March 29

The first steam cylinder press invented by Frederick Koenig, and used in printing "The Times"

It was undoubtedly inevitable that when the hand press was finally automated, it would be the result of the efforts of a compositor, and such proved to be the case when Frederick Koenig received a patent from the British Commissioners of Patents, dated this day in 1810. Koenig, a farmer’s son who had become a printer, was then thirty-five years of age. He had been working on the development of a power-operated printing press for about eight years and had been up to that time frustrated by his lack of success. Koenig’s first attempt was, naturally enough, along the lines of the hand presses and was constructed of wood. It received a cool reception with the result that the further capital which the inventor needed to apply his ideas was not forthcoming. He wrote to the Czar, Alexander I of Russia, and was thereupon invited to St. Petersburg to discuss his press. But the politics of the Russian court were so involved that he went to London. Here he was introduced to Thomas Bensley, one of the foremost English printers of his time, who—along with two other printers—agreed to supply the funds which Koenig needed to build his machine.

The 1810 patent was granted for an iron press, an adaptation of the earlier wooden machine. It proved successful, but by this time Koenig’s ambition for fame had already driven him to the planning of a power press in which the impression was made by a cylinder rather than by a platen. This second machine was patented in 1811 and was ready for a demonstration by the following year. An important observer of the first trial was John Walter, publisher of The Times, who became visibly excited with the press and its implications for the future of newspaper printing. In a discussion with Koenig, Walter learned that the inventor’s mind was already on an even more advanced machine, this time a two-cylinder press which would double the output of the original model. Walter immediately ordered two of these machines and, thus subsidized, Koenig set out to prove his theories.

The press for The Times was ready in November, 18 14, but the publisher found it necessary to resort to a sub rosa approach, as he well realized that the pressmen already operating the hand presses in his printing office would be furious at the prospect of technological unemployment and might attempt to damage the new press before it could prove itself successful. On the evening of November 28 he passed the word to the pressroom that he was awaiting important news dispatches from France, which had been delayed. The pressmen therefore sat around all night long, “playing cards, smoking, falling asleep, and cursing the management.”

Walter spirited the type forms of the newspaper to the factory where the press had been built, running off an edition at a speed faster than any newspaper had ever been produced before. At six o’clock in the morning, the publisher bravely entered his own press room, with copies of the November 29th issue of The Times under his arm. He warded off a possible riot by announcing that every pressman and his assistant would be paid full wages until he could find another job.

The readers of the newspaper were informed in that issue of the momentous technical development by which that morning’s paper had been produced: “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 hands one of the many thousands of 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 from the most laborious efforts in printing, far exceeds all human power in rapidity and dispatch.”

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