Charles Stanhope (1753–1816): Iron printing press

Charles Stanhope, 3rd Earl Stanhope: August 3, 1753–December 15, 1816

Charles Stanhope, 3rd Earl Stanhope: August 3, 1753–December 15, 1816

Historians generally agree that the first industrial revolution took place between 1760 and 1840. Among the features of the great economic and social transformation were: (1) the progression from predominantly rural to urban society, (2) the replacement of handicraft with machine production, (3) the introduction of iron and steel in place of wood and (4) the substitution of muscle power with new energy sources like coal-fired steam power.

A unique set of circumstances—a stable commercial environment, advances in iron making and an abundance of skilled mechanics—made Britain the birthplace of the industrial revolution. Beginning with new techniques in textile production, industrial innovations spread rapidly to other manufacturing sectors and then across national borders in Europe and around the globe. All aspects of life would be touched by industrialization: population, politics, trade and commerce, science and culture, education, transportation and communication.

It was during this era of remarkable change that the English aristocrat Charles Stanhope invented—sometime around 1800—the first printing press constructed wholly of iron. Prior to Stanhope’s achievement, the design and build of printing machines had not changed in the three and a half centuries since Gutenberg.

Previously, small adjustments had been made to the wooden press. These related to structural stability, increased sheet size and automation to reduce human muscle power. But, even with the inclusion of some iron parts, the basic design of printing presses remained as they were in 1450.

With the Stanhope hand press, both the design of the impression mechanism as well as the material from which the machine was built were transformed; Stanhope’s contribution was a crucial preliminary step in the industrial development of print communications.

Young Lord Stanhope

Charles Stanhope, third Earl Stanhope, was born on August 3, 1753, the younger of two sons of Philip Stanhope, second Earl Stanhope, and his wife Lady Grisel (Hamilton) Stanhope. As a member of the English peerage system—with titles like Duke, Earl and Baron—Charles is often referred to as Lord Stanhope or Earl Stanhope. Born into the English aristocracy, he was afforded a privileged upbringing and, at the age of nine, was enrolled by his parents at prestigious Eton boarding school.

Portrait of the young Lord Stanhope

Portrait of the young Lord Stanhope

In 1763, following the death at age seventeen of his brother Philip from tuberculosis, Charles became family heir. His parents decided that Charles’ “health should not be exposed to the English climate, or the care of his mind to the capricious attention of the English schoolmaster” and the family relocated to Geneva, Switzerland. At age eleven, he was enrolled at the school in Geneva founded on the principles of John Calvin and there studied philosophy, science and math.

As a teenager, Charles was known to be a devoted cricket player, an exceptional equestrian and a well mannered young man who was admired by his peers. At age seventeen, Charles won a prize in a Swedish competition for the best essay, written in French, on the construction of a pendulum.

While Charles was accomplished academically in math and science, he was also known to have talents in drawing and painting. As a nobleman, Charles had obligations as a militia commander and he developed a passion for archery and musket shooting. At eighteen, he won a competition and was crowned the best shot and so-called “King of the Arquebusiers.”

By the time Charles completed his education in Switzerland, his parents decided to move the family back to England. According to a published account, as the family and its entourage left Geneva in 1774, “The young gentleman was obliged to come out again and again to his old friends and companions who pressed round the coach to bid him farewell, and expressed their sorrow for his departure and their wishes for his prosperity.”

Stanhope the inventor

During their five-month journey home to England from Switzerland, the family made a stop in Paris. Charles was welcomed and “esteemed by most of the learned educated men of the capital” over the prize he had won for his paper on pendulum design. He was developing an international reputation as an innovator.

Upon his return to England, Charles used his skills in mechanics to win election to London’s Royal Society, a world renowned club founded by King Charles in the 17th century to promote the benefits and accomplishments of science. At the age of 20, Charles embarked on a series of self-funded experiments and inventions and his interest in such matters continued throughout his life.

The first of two calculating machines invented by Charles Stanhope. His "arithmetical machines" have been recognized as precursors to the computer.

The first of two calculating machines invented by Charles Stanhope. His “arithmetical machines” have been recognized as precursors to the computer.

The most important of these were:

  • A method for preventing counterfeiting of gold currency (1775)
  • A system for fireproofing houses by starving a fire of air (1778)
  • Several mechanical “arithmetical machines” that could add, subtract, multiply and divide. These inventions were early forerunners of computers (1777 and 1780).
  • Experiments in steamboat navigation and ship construction which included the invention of the split pin, later known as the Cottier pin (1789).
  • A popular single lens microscope that became known as the Stanhope that was used in medical practice and for examination of transparent materials such as crystals and fluids (1806).
  • A monochord or a single string device, used for tuning musical instruments
  • Improvements in canal locks and inland navigation (1806)

Charles Stanhope became so well accomplished in international scientific circles that he was befriended by Benjamin Franklin. The two spent time together during Franklin’s visits to England prior to the American Revolution. They shared a mutual interest in electricity and, in 1779, Charles Stanhope published a volume entitled “Principles of Electricity” that corroborated through experimental evidence Franklin’s ideas about lighting rods.

