By Sam Alcorn
LEWISBURG, Pa. – Nearly 600 years ago, Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type printing. Eight years ago, Bucknell University students designed a replica. This year, their design will go on display in a new exhibition in the nation’s capital.
It started in fall 2000 when a team of mechanical engineering students reviewing topics for a senior design project decided to fabricate a working model of a Gutenberg-style printing press to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the inventor’s birth.
Fast forward to 2008 and the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.
Searching for replica
The library, a renowned research center and home to the world’s largest collection of Shakespeare materials and major collections of rare Renaissance books, manuscripts and works of art, was searching for a replica of an early printing press.
“I was looking for a historically accurate printing press to support our new undergraduate course on the history of the book and landed on a Web page that had pictures of a model press created by Bucknell engineering students,” said Steven Galbraith, curator of books at the Folger. “Bingo. There it was.”
Galbraith was invited to the Bucknell campus to see the press, which was completed in 2001, and asked if a working replica could be commissioned to be part of the museum’s exhibition called “Breaking News: Renaissance Journalism and the History of the Newspaper” from Sept. 24 through Jan. 31 as well as for ongoing educational programs. “Viewing the press in person was a joy,” he said. “I immediately knew a similar press would be perfect for the Folger.”
“We’re proud of the fact that we’re a working library,” said Galbraith. “After the fall exhibition, the primary function of the press is going to be for teaching. When you teach printing and book history, it’s important to provide students with a sense of how to print with a hand press.”
When he visited Bucknell, those he met with included Tom Rich, professor of mechanical engineering and Robert L. Rooke Chair in the Historical and Social Context of Engineering at Bucknell, Doris Dysinger, then curator of Special Collections/University Archives, and Ann Tlusty, associate professor of history and National Endowment for Humanities Chair in the Humanities.
“He said, ‘Can you make one for us?’ ” said Rich. “We said, ‘Well, we think so. We can’t use it as a senior design project because the design is done.’ But we said we’d look into fabricating a replica based on the original student design.” || Listen to Tom Rich explaining the genesis of the project.
Skill and abilities
“George (Waltman, director Bucknell’s Product Development Lab) and I have been friends for many years and I knew George’s skill and abilities. I asked if he would be interested in doing it and he said he would be,” said Rich. “Now we have a formal project for the Folger, and George will be working on it this summer.”
Waltman has studied the documentation assembled by the students – Shannon Cooney, Patrick Kunze and Aaron Tajima, all Class of 2001 – who built the original working model on which he is basing his project. He envisions several modifications – all with an eye toward making the new printing press even more authentic in appearance.
“It turns out that the students used some modern fasteners and materials that ended up being very functional but have more of an up-to-date look, if you will,” said Waltman. “My task overall is to build the press much like it is now but revert back to some of the parts and pieces that are closer to those incorporated into the original press. We need to take out some of the nuts and bolts that are obviously new technology and incorporate some older technology back into that.” || Listen to George Waltman explaining reverse technology.
Waltman tests a thread cut that will form the shaft of the new printing press.
Instead of using off-the-shelf aluminum stock, for example, Waltman has fabricated from scratch a wooden mold for a Watsontown, Pa., firm to pour a cast-iron metal support for the press’ platen, the part that holds the paper against the inked type.
Those cast-iron pieces will be “more representative of the earlier production models,” said Waltman, hefting the cast-iron support. “With some of the mechanisms that actually move, we would, again, refine those to look much more like the original models they had produced.”
When he is finished late this summer, the new model is expected to be the same size as the model built by students in 2001. That version is 37 inches tall, 32 inches in length and about 14 inches wide.
On the day Waltman and Rich sat down to talk about the printing press commission, a visitor to Bucknell’s product development lab was curious about getting a glimpse of the project in progress.
Pennsylvania red oak
Both Waltman and Rich pointed to a neat stack of thick lumber – gorgeous Pennsylvania red oak – on a nearby work bench.
“That’s it,” they said, nodding and smiling. Waltman’s nod suggested a bit of nervousness. He’s the man on deadline to have the press built in time for the September exhibition in Washington.
Nearby sat the student-built working model. Waltman has studied each piece of the 150 or so parts making up the press and measured and re-measured each piece for accuracy. At one point, he cradles a piece of new cast-iron. “It’s off by 6 percent. It shrank,” he said. “Six percent.”
Waltman and Rich demonstrated the student-built press, sliding in a tray of set type, adding a paper and cranking a lever to apply pressure between the type and paper. Rich, too, admired the working replica with an eye toward the history encapsulating this mechanical device. Some would argue, he said, that the Gutenberg press was “one of the single-most important technological advancements in human history. It made the written word accessible to average people.”
“Keep in mind that everything you see here is the student design. There is no blueprint like this anywhere,” said Rich. “Of course, there are no original presses left. So the only thing people have are the ones made later in the same style and drawings that people have from that period.”
Rich’s student engineers examined countless drawings of Gutenberg-era printing presses and later models to engineer their design. After extensive research and what Rich called numerous “on-the-fly design adjustments,” the student handed off a functioning oak and metal press to the Bertrand Library at Bucknell where it’s been displayed and used since 2001 as a teaching aid to demonstrate traditional hand-printing techniques by those studying ancient texts.
A credit to students
“It was a good team,” said Rich of the trio who built the press. “It’s a credit to our students that their design was chosen by the Folger.”
Shannon Cooney, one of the original student designers, recalled the senior design project with fondness.
“The project was great fun,” he said. “I particularly enjoyed the history journey to find our design and teamwork employed by our group. We had a great dynamic and all enjoyed working together.”
Limited historical information
Another of the student engineers, Patrick Kunze of Arlington, Va., recalled that the project was not without challenge. “The real challenge was piecing together the limited historical information on the original Gutenberg press and turning it into an engineered design,” he said.
Kunze, too, was especially intrigued by having something he helped to design being on display in a renowned Washington library like the Folger, a facility he knows well.
“At my current job, I worked on the design of Folger’s conservation department renovations,” said Kunze, who is a senior associate at GHT Limited, an engineering design firm. “I was both the lead mechanical engineer and project manager for the renovation work that included new temperature and humidity control systems that are crucial to the conservation and restoration of many books, transcripts and pieces of artwork.”
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