Men of Invention and Industry/Chapter VIII

Men of Invention and Industry
by Samuel Smiles
(Chapter 8: William Clowes: Introducer of Book-Printing by Steam)
29597Men of Invention and Industry — (Chapter 8: William Clowes: Introducer of Book-Printing by Steam)Samuel Smiles

"The Images of men's wits and knowledges remain in Books, exempted from the wrong of time, and capable of perpetual renovation. Neither are they fitly to be called Images, because they generate still, and cast their seeds in the minds of others, provoking and causing infinite actions and opinions in succeeding ages; so that, if the invention of the Ship was thought so noble, which carrieth riches and commodities from place to place, and consociateth the most remote Regions in participation of their Fruits, how much more are letters to be magnified, which, as Ships, pass through the vast Seas of time, and make ages so distant to participate of the wisdom, illuminations, and inventions, the one of the other?" — Bacon, On the Proficience and Advancement of Learning.

Steam has proved as useful and potent in the printing of books as in the printing of newspapers. Down to the end of last century, "the divine art," as printing was called, had made comparatively little progress. That is to say, although books could be beautifully printed by hand labour, they could not be turned out in any large numbers.

The early printing press was rude. It consisted of a table, along which the forme of type, furnished with a tympan and frisket, was pushed by hand. The platen worked vertically between standards, and was brought down for the impression, and raised after it, by a common screw, worked by a bar handle. The inking was performed by balls covered with skin pelts; they were blacked with ink, and beaten down on the type by the pressman. The inking was consequently irregular.

In 1798, Earl Stanhope perfected the press that bears his name. He did not patent it, but made his invention over to the public. In 1818, Mr. Cowper greatly improved the inking of formes used in the Stanhope and other presses, by the use of a hand roller covered with a composition of glue and treacle, in combination with a distributing table. The ink was thus applied in a more even manner, and with a considerable decrease of labour. With the Stanhope Press, printing was as far advanced as it could possibly be by means of hand labour. About 250 impressions could be taken off, on one side, in an hour.

But this, after all, was a very small result. When books could be produced so slowly, there could be no popular literature. Books were still articles for the few, instead of for the many. Steam power, however, completely altered the state of affairs. When Koenig invented his steam press, he showed by the printing of Clarkson's 'Life of Penn' — the first sheets ever printed with a cylindrical press — that books might be printed neatly, as well as cheaply, by the new machine. Mr. Bensley continued the process, after Koenig left England; and in 1824, according to Johnson in his 'Typographia,' his son was "driving an extensive business."

In the following year, 1825, Archibald Constable, of Edinburgh, propounded his plan for revolutionising the art of bookselling. Instead of books being articles of luxury, he proposed to bring them into general consumption. He would sell them, not by thousands, but by hundreds of thousands, "ay, by millions;" and he would accomplish this by the new methods of multiplication — by machine printing and by steam power. Mr. Constable accordingly issued a library of excellent books; and, although he was ruined — not by this enterprise, but the other speculations into which he entered — he set the example which other enterprising minds were ready to follow. Amongst these was Charles Knight, who set the steam presses of William Clowes to work, for the purposes of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge.

William Clowes was the founder of the vast printing establishment from which these sheets are issued; and his career furnishes another striking illustration of the force of industry and character. He was born on the 1st of January, 1779. His father was educated at Oxford, and kept a large school at Chichester; but dying when William was but an infant, he left his widow, with straitened means, to bring up her family. At a proper age William was bound apprentice to a printer at Chichester; and, after serving him for seven years, he came up to London, at the beginning of 1802, to seek employment as a journeyman. He succeeded in finding work at a small office on Tower Hill, at a small wage. The first lodgings he took cost him 5s. a week; but finding this beyond his means he hired a room in a garret at 2s. 6d., which was as much as he could afford out of his scanty earnings.

The first job he was put to, was the setting-up of a large poster-bill--a kind of work which he had been accustomed to execute in the country; and he knocked it together so expertly that his master, Mr. Teape, on seeing what he could do, said to him, "Ah! I find you are just the fellow for me." The young man, however, felt so strange in London, where he was without a friend or acquaintance, that at the end of the first month he thought of leaving it; and yearned to go back to his native city. But he had not funds enough to enable him to follow his inclinations, and he accordingly remained in the great City, to work, to persevere, and finally to prosper. He continued at Teape's for about two years, living frugally, and even contriving to save a little money.