The Stanhope press

By 1800, as has often happened in graphic arts history, the environment became ripe for a major step forward in printing methods. Charles Stanhope—who had the desire, know-how and resources to make it happen—stepped forward with a significant breakthrough.

Due to his many democratic political pursuits and scientific publishing activities—some of which concerned freedom of the press—Charles was very familiar with printing technology. Among his concerns were the cost of production, the accuracy of the content, the beauty of the print quality and the importance of books for the expansion of knowledge in society as a whole.

A drawing of the original Stanhope press design. None of these are known to exist today.

A drawing of the original Stanhope press design. None of these are known to exist today.

All letterpress technologies require a means to transfer ink from the surface of the metal type forms to the paper. This process requires the application of pressure, i.e. an impression, that mechanically drives the ink into the paper fibers. The pressure also creates a slight indentation in the shape of the letter forms in the surface of the paper.

Prior to 1800, press designs were based on the screw press that had been used for pressing grapes (wine) and olives (oil), cloth and paper going back to Roman times. The screw mechanism is a complex arrangement of the screw, nut, spindle and fixed bar that drives the platen—the flat plate that presses the paper against the type form—downward. There are many historical drawings and engravings that illustrate how physical strength is required to pull the bar and make a printing impression with the Gutenberg era press design.

Stanhope’s innovation, according to historian James Moran, was that “he retained the conventional screw but separated it from the spindle and bar, inserting a system of compound levers between them. The effect of several levers acting upon another is to multiply considerably the power applied.” The compound lever system was so successful that it became referred to as “Stanhope principles” and was incorporated into subsequent generations of hand press design in the nineteenth century (Columbian, Albion and Washington).

The second and more common design of the Stanhope hand press. Note the separation of the lever system from the screw and platen mechanism.

The second and more common design of the Stanhope hand press. Note the separation of the lever system from the screw and platen mechanism.

Other important Stanhope press changes were:

  • All iron construction including a massive frame formed in one piece
  • A double size platen
  • A regulator that controlled the intensity of the impression

The Stanhope press would undergo several important modifications, the most important of which was strengthening the frame in 1806 to prevent the iron from cracking under the stress of repeated impressions. The second design—with its characteristic rounded cheeks—is what today is commonly associated with the Stanhope press.

The Times of London immediately adopted the Stanhope press and it became successful across Europe and America in the first few decades of the 1800s. Meanwhile, further developments with all-iron hand presses would continue up to the end of the nineteenth century. However, driven by the rapid advancement of the industrial revolution, the next stage in the evolution of press design—the introduction of cylinders and steam power—would rapidly eclipse Stanhope’s accomplishments.

Stanhope the statesmen

Charles 3rd Earl Stanhope was an unusual man. In addition to his many inventions and scientific studies, he devoted himself to radical political causes that often controverted his aristocratic background. He often referred to himself as “Citizen” Stanhope. The origins of his democratic leanings were to be found in the influence of his father—who was a member of Parliament and an outspoken critic of the crown and proponent of Habeas Corpus—his education in the radical environment of Geneva and the Revolutions in America (1776) and France (1789).

Known publicly as Viscount Mahon at the time, Charles was elected to Parliament in 1780 and adopted positions that conflicted with the political elite. His demands for electoral and finance reform and religious tolerance of dissenters and Catholics did not sit well with the establishment. Charles was also known to have campaigned against slavery and was party to the abolition bill known as the Slave Trade Act of 1807.

Stanhope estate at Chevening, Kent. Charles died here on December 15, 1816.

Stanhope estate at Chevening, Kent. Charles died here on December 15, 1816.

Charles Stanhope was an opponent of the war against the thirteen colonies and a supporter of John Wilkes, a British sympathizer of the American rebels. Despite his efforts on behalf of the oppressed and downtrodden in society, Charles Stanhope’s personal eccentricities caused him, especially later in life, to be isolated from his family.

Always thinking of others before himself, he allowed his manse at Chevening, Kent to fall into disrepair and it is speculated that he had starved himself to death on a diet of soup and barley water. Charles Stanhope was interred “as a very poor man” in the family vault at Chevening Church one week after his death on December 15, 1816.

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