Regency Bicentennial:   Steam By Stealth

Two hundred years ago, tomorrow, John Walters II, publisher of The Times of London, walked into the pressroom of his newspaper and told the men preparing to print the paper for that day that there was no need. That day’s newspaper had already been printed, on brand new steam presses which he had installed at another, secret, location. By Walter’s action, steam power achieved a toe-hold in the print world and its expansion would be inexorable. Printing would never be the same.

How The Times was steamed …

Printing with moveable type was first used in Europe, in 1438, by Johannes Gutenberg. Though presses would be operated by hand for the next 375 years, the use of moveable type, rather than wood-blocks, would revolutionize printing. The comparative speed at which books and other materials could then be printed had a profound impact on society, enabling a steady increase in the circulation of information. Businesses, in particular, had an insatiable need for information to remain competitive. This need drove the first news-gatherers to provide paid newsletters to subscribers in the commercial community. By the end of the seventeenth century, these privately-circulated newsletters led to the introduction of weekly, then daily, newspapers. All printed on hand presses with moveable type.

In the last decades of the eighteenth century, John Walter, a former coal merchant and failed stock speculator, acquired a printing patent. Walter made some improvements to the technique and, in 1784, he bought a printing office and began printing books. But before the year was out, Walter realized there was much more money to be made in the publication of news, a commodity which was in increasingly high demand in both the business community and among the literate public. On 1 January 1785, Walter began publication of The Daily Universal Register. The newspaper steadily increased its circulation and on 1 January 1788, Walter renamed his paper The Times.

John Walter I was charged with libel on more than one occasion, and was fined and imprisoned in Newgate for his libel of the Duke of York. All of this made it very difficult for him to manage the operation of the newspaper. By 1795, he relinquished control of The Times to his eldest son, William. In 1798, upon completion of his studies at Trinity College, Oxford, William’s younger brother, John, joined the firm and soon took on the duties of assistant manager. Five years later, in 1803, William transferred full control of the newspaper to his younger brother. John Walter II would remain the owner and publisher of The Times from that time until his death, in 1847. He was succeeded by his son, John Walter III.

In 1803, the same year in which John Walter II took over full management of The Times, a German farmer’s son completed his first design for a powered printing press. Friedrich Koenig had been apprenticed to a printer and had worked for a few other printers before he enrolled for a year’s study at Leipzig University. Koenig wanted to improve the art of printing by reducing the back-breaking "horse work" required to get ink onto paper. However, it is unknown whether his first powered press was ever built. Most of the printers in Germany found it too expensive and were reluctant to upgrade their equipment when war with France was looming. Koenig decided his best hope was to try his luck elsewhere. He accepted an invitation from Russia to organize and improve their state printing office in St. Petersburg. Frustratingly, Koenig found Russian bureaucratic red-tape so restrictive that he eventually gave up any hope of building or employing any of his new printing press designs in Russia. But he heard that there were more enlightened men in England and strong patent protections.

It is not certain when Friedrich Koenig arrived in England, but on Monday, 30 November 1807, he signed a business agreement with book printer, Thomas Bensley. Koenig’s first improvement was to automate the process of applying ink to the type, which saved the effort of the dabber (or beater), the man who had previously done that work. By this time, the use of steam power was becoming more refined, and Koenig envisioned its application to the printing press. At about that same time, Andreas F. Bauer, a fellow German, a watchmaker and Koenig’s good friend, arrived in England. The two pooled their ideas and skill and between them, they constructed the first steam-powered printing press. Though they took out their first patent on 29 March 1810, the first functioning press was not completed until more than a year later, in April of 1811. It was used to print part of the 1810 edition of The Annual Register. This is believed to be the first part of any book to be printed by steam.

Koenig and Bauer continued to improve their designs, and on 30 October 1811, they took out another patent on a more sophisticated printing press. This new press replaced the flat platen with a cylinder and, instead of ink-coated leather rollers, delivered ink by forcing it through a very narrow slit in a metal roller fed from a large reservoir. It also employed an ingenious rack and pinon system to automate the motion of the print bed beneath the cylinder. The press was built and went into service in December of 1812. This new machine was such a success that two other prominent London printers, Messers. Taylor and Woodfall, became partners in the agreement between Bensley and Koenig. Probably early in 1813, John Walter II saw a demonstration of this new steam-powered printing press. He was very impressed by the regular motion and increased speed of the machine, but he wanted an even faster press to print his newspaper.

