January 27

On January 27, 1878, George Phineas Gordon died, leaving a will which was so well hidden that it was not found for twelve years, and about one million dollars for his heirs to squabble over—all of which had been acquired in the manufacture of printing presses. Gordon, born in Salem, New Hampshire in 1810, had been on the stage for a period after leaving school. Apparently finding the thespian career unproductive, he learned the printer’s trade in New York. He opened his own shop about 1835. Of mechanical bent, Gordon spent a great deal of his time planning the automation of the hand press for job printing.

His efforts resulted in a patent being granted to him on March 26, 1850. His invention was a press which resembled in some ways the machine introduced by Stephen P. Ruggles ten years earlier. Ruggles’ press was called the Engine Press by its manufacturer but printers called it the upside down press, as the form was mounted in position over the platen, both of which were in the horizontal position. Gordon’s patent covered a procedure for gripping the sheet of paper and inking mechanism. Although the press was not successful, Gordon was already at work on another principle, resulting in a device which he called the Alligator Press. In this unit, the bed and the platen were placed in a vertical position, the former being stationary at a forty-five degree angle. A cam moved the bed of the press forward to the same angle, making the impression. The late Ralph Green, chronicler of the history of job presses, says of the Alligator, “probably a more dangerous piece of apparatus was never built. The feeder had no warning device to signal him the necessity of withdrawing his hands.”

Although a few Alligators were built, they were not successful. Perhaps the only surviving model is now in the State Capitol Museum in Lincoln, Nebraska. Gordon’s next press was really the result of inspired thought by the inventor. He followed the Spiritualist persuasion, at that time being popularized by the Fox sistersof upstate New York. Evidently Gordon’s poltergeist was Benjamin Franklin, as the worthy approached him in a dream for the single purpose of describing the next press which Gordon was to produce. This machine, called the Turnover, was patented but nowhere does the name of the distinguished printer-statesman appear as the inventor, as Gordon himself claimed all the credit. But he did call the machine the Franklin Press.

From this point Gordon became truly successful. The Franklin jobber with modifications became the typical Gordon press, the most widely used job press of its time. During the life of the inventor none of his presses were power driven, being operated by a foot treadle, although some printers attached a crank to the flywheel to actuate the mechanism.

During the last thirty years of the 19th century there were eighteen different firms building old style Gordons. In 1901, Chandler & Price bought the Gordon Press Works, thus securing the right to call their presses Gordons, although they had been manufacturing the old style press since 1886. In country printing offices scattered throughout the land there are still Gordons operating and turning out job printing just as efficiently as they did seventy-five years ago.

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