He then thought of beginning business on his own account. The small scale on which printing was carried on in those days enabled him to make a start with comparatively little capital. By means of his own savings and the help of his friends, he was enabled to take a little printing-office in Villiers Street, Strand, about the end of 1803; and there he began with one printing press, and one assistant. His stock of type was so small, that he was under the necessity of working it from day to day like a banker's gold. When his first job came in, he continued to work for the greater part of three nights, setting the type during the day, and working it off at night, in order that the type might be distributed for resetting on the following morning. He succeeded, however, in executing his first job to the entire satisfaction of his first customer.

His business gradually increased, and then, with his constantly saved means, he was enabled to increase his stock of type, and to undertake larger jobs. Industry always tells, and in the long-run leads to prosperity. He married early, but he married well. He was only twenty-four when he found his best fortune in a good, affectionate wife. Through this lady's cousin, Mr. Winchester, the young printer was shortly introduced to important official business. His punctual execution of orders, the accuracy of his work, and the despatch with which he turned it out soon brought him friends, and his obliging and kindly disposition firmly secured them. Thus, in a few years, the humble beginner with one press became a printer on a large scale. The small concern expanded into a considerable printing-office in Northumberland Court, which was furnished with many presses and a large stock of type. The office was, unfortunately, burnt down; but a larger office rose in its place.

What Mr. Clowes principally aimed at, in carrying on his business, was accuracy, speed, and quantity. He did not seek to produce editions de luxe in limited numbers, but large impressions of works in popular demand — travels, biographies, histories, blue-books, and official reports, in any quantity. For this purpose, he found the process of hand-printing too tedious, as well as too costly; and hence he early turned his attention to book printing by machine presses, driven by steam power, — in this matter following the example of Mr. Walter of the Times, who had for some years employed the same method for newspaper printing.

Applegath & Cowper's machines had greatly advanced the art of printing. They secured perfect inking and register; and the sheets were printed off more neatly, regularly, and expeditiously; and larger sheets could be printed on both sides, than by any other method. In 1823, accordingly, Mr. Clowes erected his first steam presses, and he soon found abundance of work for them. But to produce steam requires boilers and engines, the working of which occasions smoke and noise. Now, as the printing-office, with its steam presses, was situated in Northumberland Court, close to the palace of the Duke of Northumberland, at Charing Cross, Mr. Clowes was required to abate the nuisance, and to stop the noise and dirt occasioned by the use of his engines. This he failed to do, and the Duke commenced an action against him.

The case was tried in June, 1824, in the Court of Common Pleas. It was ludicrous to hear the extravagant terms in which the counsel for the plaintiff and his witnesses described the nuisance — the noise made by the engine in the underground cellar, some times like thunder, at other times like a thrashing-machine, and then again like the rumbling of carts and waggons. The printer had retained the Attorney-general, Mr. Copley, afterwards Lord Lyndhurst, who conducted his case with surpassing ability. The cross-examination of a foreign artist, employed by the Duke to repaint some portraits of the Cornaro family by Titian, is said to have been one of the finest things on record. The sly and pungent humour, and the banter with which the counsel derided and laughed down this witness, were inimitable. The printer won his case; but he eventually consented to remove his steam presses from the neighbourhood, on the Duke paying him a certain sum to be determined by the award of arbitrators.

It happened, about this period, that a sort of murrain fell upon the London publishers. After the failure of Constable at Edinburgh, they came down one after another, like a pack of cards. Authors are not the only people who lose labour and money by publishers; there are also cases where publishers are ruined by authors. Printers also now lost heavily. In one week, Mr. Clowes sustained losses through the failure of London publishers to the extent of about 25,000L. Happily, the large sum which the arbitrators awarded him for the removal of his printing presses enabled him to tide over the difficulty; he stood his ground unshaken, and his character in the trade stood higher than ever.