Fortunately for Walter, Koenig and Bauer were already at work on an even faster printing press, which they were just about to patent. John Walter ordered two of the new machines, in a larger format, for printing The Times, at a cost of £1400 each. Koenig and Bauer registered their patent for the new machine on 23 June 1813, and soon thereafter set to work building two steam-driven printing presses for John Walter. However, all of this was kept very hush-hush, since Walter was well aware of the general attitude toward machines within the ranks of his workers, not to mention the damage caused by Luddites in factories around the country. Walter quietly took premises in the basement of a warehouse down the street from The Times offices in Printing House Square. Only Walter, Koenig, Bauer and a few trusted associates were fully aware of the ultimate plan. The basement was kept under guard and the workers who were building the machines had no idea for whom they were being built. The first steam-powered newspaper printing presses were completed in November of 1814.

John Walter II had made his first radical change in the publication of The Times soon after assuming full control. In September of 1803, he instituted the use of a new, more legible typeface which dropped the long s and several multi-letter ligatures. These changes had the effect not only of making the text of The Times more legible, they also made it much faster to typeset pages. But the change he instituted in November of 1814 was even more radical. His new steam-powered presses could turn out 1100 double-sided pages an hour, far outstripping the 240 single-sided pages per hour, which was top speed for the old hand-operated presses. In the darkness of the very early hours of Tuesday, 29 November 1814, supervised by Walter, Koenig and a group of hand-picked men printed that day’s edition of The Times on the new presses.

At six o’clock that morning, John Walter II, a tall, thin man with a hooked nose, dressed in his usual black frock coat, walked into the press room of The Times. The pressmen were milling about, having been told that day’s edition would be delayed due to the expected imminent arrival of important news from aboard. Walter called for the pressmen to gather round and held up a copy of that day’s edition of the newspaper. He informed them that the paper had already been printed, by the new steam presses, which would be how the paper would be printed from that day on. Walter ordered copies of the paper brought in and handed out to the men, who eyed him with anger and suspicion. Despite their feelings, the pressmen were forced to admit that this new steam-printed edition of the newspaper was much cleaner and crisper than any edition which had ever come off a hand press. And as Walter continued to speak, their fear and anger began to dissipate.

The publisher explained that the new steam presses would not take their jobs, merely change them. Up to that time, it was easy to recognize an experienced pressman by the loping nature of his walk. It was caused by the significant over-development of one side of his body, the result of pulling the heavy press lever over and over again, for several hours every day. There were no levers to pull on the new steam presses, but there were still a wide range of tasks which needed to be done by humans in order to get the paper out. Though a machine to produce continuous rolls of paper had been invented more than a decade before, the use of such paper in England was prohibited due to fears of lost tax revenue. Thus, even with the new steam presses, The Times would still be printed on cut sheets of paper, all of which would have to be hand-fed into the machine and removed when they came out of the press. The ink reservoirs would have to be monitored and refilled as needed. The finished sheets would have to be assembled, folded for local delivery, and bound into bales for shipment to the provinces. Walter assured every pressman in the room that day that his job was secure. There were no riots or uprisings that day in Printing House Square. In fact, because The Times could be printed faster, and at less cost, its circulation rose rapidly and soon Walter found he needed to hire even more men to meet the growing demand.

The following is the first paragraph of an article which appeared in The Times on 29 November 1814:

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 hand 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 the invention may be justly appreciated by its effects, we shall inform the public, that after the letters are placed by the compositors, and enclosed in what is called the forme, little more remains for man to do than to attend upon and to watch this unconscious agent in its operations. The machine is then merely supplied with paper: itself places the forme, inks it, adjusts the paper to the forme newly inked, stamps the sheet, and gives it forth to the hands of the attendant, at the same time withdrawing the forme for a fresh coat of ink, which itself again distributes, to meet 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 1100 sheets are impressed in one hour.

