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The ’fiction’ underlying the film was that Stephen Fry was Gutenberg so this first picture shows him having an Ikea moment wondering how to assemble the press. Of course,  printing requires much more than just a press and the film needed to show these other aspects too.

One of the most significant was Gutenberg’s development of a means of making type. To show how this was done Stan Nelson, an authority on the hand casting of type was invited over from the USA to ‘teach’ Stephen to do this. The initial intention was to film this at The Plantin Moretus Museum in Antwerp where they have Plantin’s original type foundry but this proved impossible so instead a derelict blacksmiths shop was taken over for a day where a temporary type foundry was set up. Here Stan demonstrated the type casting process by cutting, hardening and tempering a punch for a letter ’e’, sinking this into copper to demonstrate matrix making and finally casting from this to make a piece of type. Making just one letter took a day and we needed a whole Gutenberg Bible page. We obtained this from Kitty Marryatt of Scripps College, Claremont, California who set the page using a remarkably fine re-cutting of Gutenberg’s type obtained from the Dale Guild Type Foundry in New York. Sadly this firm has since folded.

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Stephen learning how to make a punch

Once the press was assembled and the type had arrived, printing and filming could begin. We were all quite excited as nothing had been previously trialed so that the first print to come off the press was in fact the one seen in the film. Luckily it was a good print.

The first pull off the press

An aspect of early printing which has puzzled print historians for decades and which could not be adequately covered in the film was Gutenberg’s method of registering  the paper over the inked type. The Bible pages all have a number of pin holes in their margins about 2mm from the paper edge but just how these were used to obtain register has been the source of endless speculation. Fortunately, because we had a press to hand and urgently needed a solution, a very simple and effective way was found which I feel sure is very close to the one that Gutenberg used. Below is a scan which attempts to explain the method. It is from ‘The one-pull-press’ 11 my published  account of the building of this press. It examines the reasoning behind the press’s structure and describes in much greater detail than is possible here, its building and the registration method used. The article is available as a PDF on this site’s ‘Links and references’ page.

img076.jpgOn completion of the film, the press  and type were acquired by The University of Reading and for the last ten years have been used there to demonstrate early printing to typography students and attendants at short courses. It has also travelled extensively. In 2012 my ex-colleague Martin Andrews  and I loaded the press into a transit van and took it to the University of Cambridge’s Medieval Summer School for a practical demonstration. This gave rise to other invitations and in 2013 we took the press to Oxford and installed it in the college library at Christ Church.

Carrying the press up the stairs to Christ Church college library

Printing and casting type at Christ church
It stayed there for several months where Martin and I used it for around ten more practical demonstrations. In 2015 we took the press to Glasgow to the Huntarian Museum to support an exhibition on early printing. While there an over-zealous Scotsman pulled on the press bar too vigorously and cracked the thread, causing us to wonder whether the title for the exhibition ‘Ingenious Impressions’ was well chosen. The press still works but is now showing its age.

The film was broadcast on BBC 4 entitled ‘The machine that made us’ It subsequently received a Bafta nomination and was re-broadcast a number of times. It is still available for viewing on the internet.

Next – The Dürer press