THE BACON-DONKIN PRINTING MACHINE
The idea of replacing the time-consuming process of printing one sheet at a time with a continuous system based on rotating machinery was that of a Norwich man. His name was RICHARD MACKENZIE BACON, and he has already cropped up in these blogs. He is first mentioned as the Commanding Officer of the Norwich Rifle Corps, a militia unit raised to counter a feared French invasion in the Napoleonic wars, and then as the pioneer of machine made paper in Norfolk. His interest in printing was central to his life, as from leaving school he had been employed as a printer in his father’s firm – the publishers of the weekly newspaper, the Norwich Mercury. He was also a journalist and edited the paper for 40 years, but despite his many literary activities he described himself simply as a printer in the 1841 census. The period when this development of rotary printing was taking place was the second decade of the nineteenth century.
The rotary principle was literally as well as metaphorically a revolutionary concept. The technical side of the machine was left to an engineer called Bryan Donkin, of Bermondsey in South London, who had already perfected the Fourdrinier machine for making paper. It turned out to be an extremely complicated mechanism, too complicated for most people to have the application to make it work. Unlike the later, successful form of rotary press, the type was held on a polygonal rather than cylindrical rotating member. In Norwich Bacon himself and his men were trying heroically to print a French New Testament for Napoleonic prisoners of war. Another machine was being used to print a Testament in English at the Cambridge University Press. Neither attempt was successful.
Only one book was successfully completed on the printing machine, and that was done by the scholars of the Deaf and Dumb institution in Bermondsey. Such an establishment was in itself a novel idea, the unfortunate sufferers having previously been left in asylums or simply ignored by society. Yet their dedication can be appreciated from the fact that they alone were the workers who managed to produce a book on the rotary press. It wasn’t anything like a Bible which the printers in Norwich and Cambridge were trying to print – it was a booklet on the advantages of canned meat!
In truth the printing machine was a concept in advance of the technological resources available at the time. The jobs it was intended for – the printing of the Authorised Version of the Bible at Cambridge, and the New Testament in French at Norwich – demanded high quality workmanship that was beyond its ability. In terms of printing technology its closest competitor, the steam driven reciprocating press invented by the German Kœnig, was successfully employed in these years, but to print ephemeral newspapers (The Times) which required a much lower standard of printing; and even Kœnig made no money from his invention.
Development of the printing machine was brought to a premature end by the bankruptcy of Bacon and his business partner’s paper making business, in part brought by his efforts to get the printing machine to work. At one time it had all seemed so promising, with the University of Cambridge enthusiastically buying a machine, and the British and Foreign Bible Society placing a large order for French Testaments with Bacon’s printing company. No one except the Deaf and Dumb could get the machine to produce acceptable work; this one successful publication was produced after Bacon’s bankruptcy.
One of the most intractable problems the printers encountered with the machine was to get an acceptable standard of inking. The modern composition roller was invented for the Bacon-Donkin printing machine; previously ink had been applied by hand with dog skin inking balls. With so many items of new technology in used on the one machine it needed time to perfect – time which was not available.
It was an unusual failure among Bryan Donkin’s many successful ventures. The truly revolutionary nature of the machine has been overlooked by historians and posterity. Fortunately Richard Mackenzie Bacon went on to other and more successful enterprises, for which he is better remembered. The most influential of these was to produce the first national magazine devoted to music in this country which, with the advanced nature of all aspects of development in early nineteenth century Britain, means the first in the world. For this achievement he has an entry in the Dictionary of National Biography. The magazine was published annually in London during the 1820s, although edited in Norwich. Bacon lived in the Norfolk village of Costessey for over 20 years, and he continued to edit the Norwich Mercury until his death in 1844.
FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA