Although wooden common presses were the technology of the day, few working presses remain from the 18th century. But when RIT’s Cary Graphic Arts Collection needed one to add to its array of historical presses used for teaching and research, curators sought out engineering students to help reconstruct a press.
To build an authentic turn-of-the-century printing press, historical accuracy is as important as materials science. Veronica Hebbard, Ferris Nicolais, Seth Gottlieb, Randy Paulhamus, all undergraduates in the Kate Gleason College of Engineering, and Daniel Krull, a museum studies undergraduate in the College of Liberal Arts, took on the task.
Their project research would take them across eight states in as many months, involve negotiations with artisans to cure wood and with blacksmiths to forge iron parts for a 6-by-5-by-3-foot wood and metal press. They’d amass volumes of important research, some of it through conversations with Smithsonian Institution staff, that is as rich as a doctoral dissertation about early printing equipment and practices, manufacturing techniques and materials used during the 1770s.
“Craft of today is so different from the industry of yesterday. It was the same intent—to make a functional product—and this printing press is a machine. It’s just made of wood and wrought iron,” said Gottlieb, a fifth-year mechanical engineering major from Bethesda, Md., who coordinated the team’s historical sleuthing.
The assignment came from Steven Galbraith, curator of RIT’s Cary Collection. The collection, a distinguished resource on the history of graphic communication and printing, houses authentic cast iron printing presses dating back to the 1820s, but lacks an example of a wood press like those used from the time of Johannes Gutenberg and the advent of printing in Europe around 1455.
Early documentation about press design was limited to artisans describing how the machines might be used—and very few pictures. Some translations were easy to decipher, but others needed interpretation. “I had to laugh. Some of the old measurements were described as the ‘breadth of a man’s hand,’” said Hebbard, a fifth-year industrial and systems engineering major from Montgomery, N.Y. She and the team were able to draw on their engineering experiences to calculate comparable measurements for the overall equipment. Their detailed measurements for the wood and metal press will be included in an extensive assembly instruction manual.
“An IKEA take on it, if you will,” she said, laughing.
Centuries before, a printing press was considered a disruptive technology, opening the door for more information distributed for the general population. During the Revolutionary War (1775-1783) that information included calls for liberty that could put printers in jeopardy, therefore being able to dismantle a printing press was as necessary as being able to use it.
Like their revolutionary counterparts, the students will assemble the press in the engineering college during their project presentation in Decemberfor faculty, classmates and project partners. They’ll reassemble it in the Cary Collection in RIT’s Wallace Center, to complete their revolutionary engineering task—not because the British are coming.
More about the extensive work the engineering students did to build the printing press can be found at the blog: An Uncommon Reconstruction, a travelogue and project chronicle: bit.ly/UncommonReconstruction, and at the team’s Instagram site: instagram.com/uncommonpress.