It’s Nice That: Hacking Heidelberg: how Erik Spiekermann came to reinvent the printing process

A rather lavish and jealousy-inducing article from It’s Nice, That, on Erik Spiekermann’s letterpress works.  Truly wonderful to see such a great name in design return to letterpress with a craft approach to the whole thing.

History of the Jobbing Platen

The workhorse of commercial small-scale printing in the UK

Cropper Acme
Cropper Acme

After the 1830s, the growth of the postal service and the expansion of commerce led to growth in demand for small, printed articles.  The Jobbing Platen met this need for the printer: being quicker than the earlier hand presses; and more suited to small work than cylinder presses. It’s tempting to think that the platen press simply appeared — fully formed — but there were many small advances that made that style of press possible. Daniel Treadwell, an American, sought an 1818 patent to protect his design for a modified hand press that used foot power (like a treadle) to deliver the impression.  He transferred the invention to England and the firm of Baisler and Napier made the machine at their works at Lloyds Court, Crown Street, Soho; but only one is reported to have been sold.  The rotating ink disc was invented between 1819 and 1820 by Sir William Congereve for security printing.  John Kitchen of Newcastle Upon Tyne patented the vertical forme in 1834.  It seems the machine would not have been commercially successful, but was designed in the style of gothic “church furniture”.

The First Usable Platen

Stephen Ruggles, from Boston USA, developed the Engine press in 1839 but the bed and platen were horizontal.  Despite this, the press claimed 1,200 impressions per hour.  It was his development of 1851 of the “Card and Billhead Press” that opened the era of the first usable platen: this relied on his strange inking mechanism.  The approach is to have a large cylinder, flat on one side for the type.  The cylinder is covered in ink and as the rollers pass around it, they draw ink from the circular part of the cylinder and deposit it on the forme.  This press was made in Britain by the Birmingham Machinist Company as the Invictus and also Furnival and Company of Reddish.  The principle was later adapted by Adana for their T/P48.

The Modern Platen

The prototype platen press was developed by George Gordon of New York.  His early press (1851) was named The Alligator because of its reputation of crushing limbs of those feeding the press.  This first version had a fixed inking panel, it was 1856 before he added the rotating inking disc.  In 1872, the “throw off” was added: a mechanism to allow the operator to disable the impression when a sheet had been mis-fed, for example.  Again, the idea was not new having been patented in 1852 by James Young of Philadelphia. Cropper of Nottingham began to make Gordon’s presses under the name Minerva, but the term Cropper to define that type of press became commonplace.  Other, locally designed, presses used Gordon’s idea like the Arab from Halifax.

The Parallel Platen

Improving on the “clam shell” approach, Merrit Gally of New York developed a press in 1859 called the Universal which brought the bed and the platen together with a parallel impression.  This was improved by the Victoria and Phoenix presses.  In the UK, Greenwood and Batley of Leeds sold a very similar press under the name Sun; Dawson’s of Otley the Mitre; and Harrild of London the Fine Art Bremner.

The Powered, Automatically-Fed Platen

Knowing that the effort of a boy could not be sustained to thousands of impressions each hour, work began on making efficiencies of space and power.  In 1893, Harrild of London created a platen press running back-to-back: two moving platens each printing against a single, two-sided, fixed bed. With steam and electric power, the next challenge was to feed the press with paper. A gripper was patented by Godfrey in the 1880s, and an automated feed for US Chandler and Price presses was being sold by 1913.  Perhaps most known to us in the UK is the invention of Gilke, a Heidelberg Engineer, who created the windmill feed in 1912 which was incorporated in to the 1925 Heidelberg Automatic Platen.

Heidelberg Printing Machines

The mainstay of UK letterpress jobbing work from the 1950s

Heidelberg Examples of Work
Heidelberg Examples of Work

The Heidelberg Platen press became the mainstay of UK jobbing letterpress printing and many machines see service today working on jobs that litho or digital machines simply cannot do: odd shapes of stock; numbering; creasing and perforating, for example.

It’s usually the Heidelberg Platen presses that are working in the UK, but Heidelberg also produced very high quality cylinder machines.

The firm was established in 1850 taking the name Heidelberg in 1905.  While production ceased during World War II, by 1957 publicity said machines were made at “…the most modern plant operation in the printing machinery industry throughout the world.” In 1962 the firm made it’s first litho machines.  By 1958 the firm claimed 58,000 machines had been made.

The machine guide includes sections on full colour printing — precision of Heidelberg machine is legendary provided they have been looked after.

Robert Smail’s, Innerleithen

A letterpress time-capsule in the Scottish Borders

Robert Smail's Works, Innerleithen (from Flickr)Robert Smail’s Printing works — a property of the National Trust for Scotland — is a time capsule of a long-established firm in the charming Scottish borders town of Innerleithen. The NTSs site shows information about the printing works, along with opening times.

Robert Smail’s Printing Works, 7-9 High Street, Innerleithen, Scottish Borders, EH44 6HA


‘Thompson-British Automatic Platen’, made in Buxton Street, Manchester

T C Thompson and Sons sold the grandly-titled ‘Thompson-British Automatic Platen’, made in Buxton Street, Manchester. While the machine competed with Heidelbergs, it still has a group of enthusiastic followers. One particular feature is that the inking rollers have a cog at one end which links into a bike chain on the runner – this guarantees that there will be no slur — ink being dragged, rather than rolled, over the forme.

In 1929 the Sales Director of Thompson’s — Mr Holt — saw the new Heidelberg; and suggested that the firm should switch from their hand-fed ‘Gem’ platens to an automatically fed machine. The new machine was first exhibited in 1937.

Bernard Bennett of Coventry offers the information that the machine pictured is not the original Thompson. The first version was effectively a clone of the Heidelberg – Heidelberg didn’t like this and were successful in a patent infringement claim and almost all of those original Thompsons were destroyed. By 1940 around four remained. Bernard also says that post World War 2, Thompson platens were made at the Alvis car plant in Coventry.

The company made the modest claim that theirs was ‘the best auto platen in the world’, and supporters say that handling of paper stock is unparalleled. Publicity showed that 0.04mm (bank) to 0.94mm (board) paper could be automatically fed.

Testimonials from Holland stated “…The satisfaction exceeded our expectations; particularly the feed and delivery. We consider this a great improvement on the…(German machine).” Thompson must have been acutely aware of the challenge from Heidelberg.

In the 1980s platens were built by two men, being built in batches of two.  A third man inspected them.

The firm traded until the early 1990s having made 6,000 platens, spares and parts being sold to a firm in Birmingham.  The premises were demolished shortly after.

Bill Elligett has posted a page about the Thompson at his site