HPS in 20 Objects Lecture 17: Printing Press

By Richard Bellis

The printing press might not seem to be the most obvious object to include in a series on the history and philosophy of science in twenty objects. After all, it isn’t obviously a scientific instrument and it isn’t used in scientific experiments. Furthermore, printing’s role in science might be seen as simply to make scientific books and papers – whether they contain achievements, discoveries, knowledge or not – more readily and widely available for the scientific community. In that sense, modern computing might be seen as extending print’s function, thus making print both inadequate and obsolete in today’s plugged-in scientific community that ostensively values access and openness in order for science to properly function. But, as Dr Jonathan Topham and PhD student Konstantin Kiprijanov showed in the latest instalment of HPS in 20 Objects, the printing press has played a major role in shaping both how science was communicated, and also the content of science itself – raising pertinent questions for today’s increasingly digitised world.

And today’s world is indeed a world away from the ‘hand press era’ of printing, so the first order of business was to introduce the audience to the printing press held by the Museum of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine at the university. Konstantin, with one hand white-gloved, kicked things off with a brief overview of the objects in question, before Jon put the Museum’s objects in historical context. I say objects (plural) because as Konstantin immediately made clear, there were a huge range of items and tools that were necessary in order to make printed pages: from individual pieces of type that held the letters, through composing sticks where the ‘compositor’ ‘made up’ the words and sentences that were to be printed, to the ‘form’ where completed lines of type would be secured into place, ready for placement into the press, inking, and printing. Jon then highlighted that what was being described was not so much a set of objects as a complex series of related processes that skilled labourers undertook with a specific goal in mind – printing. Indeed, the press held by the Museum – an iron press from the Victorian era – was originally purchased in order to teach English students about hand printing in the 1970s. Even on the purchase of the university’s press, it was outdated as mechanised presses were used for virtually all commercial printing. However, the press is still valuable as a teaching tool for exploring printing: just what did it take to print Shakespeare? And what of science?


Figure 1: Konstantin explains how printing presses worked in the ‘hand press’ era.

Naturally, the place to start in exploring the last question was a book. Or two history books. Elizabeth Eisenstein’s landmark work on printing (The Printing Press as an Agent of Change) emphasised that the printing press historically was an agent of change, facilitating the circulation of texts and stimulating science from the fifteenth century onwards. She claimed that more reliable knowledge was imbued by the ‘fixity’ of the printed page. Against this last claim Adrian Johns has more recently argued (in The Nature of the Book) that such fixity did not occur, on the contrary, the author’s meaning – and by extension knowledge – in scientific texts was ‘riotously uncontrollable’ until social conventions regarding the treatment of printed text was built up from the seventeenth century. Such a picture emphasises that whilst technology like the printing press can clearly have a huge impact on culture, it does not determine social life. So, when the mechanisation of print in the nineteenth century began to fundamentally shift the conditions in which communication could take place, there was nothing certain about what would follow.

A key development in the nineteenth century was that the increasing mechanisation of printing helped to cheapen books for an increasingly voracious reading public. New types of printed objects became more widely circulated, with newly formed scientific magazines appealing to a wide audience. Often such journals were targeted at busy, practical men (and not women), which imbued knowledge claims with a certain ‘factness’ that lessened complexity in order to emphasise practicality. Furthermore, the audiences for these magazines were encouraged to contribute to them, creating a lively and rapid exchange of ideas on diverse subjects between diverse people. Such exchanges in the periodical press were vital to new fields of inquiry like electricity.

Another area in which science publishing greatly expanded in the nineteenth century was in publishing schoolbooks. Richard Phillips, a schoolbook publisher, once quipped that he could wrap the world round twice with the paper he had used in printing some six million books. These books were specifically concerned with learning facts for practical use by students in an industrial age. Furthermore, the explosion of print and of popular science meant that ideas of evolution were put at the heart of Victorian culture by publications like Vestiges of Natural History of Creation.

Konstantin then demonstrated the importance of printing in shaping the way we think about chemistry, and what we see as chemical knowledge. The visual language of chemical-structure formula was co-created through a desire to represent chemical structure in a way that adhered to chemical theory, but was also practical for printing in chemical journals. The lines and letters that were used were basic components of printing, that were expertly manipulated by compositors in order to represent chemical structure on a printed page, ultimately allowing the formula to circulate and become ‘real’, in the sense that they described the compound and also the spatial relation of atoms between parts of the compound.


Figure 2: An example of how compositors made chemical formula printable in the nineteenth century

Jon then continued the visual theme by examining changes in the technology of printing images in the nineteenth century. Fields like geology created a new ‘visual language’ through the use of the new printing technique of lithography. This was a chemical printing process (wax and acid were applied to limestone, and when wetted, ink would only adhere to the waxy parts which would print when impressed onto a page), and offered remarkable graphical qualities. The increased ability to render texture, for example, allowed more information regarding the surfaces of rocks and stones to be printed and circulated for geologists; a practical feature of print enabled the advancement of science.


Figure 3: Jon explains the advantages of lithographic printing

In concluding the talk, Jon returned the subject to modern publishing, undergoing as it is, a digital revolution. What does this mean for the future of science? Of course, it is unclear. Greater transparency in the process of publishing academic material might be expected, but as was emphasised throughout the lecture, this will depend on the social conditions in which publishing takes place. What was clear from the lecture, was that the changes in the technology of publishing and reading will have far reaching consequences for scientific endeavour and the public, just as changes in publishing in the nineteenth century did.


Lecture Video, with thanks to Paul Coleman


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s