The History of Making Books: Build a Printing Press at MIT


Books are more than just empty vessels that contain information. The way they were made tells us not only about technology and fabrication, but it also tells us about the users; the people who read them. And so, in an historical sense its an incredibly important set of insights into the cultural, and intellectual history of the period that we’re studying with the students. If you really want to understand the kinds of things that have shaped the human experience they’re never just of one type. They’re never just physics or chemistry or history or literature. They’re going to be all of those things put together and this class has offered our students, I think, a very tangible example of those boundary crossings at work. So there are three kinds of experiences that we’ve built into the syllabus for our students. The first is a typical set of discussions that we have in a history class. The second part of the class that we built in is the contact with the historical material. Going to the Rare Books Library, going to the MIT Museum and seeing the maps and engravings that are several hundred years old. The third part, if we think about this as mens et manus, hand and mind is the hand part. And there what we’ve asked the students to do is work in the Hobby Shop to build a replica of an Early Modern printing press, and also to experiment with the manufacture of paper. So in order to build the press we needed to come up with an appropriate design. We had made the decision it would be made out of wood. The wood itself is kind of interesting because we were reclaiming a timber from an old mill building in Clinton, MA. So it was, whats called, long-leaf pine. These are very large pieces of wood: ten by fourteens in cross-section. So the first thing that we did was to saw it up on the bandsaw and then surface it on the joiner and the thickness planer into the dimensions of pieces that we wanted. Most people here, find it really exciting to not just get to learn about something but to build it and to make it happen. And to get to the point where there are problems with it and have to problem solve. I very much see the value of having the students actually work with some craftsmen’s tools. And do develop some appreciation for what it means to take a full beam, a log as it were, and turn it into pieces of wood that can be put together in a way that is stable enough to manage the pressure of actually dropping a heavy weight onto a platen so that an impression can be made. And until they actually try this themselves I think its very difficult for them to appreciate what’s involved. There are tremendous mis- conceptions about how things are made. And the good thing about this is you really take them through the whole process and they really have an understanding after its done of what’s involved. As opposed to what you imagine was involved. I think MIT students have an interest in preserving good forms of old technology and not just moving forward without looking back and what was good about the past. And being able to engage with history in the same way is really powerful for students here. More and more the students who come here have interests beyond the lab, beyond the virtual world and are able to engage with some of the deepest and most profound questions in humanistic study. They’re not only builders, but they’re artists as well. It’s this rounded student whom I knew would have a wonderful time with this class and whom I would have a fantastic time teaching, and that’s the way its played out.

Comments 9

  • pls also see the Balvenie video on Arion press! very beautiful

  • Intuitive troubleshooting taught delightfully! ;O)-

  • Maybe build a handmade pcb board for your next project?

  • I did all of this in H.S. – bring back wood shop & metal shop. How is this college level work? Well, at least they were exposed to it.

  • Gotta admire the engineering of the past. Efficient and accurate mechanisms without computer aided manufacture; just hard graft.

  • Thank you.

  • Although I respect the effort, and admire the craftsmanship of this press building project, I take serious issue with the use of a wood screw. There is no proof that the original Gutenberg press used wooden screws, and anyone who has used a Common Press to do "edition printing" on a deadline (there are very few of us) knows that a wooden-screw press just isn't up to the task in the long-term. They wear out quickly, are horribly subject to environmental fluctuations, and are profoundly unrealiable and not cost-effective.

    Gutenberg's father was a Companion of the Mint, and Gutenberg worked in the Mint, so he would have been familiar with iron screw on bronze nut fly presses. His family did NOT make their own wine (we have the records for his estate purchasing wine) so contrary to what many "art historians" say, he was probably not that familiar with wood-screw wine presses. The only logical answer is that Gutenberg–who got EVERYTHING ELSE right about the invention of printing–the paper, the ink, the hand-casting of type, the press–must have realized that a wood screw would be a disastrous liability in a production print shop environment, and went, instead with an iron screw/cast-on bronze nut system–the same system on EVERY common press ever built that still exists.

    It is difficult to imagine that Gutenberg got everything else right in his invention of the printing process, but would be so foolish as to use wooden screws–they are difficult to make, difficult to maintain, and utterly unreliable in a non-environmentally-controlled printshop–not to mention the technical difficulty of cutting the internal threads on a wooden nut. The iron screw/bronze nut system requires half the effort to make–one merely cuts the threads in the iron screw, and then using a sandcasting method, casts the bronze nut ONTO the screw, making a perfect match to the threads. Another massive advantage to the iron screw/bronze nut mechanism is that it actually gets smoother and MORE reliable with use,. It is a "self-lubricating journal" as the iron screw polished the bronze nut every time it is cycled.

    So, GREAT project, MIT–but you unfortunately fell for the "myth of the wooden screw" that has been perpetuated for decades by "art historians"–most of whom have never even pulled a press, let alone worked in a letterpress shop in any capacity other than as an artist, without the constraints of budgets, deadlines, or harsh environments…

  • Nice work, MIT!

  • But why would you take a course in the history of making books?

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