In the following year Mr. Clowes removed to Duke Street, Blackfriars, to premises until then occupied by Mr. Applegath, as a printer; and much more extensive buildings and offices were now erected. There his business transactions assumed a form of unprecedented magnitude, and kept pace with the great demand for popular information which set in with such force about fifty years ago. In the course of ten years — as we find from the 'Encyclopaedia Metropolitana' — there were twenty of Applegath & Cowper's machines, worked by two five-horse engines. From these presses were issued the numerous admirable volumes and publications of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge; the treatises on 'Physiology,' by Roget, and 'Animal Mechanics,' by Charles Bell; the 'Elements of Physics,' by Neill Arnott; 'The Pursuit of Knowledge under Difficulties,' by G. L. Craik, a most fascinating book; the Library of Useful Knowledge; the 'Penny Magazine,' the first illustrated publication; and the 'Penny Cyclopaedia,' that admirable compendium of knowledge and science.

These publications were of great value. Some of them were printed in unusual numbers. The 'Penny Magazine,' of which Charles Knight was editor, was perhaps too good, because it was too scientific. Nevertheless, it reached a circulation of 200,000 copies. The 'Penny Cyclopaedia' was still better. It was original, and yet cheap. The articles were written by the best men that could be found in their special departments of knowledge. The sale was originally 75,000 weekly; but, as the plan enlarged, the price was increased from 1d. to 2d., and then to 4d. At the end of the second year, the circulation had fallen to 44,000; and at the end of the third year, to 20,000.

It was unfortunate for Mr. Knight to be so much under the influence of his Society. Had the Cyclopaedia been under his own superintendence, it would have founded his fortune. As it was, he lost over 30,000L. by the venture. The 'Penny Magazine' also went down in circulation, until it became a non-paying publication, and then it was discontinued. It is curious to contrast the fortunes of William Chambers of Edinburgh with those of Charles Knight of London. 'Chambers's Edinburgh Journal' was begun in February, 1832, and the 'Penny Magazine' in March, 1832.

Chambers was perhaps shrewder than Knight. His journal was as good, though without illustrations; but he contrived to mix up amusement with useful knowledge. It may be a weakness, but the public like to be entertained, even while they are feeding upon better food. Hence Chambers succeeded, while Knight failed. The 'Penny Magazine' was discontinued in 1845, whereas 'Chambers's Edinburgh Journal' has maintained its popularity to the present day. Chambers, also, like Knight, published an 'Encyclopaedia,' which secured a large circulation. But he was not trammelled by a Society, and the 'Encyclopaedia' has become a valuable property.

The publication of these various works would not have been possible without the aid of the steam printing press. When Mr. Edward Cowper was examined before a Committee of the House of Commons, he said, "The ease with which the principles and illustrations of Art might be diffused is, I think, so obvious that it is hardly necessary to say a word about it. Here you may see it exemplified in the 'Penny Magazine.' Such works as this could not have existed without the printing machine." He was asked, "In fact, the mechanic and the peasant, in the most remote parts of the country, have now an opportunity of seeing tolerably correct outlines of form which they never could behold before?" To which he answered, "Exactly; and literally at the price they used to give for a song." "Is there not, therefore, a greater chance of calling genius into activity?" "Yes," he said, "not merely by books creating an artist here and there, but by the general elevation of the taste of the public."

Mr. Clowes was always willing to promote deserving persons in his office. One of these rose from step to step, and eventually became one of the most prosperous publishers in London. He entered the service as an errand-boy, and got his meals in the kitchen. Being fond of reading, he petitioned Mrs. Clowes to let him sit somewhere, apart from the other servants, where he might read his book in quiet. Mrs. Clowes at length entreated her husband to take him into the office, for "Johnnie Parker was such a good boy." He consented, and the boy took his place at a clerk's desk. He was well-behaved, diligent, and attentive. As he advanced in years, his steady and steadfast conduct showed that he could be trusted. Young fellows like this always make their way in life; for character invariably tells, not only in securing respect, but in commanding confidence. Parker was promoted from one post to another, until he was at length appointed overseer over the entire establishment.

