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A peep into Smeaton's world: the invention of the copying press

Date
29 February 2024

ICE archivist Carol Morgan delves into the history of the precursor to the photocopier and John Smeaton’s adventures using it.

A peep into Smeaton's world: the invention of the copying press
John Smeaton's portrait by George Romney and the screw press. Image credits: ICE Library and Alfred Löhr (own work, CC BY-SA 4.0), respectively

Nowadays, if you want to keep a copy of a letter or email you’ve sent, it’s easy: your computer, laptop, tablet, or phone will automatically keep it for you.

Back in the 18th century, keeping a copy was a much more laborious task, involving copying the letter by hand.

That was, until the invention of the copying press.

Engineers have always been quick to take up new technology and innovate, integrating it into their practices.

John Smeaton, the first-proclaimed civil engineer, was no exception.

He became one of the first adopters of the copying press.

The copying press - the first office automation?

The copying press, patented by James Watt in 1780, was the 18th century version of the photocopier and appeared in most offices by the end of the 19th century.

In fact, the Law Society was so impressed with the confidentiality of the process, it continued to use the press for legal letters into the 1950s.

Watt’s patent contained two designs – a screw press, and a roller press which could handle large pieces of paper.

The screw press and the roller press. Image credits: Alfred Löhr, own work, CC BY-SA 4.0: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19383225, and Birmingham Museums Trust, CC BY-SA 4.0: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39237261, respectively
The screw press and the roller press. Image credits: Alfred Löhr, own work, CC BY-SA 4.0: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19383225, and Birmingham Museums Trust, CC BY-SA 4.0: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39237261, respectively

Our archive at the ICE contains examples of copy letters in several collections including four volumes of what John Smeaton referred to as ‘machine letters’.

Watt and Smeaton

James Watt planned to sell his press by subscription and subscribers included Josiah Wedgewood, Erasmus Darwin and Benjamin Franklin, who also bought one for George Washington.

Smeaton was also one of the first to subscribe, and the copy letters we have in our archive start in December 1781.

Smeaton seems to have purchased a second press in 1783.

We know how much he paid for this as he wrote to Watt in a letter, on 23 April 1783, saying that he had prepared a draft (cheque) for £8-13-0 to pay for the press including delivery.

This would be about £1000 today.

How the copy press worked

Watt’s patent was more concerned with the process of copying than the actual press.

It included instructions for the special treatment of the paper and the type of slow drying ink needed.

A variety of ingredients could be added such as sugar or gum to slow drying and help transfer the ink, allowing copies to be made up to 24 hours later.

Watt’s notes on the chemicals used were written in code, possibly to protect the patent but also Watt may have been concerned the press could be used for forgery.

The original and the damp paper were placed in the press to produce a copy.

The image was reversed, so special thin tissue paper was used so the copy could be read on the back of the paper.

No easy task

It took a certain amount of skill to produce a clear copy.

The paper needed to be dampened evenly, enough to take a copy but not too much which would blur the writing.

Smeaton found that even if a good copy was produced, it faded once placed in the drying book for 12 hours due to moisture.

Smeaton made his own copies, but in many offices the job of copying was carried out at the end of the day by the office junior, so you can imagine the quality of copies.

The first letter in volume one, showing faded writing which has been filled in by Smeaton with darker ink. Image credit: ICE Library
The first letter in volume one, showing faded writing which has been filled in by Smeaton with darker ink. Image credit: ICE Library

Smeaton’s machine letter books

Generally, Smeaton’s copy letters are neat with little smudging and blurring. Some of the early copies have faded suggesting either the quality of the ink or Smeaton’s technique improved.

Smeaton’s copy letters were printed on thin sheets which were dried before being stuck onto thicker pages in the volumes.

Some letters are missing, in some cases there is paper still attached to the glue suggesting they may have been torn accidentally. Later, letter-copying books were sold with bound tissue paper pages.

Example of how a page is missing with some paper left attached to the glue. Image credit: ICE Library
Example of how a page is missing with some paper left attached to the glue. Image credit: ICE Library

This would cause a problem with moisture, as Smeaton had found with the drying book, and some volumes suffered from mould.

Luckily, Smeaton’s letters were not affected as they were dried first.

Smeaton’s inks were probably carbon based as this tends to fade.

Iron gall inks were acidic and tended to eat into the paper resulting in lacing where part of the text is lost.

Smeaton’s struggle to copy drawings

Interestingly, two consecutive letters from Smeaton to Watt relate to difficulties using the press to copy drawings.

He had been using a press to copy letters for over a year, so perhaps this was a different model.

In his letter of 23 April 1783, Smeaton explains he has only just had a chance to test the press:

“I succeeded tolerably; but nothing equal in point of distinctness to the sample done with you.”

He decided to go over the lines with the ink Watt had supplied but he found:

“It was far paler than it seemed with you… both the originals and the copys [sic] are pale and so remain… The lines are not clear and united [?] but broken and detached.”

Smeaton goes on to question whether the ink could be made darker, if he’d copied onto the right side of the paper, if he had used the wrong type of paper and if he should have waited longer before taking a copy?

Did Smeaton have the right tools?

The copy press had a number of accessories supplied with it but apparently not the wetting box, used to dampen the pages before transferring the image.

In the next letter in the book, Smeaton refers to the importance of the wetting box and is surprised this isn’t supplied with a new press as: “without it I think it would not have satisfactorily succeeded in many hands.”

Unfortunately, we don’t have any examples of copies of Smeaton’s drawings so we can’t tell if he perfected his technique, or simply gave up.

The Royal Society holds many of Smeaton’s drawings, but most were produced earlier.

Smeaton's machine letters. Image credit: ICE Library
Smeaton's machine letters. Image credit: ICE Library

Why are copy press letters important?

The press had the advantage of producing a quick, cheap, identical copy making it ideal for correspondence containing technical or contractual information.

It was cheap to use, meaning all outgoing letters could be copied.

This is important for researchers as copies can be seen together whereas the originals will have been sent to various people and may not survive.

Making the machine letters accessible

Archive volunteer Mervyn Carter has been busy reading Smeaton’s machine letters and has completed a basic list of the contents.

Previously only volume one and a little of volume two had been listed.

We have attached the list to the catalogue record, allowing everyone to have a peep into Smeaton’s world.

Check out the machine letters

  • Carol Morgan, archivist at ICE