The one-pull press

Made for the film broadcast on BBC4 ‘The machine that made us’ 6

A most useful outcome from building the Lyon press is that my name was passed to an independent film company working for the BBC who at that time were contemplating making a film about Gutenberg. The company concerned, Wavelength films approached me in December 2006. They were interested in having a press built such as might have been used in the fifteenth century. The film was to be called ‘The Machine that made us’ and was to be fronted by Stephen Fry. It was to be about the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of Gutenberg’s success in adapting current technologies in order to take printing from an essentially one-off process into something capable of both high quality mass production and commercial usefulness. Furthermore they stipulated that the machine was to be a working model rather than a museum piece. I think that at first Wavelength Films assumed that such a press might be rather like a more primitive version of the one I had just built. I pointed out that the earliest presses unlike a common press are thought to have been able to print only one page at each visit to the press and also that it is highly probable that they had wooden not metal screws. They asked me whether I could make such a screw. I was reasonably confident that I could but was much less certain about making a wooden nut and so asked them to allow me some time to experiment.

I had in the workshop a wooden thread left over from an old wood vice and thought that if I could construct some sort of temporary nut for this thread, I might mount a cutter on its other end and use it to carve out a new nut. The diagram below shows the experimental set-up. The idea worked and in February 2007 Wave length Films agreed to fund the building of a ‘one-pull press’ for their film.

img060nut cut
The experimental set-up for cutting the nut

Very little evidence about printing in this earliest period exists. No equipment has survived and the earliest illustrations post date the printing of Gutenberg’s 42 line Bible by nearly fifty years. The best information we have comes from Gutenberg’s printing. His Bible like a number of other early German folios shows evidence of having been printed on a press which could only print one page at a time. This has profound implications for the press’s structure and to the sequence in which pages were printed but sadly nothing is known about this structure and the earliest illustrations of presses are not much help. The two earliest are woodcuts: the Danse Macabre 7, published in Lyon by Huss in 1499, and the printer’s device of Jocodus Badius Ascencius 8 about 1507. Both are around fifty years late and both are two-pull presses. The other image worth considering though dated even later is the drawing dated 1511 by Albrecht Dürer 9. This too is a two-pull press but there are features in the drawing which suggest that it started life as a one-pull press and was later modified. It is also very detailed and so it was this drawing which became the starting  point for the press which was built for the film.

The decision to use the Dürer drawing rather than the earlier woodcut illustrations was because the feet in this drawing are at the front of the press, a logical arrangement for a press in which only one page was to be printed at each visit, and the only early illustration to show this. Below are drawings illustrating my thoughts about how I think  the early press evolved.

img088three presses.jpg
Left, one-pull press        Centre, Durer press structure        Right, two-pull or common press

However, I wanted to avoid the impression that Durer’s drawing was in any way a depiction of Gutenberg’s actual press and so was careful not to let it look too much  like the drawing.

(In 2015 I published a detailed analysis of the Dürer Drawing entitled ‘Albrecht Dürer’s drawing of a printing press: a reconsideration’ 10. It appeared in the Journal of the Printing Historical Society, new series number 15 2015 and is also available as a PDF on this site’s Links and References page).

Next – Building the press