The art of printing is one of the most extraordinary results of human ingenuity, and is certainly the very noblest of all the known handicrafts. Yet, important as it is acknowledged to be, three centuries elapsed from the date of the invention before it was perfected in many of its most necessary details. At first, the art was entirely in the hands of learned men, the greatest scholars often glorying in affixing their names to the works as correctors of the press, and giving names to the various parts of the mechanism of the printing office, as is testified by the classical technicalities still in use among the workmen. It was formerly mentioned that Guttenburgh the inventor, did not go the length of casting types from moulds: that great improvement is said to have been effected by Peter Schaffer, the companion of Faust; and from that event till the invention of italic letters by Aldus Manutius, to whom learning is much indebted, no other improvement took place. It does not appear that mechanical ingenuity was at any time directed to the irnprovemeat of the presses, or any other parts of the machinery used in printing, and the consequence was that till far on in the eighteenth century, the clumsy instruments of Gutteuburgh, Faust, and Caxton, continued in universal use. The presses were composed of wood and iron, and were slow and heavy in working, while the ink continued to be applied by two stuffed balls or cushions, at a great expense of time and trouble.
At length, an almost entire revolution was effected in the printing office, both in the appearance of’ the typography and the working of the presses. About the same period, the art of stereotyping was discovered, and developed a completely new feature in the invention of printing. One of the chief improvements in the typography was the discarding of the long s, and every description of contractions, and, at the same time, the cutting of the letters was done with greater neatness and regularity. Among the first improvers of the printing press, the most honorable place may be given to the Earl of Stanhope,, a nobleman remembered for his mechanical genius, who applied certain lever powers to the screw and handle of the old press, thereby diminishing the labor of the operative, and producing finer work. Since the beginning of the present century, and more specially within the last twenty years, presses wholly composed of iron, on the nicest scientific principles, have been invented by different men of mechanical genius in Great Britain and America, so as to simplify the process of printing in an extraordinary degree; and the invention of presses composed of cylinders, and wrought by steam power, has triumphantly crowned the improvements in the art. The introduction of team presses has been furthered by another invention of an accessory nature, now of great value to the printer. Allusion is here made to the invention of the roller, for applying the ink, instead of the old unwieldy and insufficient balls. The roller, which is a composition of a glutinous nature, cast upon a wooden centre piece, was invented by a journeyman printer in Edinburgh, and was so much appreciated, as at once to spread over the whole of Britain and the United States.
It is our chief object, in this sketch, to give a brief explanation of the process of stereotyping a process without the aid of which the present, as well as many other works, could not be so extensively nor so cheaply circulated through the country. Stereotyping seems to have been invented simultaneously by different persons in various parts of England and Scotland during the last century. When properly made known, it was hailed with acclamation by the printing and publishing world, but, as experience developed its powers, it was found to be strictly applicable only to a particular kind of work. In putting up types, they are lifted one by one, and built into a little case held in the hand of the compositor, who, by the accumulation of handfuls, makes up a page, and lays it, with the face uppermost, on a table. After being wedged at the foot and side into an iron frame, and corrected, the page is carried to the press for working, and when the whole of the impression is off, it is brought back to the table, and the types distributed into their places. When the page has to be stereo-typed, the same process of putting up is gone through, but, instead of being carried to the press, the page is plastered over with liquid stucco to the thickness of about half an inch, so that a level cake is formed on the surface of the types. As soon as the stucco hardens, which it does almost immediately, the cake is separated from the types, and, on being turned up, shows a complete hollow or mould-like representation of the faces of the types and every thing else in the page. There being no longer any use for the types, they are carried oil’ and distributed. As for the cake, it is put Into au oven and baked to a certain degree of heat and hardness, like a piece of pottery. It is next laid in a square iron pan, having a lid of the same metal, with holes at the corners. The pan is now immersed in a pot of molten lead, and being allowed to till by means of the holes, it is at length taken out and put aside till it cool. On opening the pan, a curious appearance is presented. The lead has run into the mould side of the cake, and formed a thin plate all over, exhibiting the perfect appearance of the faces of the types on which the stucco was plastered. Thus is procured a fictitious page of types, not thicker than the sixth of an inch, and which can be printed from in the same manner as in the case of a real page. Such is the process of stereotyping, or making fixed or stationary types, and now for the utility of the invention.
In all cases of common book work it is best to print from types to the amount of the copies required, and then distribute the types; but in most cases of books published in parts, sheets, or numbers, stereotyping becomes absolutely necessary. It is easy to perceive the reason for this. When books are published in numbers, it often happens that many more copies are sold of one number that’ of another, and unless the types he kept up to complete sets in the hands of the publisher, or to print copies according to the increased demand, a serious loss is sustained. The manufacture of stereotype plates is, therefore, simply a means of keeping up fictitious types to answer future demands, at an expense infinitely inferior to that of keeping the actual pages standing.