It is not clear how the first printers struck off their copies, but without doubt Gutenberg did use at an early period in his career a mechanical press of some kind, which was constructed of wood. In fact he could not have produced his famous forty-two line Bible without such aid.
The earliest picture of a press shows roughly the construction to have been that of an upright frame, the power exerted Wooden Hand-presses. by a movable handle, placed in a screw which was tightened up to secure the requisite impression, and was loosened again after the impression was obtained. The type pages were placed on a flat bed of solid wood or stone, and it was quite a labour to run this bed into its proper position under the hanging but fixed horizontal plane, called the platen, which gave the necessary impress when screwed down by the aid of the movable bar. This labour had to be repeated in order to release the printed sheet and before another copy could be struck off. This same press, with a few modifications, was apparently still in general use till the early part of the 17th century, when Willem Janszon Blaeu (1571-1638) of Amsterdam, who was appointed map maker to the Dutch Republic in 1633, made some substantial improvements in it. Our first authority on printing, Joseph Moxon, in his Mechanick Exercises, as Applied to the Art of Printing (vol. i., 1683), says, “There are two sorts of presses in use, viz. the old fashion and the new fashion,” and he gives credit to Blaeu for the invention of the new and decidedly improved press (fig. 1).
Blaeu's improvement consisted of putting the spindle of the screw through a square block which was guided in the wooden frame, and from this block the platen was suspended by wires or cords. This block gave a more rigid platen, and at the same time ensured a more equal motion to the screw when actuated by the bar-handle. He also invented a device which allowed the bed on which the type pages were placed to run in and out more readily, thus reducing the great labour involved in that part of the work of the older form of press, and he also used a new kind of iron lever or handle to turn the screw which applied the necessary pressure. The value of these various improvements, which were in details rather than in principles, was speedily recognized, and the press was introduced into England and became known as the “new fashion.”
From this it will be observed that in a general way there had only been two kinds of wooden presses in use for a period of no less than three hundred and fifty years, and when the work of some of the early printers is studied, it is marvellous how often good results were obtained from such crude appliances.
The iron press (fig. 2) invented by Charles, 3rd earl Stanhope (1753-1816), at the end of the 18th century was a decided advance on those made of wood. Greater power was obtained at a smaller expenditure of labour, and it allowed of larger and heavier surfaces being printed. The chief points of the iron Iron Hand-presses. press consisted of an improved application of the power to the spindle. The main part of it was the upright frame or staple, of iron; the feet of this staple rested upon two pieces of substantial timber dovetailed into a cross, which formed a base or foundation for the complete press to stand upon. The staple was united at the top and bottom, but the neck and body were left open, the former for the mechanism and the latter for the platen and the bed when run in preparatory to taking the impression. The upper part of the staple, called the nut, answered the same purpose as the head in the older kind of wooden press, and was in fact a box with a female screw in which the screw of the spindle worked. The lower portion of the neck was occupied by a piston and cup, in and on which the toe of the spindle worked. On the near side of the staple was a vertical pillar, termed the arbor, the lower end of which was inserted into the staple at the top of the shoulder—the upper end passing through a top-plate, which being screwed on to the upper part of the staple held it firmly. The extreme upper end of the arbor, which was hexagonal, received a head, which was really a lever of some length; this head was connected by a coupling-bar to a similar lever or head, into which the upper end of the spindle was inserted. The bar by which the power was applied by the pressman was fixed into the arbor, and not into the spindle, so that the lever was the whole width of the press, instead of half, as in Blaeu's wooden press, and it was better placed for the application of the worker's strength. There was also another lever to the arbor head in addition to that of the spindle head; and lastly, the screw itself was so enlarged that it greatly increased the power. The platen was screwed on to the under surface of the spindle; the table or bed had slides underneath which moved in, and not on, ribs as in the older form of press, and was run in and out by means of strips of webbing fastened to each end and passed round a drum or wheel. As the platen was very heavy the operator was assisted in raising it from the type-forme by a balance weight suspended upon a hooked lever at the back of the press. This somewhat counterbalanced the weight of the platen, raised it after the impression had been taken, and brought the bar handle back again to its original position, ready for another pull.
The Stanhope press, which is still in use, was soon followed by other hand-presses made of iron, with varying changes of details. The most successful of these were the Albion and Columbian presses, the former of English manufacture, and the latter invented (1816) by an American, George Clymer (1754-1834), of Philadelphia.
The Albion press (fig. 3), which was designed by Richard Whittaker Cope, was afterwards much improved upon by John Hopkinson (1849-1898). It is still used where hand printing prevails, and it was this form of press which was employed by William Morris at his famous, but short-lived, Kelmscott Press,