. The firm was called Koenig & Bauer, after both inventors, making it the oldest printing press manufacturer in the world, as it is still in existence today.

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