By Lisa Griffith
I have just started a new job teaching Culture and Heritage Studies at the National Print Museum which is located in Beggar’s Bush Barracks on Haddington Road. I have never worked at a museum before and it’s quite exciting to be able to integrate teaching into a museum but also to be able to practically teach students about printing while looking at the machines that produced such wonderful texts. I have a research interest in print culture, particularly the King’s Printer in the eighteenth century, but I had not thought too extensively about the machines themselves before coming to the museum. Here are five things that I have learned in my first four weeks about the museum and printing that I thought I would share with you.
1. Gutenberg’s press used the same idea and technology as a wine-press. Moveable type was not the wholly genius part to his creation. He used the model of the screw-type wine-press of the Rhine region to press the paper onto the inked up type. Perhaps we should all be drinking more wine in honour of this? We do not know exactly what Gutenburg’s first press looked like or even his exact method as there were constant alterations and improvements made to the process but the wine press idea was there from the start.
2. The next major innovation in the setting of type did not come along until over four hundred years later with the invention of the Linotype machine in 1884. These line casting machines did what they said on the tin- they produced an entire line of type by casting individual type together. These lines of type became known as slugs. Once the page has been printed, the slugs are melted down and re-cast again. Until the invention of this machine no newspaper in the world was longer the 8 pages so it revolutionised the form and volume that news was presented in.
3. Typeface for letter press printing were kept in typecaces- shelves with seprate compartments. There were shelves and shelves in any one print shop so they had to be kept tidy. Capital letters were kept in the upper case and smaller letters were kept in lower cases hence our names today of upper case and lower case for letters. It was very difficult when working quickly to keep the ‘p’ and ‘q’ types in order in their section in each case. Supposedly the phrase ‘mind your ‘p’s and ‘q’s’ came from early print shops.
4. The bollards outside the barracks are real cannons turned upside down! A friend told me this but I couldn’t quite believe it. The true nerd in my shone through and it was one of the first things I checked when I started.
5. Print shops were very loud places to work. The museum runs demonstration days when all of the printers are up and running and they are incredibly noisy machines! How anyone could hear after forty years of working in one of these places amazes me. There is also a reason most printers had glasses. I held an actual typeface of a size 12 font the other day and it is small. Added to this compositors would assemble the type upside down and of course the type has to be read backwards. In large warehouses that were not always well light compositors had to have excellent eyesight.
There is a really nice clip of a Gutenburg press demonstration at the International Printing Museum in Carson California here.