The article went on to name and praise the inventors of the new steam presses. A follow-up article published few days later, on 3 December 1814, advised the public that:

The machine on which we announced the discovery and our adoption a few days ago, has been whirling on its course ever since, with improving order, regularity and even speed. The length of the debates on Thursday, the day when Parliament was adjourned, will have been observed; on such an occasion the operation of composing and printing the last page must commence among all the journals at the same moment; we, with our infinitely superior circulation, were enabled to throw off our whole impression many hours before the respectable rival prints. The accuracy and clearness of the impression will likewise excite attention.

Though there had been some threats of vengeance against Walter and The Times, none of them came from his pressmen and all of them remained employed, most with less physically stressful but higher-paying jobs. The speed of the presses also enabled The Times to be first on the streets with most breaking news. Along with its crisp new appearance and low price, The Times quickly became the leading London newspaper and would remain so for many decades to come. They could also publish more advertisements, since they could print more pages, faster, which also brought in increased revenue. Following the example of The Times, other British newspapers slowly began to install steam presses and before the end of the reign of King George IV, nearly every newspaper in Britain was published on a steam-powered press.

Two hundred years ago, tomorrow, readers of The Times woke up to a newspaper with a much cleaner, crisper appearance, and the news that the paper they held in their hands had been printed on presses powered by steam. Unlike so many instances where the introduction of steam power had resulted in violent uprisings among workers, that did not happen among the employees of The Times. Certainly, there were some very old-fashioned workers who resented and feared the change, but they were in the minority. John Walter made it a point to provide the necessary training to his pressmen to ensure they were all able to keep their jobs, if they wanted them. As his profits rose, Walter also increased the compensation he paid to his now more highly skilled pressmen. Though he felt he had to introduce steam-powered presses by stealth, John Walter did not do so in order to shut out his employees. He did it to avoid violence while the presses were under construction, and he took great pains to ensure that his pressmen were able to continue to work for him, if they chose to do so, once the new presses went into production. The conversion of The Times to steam-powered printing was an important milestone in the progress of the Industrial Revolution, for it showed that new technology could be implemented without violence or job loss.

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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15 Responses to Regency Bicentennial:   Steam By Stealth

  1. You have to give mighty kudos to a man who will hold all his men’s jobs open and look to the long term. Great story! and so many possible plot bunnies of steam engineers meeting newsmen’s daughters, rescue of heroines from Luddites hearing rumours, or a steam press needing mending and the steam engineer is ill and only his daughter can fix it, to initial scoffing and subsequent admiration….

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I have to say, I do admire John Walter II, and not just for looking out for his men. He also worked very hard to ensure the news reported in his paper was accurate, not something his father had worked very hard to do. All around, he seems to have been a tough but decent man.

      Delicious plot bunnies all! I particularly like the one where the daughter is able to fix the press. I am sure that would put the hero in his place, and elicit proper respect for her knowledge and skill!


  2. This post is perfect for me. My ‘To Do’ list includes testing the claim of a man who said that he had the ear of John Walters around 1788. Researching this will be more interesting than I thought. Thank you Kat 🙂

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      If you mean John Walter I, he seems to have been a rather wiley rascal who was willing to bend the truth to sell papers. If anyone had his ear, they may have also crossed his palm with a crown or two.

      Good Luck with your research!


  3. chasbaz says:

    Hello Kat, Interesting blog! I have downloaded part of the title page from the 28th and the 29th and pasted them into a Word document but can’t work out how I can post it anywhere. If anyone would like a copy I can email it. Best wishes!

  4. chasbaz says:

    I emailed a zipped rtf file to you.

  5. chasbaz says:

    You are most welcome, Kat. The difference in quality is pretty marked. Anyone else like a copy?

  6. chasbaz says:

    Emailed to you, Sarah.

  7. Pingback: 1814:   The Year in Review | The Regency Redingote

  8. Pingback: History A'la Carte 2-19-15 - Random Bits of Fascination

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