A circumstance shortly after occurred which enabled Mr. Clowes to advance him, though greatly to his own inconvenience, to another important post. The Syndics of Cambridge were desirous that Mr. Clowes should go down there to set their printing-office in order; they offered him 400L. a year if he would only appear occasionally, and see that the organisation was kept complete. He declined, because the magnitude of his own operations had now become so great that they required his unremitting attention. He, however strongly recommended Parker to the office, though he could ill spare him. But he would not stand in the young man's way, and he was appointed accordingly. He did his work most effectually at Cambridge, and put the University Press into thorough working order.

As the 'Penny Magazine' and other publications of the Society of Useful Knowledge were now making their appearance, the clergy became desirous of bringing out a religious publication of a popular character, and they were in search for a publisher. Parker, who was well known at Cambridge, was mentioned to the Bishop of London as the most likely person. An introduction took place, and after an hour's conversation with Parker, the Bishop went to his friends and said, "This is the very man we want." An offer was accordingly made to him to undertake the publication of the 'Saturday Magazine' and the other publications of the Christian Knowledge Society, which he accepted. It is unnecessary to follow his fortunes. His progress was steady; he eventually became the publisher of 'Fraser's Magazine' and of the works of John Stuart Mill and other well-known writers. Mill never forgot his appreciation and generosity; for when his 'System of Logic' had been refused by the leading London publishers, Parker prized the book at its rightful value and introduced it to the public.

To return to Mr. Clowes. In the course of a few years, the original humble establishment of the Sussex compositor, beginning with one press and one assistant, grew up to be one of the largest printing-offices in the world. It had twenty-five steam presses, twenty-eight hand-presses, six hydraulic presses, and gave direct employment to over five hundred persons, and indirect employment to probably more than ten times that number. Besides the works connected with his printing-office, Mr. Clowes found it necessary to cast his own types, to enable him to command on emergency any quantity; and to this he afterwards added stereotyping on an immense scale. He possessed the power of supplying his compositors with a stream of new type at the rate of about 50,000 pieces a day. In this way, the weight of type in ordinary use became very great; it amounted to not less than 500 tons, and the stereotyped plates to about 2500 tons the value of the latter being not less than half a million sterling.

Mr. Clowes would not hesitate, in the height of his career, to have tons of type locked up for months in some ponderous blue-book. To print a report of a hundred folio pages in the course of a day or during a night, or of a thousand pages in a week, was no uncommon occurrence. From his gigantic establishment were turned out not fewer than 725,000 printed sheets, or equal to 30,000 volumes a week. Nearly 45,000 pounds of paper were printed weekly. The quantity printed on both sides per week, if laid down in a path of 22 ¼ inches broad, would extend 263 miles in length.

About the year l840, a Polish inventor brought out a composing machine, and submitted it to Mr. Clowes for approval. But Mr. Clowes was getting too old to take up and push any new invention. He was also averse to doing anything to injure the compositors, having once been a member of the craft. At the same time he said to his son George, "If you find this to be a likely machine, let me know. Of course we must go with the age. If I had not started the steam press when I did, where should I have been now?" On the whole, the composing machine, though ingenious, was incomplete, and did not come into use at that time, nor indeed for a long time after. Still, the idea had been born, and, like other inventions, became eventually developed into a useful working machine. Composing machines are now in use in many printing-offices, and the present Clowes' firm possesses several of them. Those in The Times newspaper office are perhaps the most perfect of all.

Mr. Clowes was necessarily a man of great ability, industry, and energy. Whatever could be done in printing, that he would do. He would never admit the force of any difficulty that might be suggested to his plans. When he found a person ready to offer objections, he would say, "Ah! I see you are a difficulty-maker: you will never do for me."

Mr. Clowes died in 1847, at the age of sixty-eight. There still remain a few who can recall to mind the giant figure, the kindly countenance, and the gentle bearing of this "Prince of Printers," as he was styled by the members of his craft. His life was full of hard and useful work; and it will probably be admitted that, as the greatest multiplier of books in his day, and as one of the most effective practical labourers for the diffusion of useful knowledge, his name is entitled to be permanently associated, not only with the industrial, but also with the intellectual development of our time.