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Thumbnail of Richard March Hoe (source)
Richard March Hoe
(12 Sep 1812 - 7 Jun 1886)

American inventor who developed and manufactured the first successful rotary printing press (1846).


RICHARD M. HOE.

from Kings of Fortune (1888)

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Richard Hoe c.1855-65
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[p.354] TO write the complete history of the printing press would require years of patient labor and research, and a much larger space than the limits of the present work will permit. There are few subjects more attractive or more worthy of consideration than the history of this wonderful invention, which seems more like a romance than a narration of facts. The historian who should essay the task would be required to carry his reader back to the darkest ages of the world, and, beginning with the stamps used for affixing hieroglyphical characters to the now crumbling ruins of Egypt and Nineveh, trace the gradual development of the beneficent conception from the signets of the Israelites, and the stamps used by the Romans for marking certain kinds of merchandise, through the rude process of the Chinese, Japanese, and Tartars, to the invention of Johannes Guttenberg, and, finally, to the wonderful lightning steam-presses of to-day.

In these pages it is not proposed to offer to the reader any such narrative. On the contrary, the story of the printing press will be taken up just as it was on the point of reaching its greatest perfection, since our subject concerns only the man who brought it to that state.

[p.355] This man, Richard March Hoe by name, was born in the city of New York, on the 12th of September, 1812. His father, Robert Hoe, was a native of the village of Hose, Leicester, England, and the son of a wealthy farmer. Disliking his father’s pursuit, he apprenticed himself to a carpenter. When only sixteen years old, the elder Hoe purchased his indentures from his master and sailed for the United States. He was almost penniless when he reached New York, and in this condition entered the store of Mr. Grant Thorburn one day in search of employment. Mr. Thorburn manifested a sudden and strong liking to the youth, took him to his own house, and when he was prostrated with the yellow fever, during the epidemic of 1804, nursed him tenderly throughout. Setting to work immediately upon his arrival in New York, he made friends rapidly, and prospered in his trade so well that when but twenty years old he was able to marry. His bride was a daughter of Matthew Smith, of Westchester, and a sister of Peter Smith, the inventor of the hand printing press, which bears his name. With this gentleman and Matthew Smith, jr., his brother, Robert Hoe entered into partnership. Their business was that of carpentering and printers’ joinery; but after Peter Smith had completed the invention of his hand press, it gradually grew into the manufacture of presses and printers’ materials. Both of the brothers died in 1823, and Robert Hoe succeeded to the entire business.

The manufactory of “Robert Hoe & Co.” was originally located in the centre of the old block between Pearl and William Streets, and Pine Street and Maiden Lane. Soon after their establishment there, the city authorities ran Cedar Street right through their building, and they removed to Gold Street, near John. They have been twice burned out here, but still occupy these premises with their counting-room and lower shop.

[p.356] Printing by steam bad long attracted the attention of persons engaged in the art, and many essays had been made in this direction by different inventors, both in this country and in Europe. The most successful results were the Adams press, the invention of Mr. Isaac Adams, of Boston, Mass., and the Napier press, that of a British artisan. It was the latter which was the means of identifying Mr. Hoe with the steam press.

The Napier press was introduced into this country in 1830, by the proprietors of the National Intelligencer, but when it arrived, these gentlemen were not able to release it from the Custom-house. Major Noah, himself the proprietor of a newspaper, was at that time Collector of the port of New York, and he, being anxious to see the press in operation, requested Mr. Hoe to put it together. Mr. Hoe performed this task successfully, although the press was a novelty to him, and was permitted to take models of its various parts before it was reshipped to England. It was found to be a better press than any that had ever been seen in this country, and the Commercial Advertiser, of New York, and the Chronicle, of Philadelphia, at once ordered duplicates of it from England.

Mr. Hoe was very much pleased with this press, but believed that he could construct a much better one. “To this end he despatched his new partner, Mr. Sereno Newton, to England to examine all the improvements in machinery there, and bring home samples of such as he thought might be advantageously adopted in this country. Mr. Newton, besides being an ingenious mechanic, was well-read in books, and was considered one of the first mathematicians in New York. Returning from his mission, he constructed a new two-cylinder press, which soon superseded all others then in use.” Mr. Hoe’s health failed, compelling him, in 1832, to retire from the business.

[p.357] Young Richard M. Hoe had been brought up in his father’s business, after receiving a fair education. He inherited his father’s inventive genius, combined with a rare business capacity, and from the first was regarded as the future hope of the establishment. Upon the withdrawal of his father, a partnership was established between himself, his brother Robert, Mr. Newton, and his cousin Matthew Smith, but the style of the firm remained unchanged.

Richard Hoe’s first invention was conceived in 1837, and consisted of a valuable improvement in the manufacture of grinding saws. Having obtained a patent for it in the United States, he visited England in that year for the same purpose. By his process circular saws may be ground with accuracy to any desired thickness. He readily obtained a patent in England, as the excellence of his invention commended it to every one. While there he gave especial attention to the improvements which had been made in the printing press, in the manufacture of which his firm was still largely engaged. Returning to New York, he devoted himself entirely to this branch of his business, and soon produced the machine known as “Hoe’s Double-Cylinder Press,” which was capable of making about six thousand impressions per hour. The first press of this kind ever made was ordered by the New York Sun, and was the admiration of all the printers of the city. This style of press has long been used for printing country newspapers.

As long as the newspaper interest of the country stood still, “Hoe’s Double-Cylinder Press” was amply sufficient for its wants, but as the circulation of the journals of the large cities began to increase, the “double-cylinder” was often taxed far beyond its powers. A printing press capable of striking off papers with much greater rapidity was felt to be an imperative [p.358] and still-increasing need. It was often necessary to hold the forms back until nearly daylight for the purpose of issuing the latest news, and in the hurry which ensued to get out the morning edition, the press very frequently met with accidents.

Mr. Hoe was fully alive to the importance of improving his press, and, in 1842, he began to experiment with it for the purpose of obtaining greater speed. It was a serious undertaking, however, and at every step fresh difficulties arose. He spent four years in experimenting, and at the end of that time was almost ready to confess that the obstacles were too great to be overcome. One night, in 1846, while in this mood, he resumed his experiments. The more he pondered over the subject the more difficult it seemed. In despair, he was about to relinquish the effort for the night, when suddenly there flashed across his mind a plan for securing the type on a horizontal cylinder. This had been his great difficulty, and he now felt that he had mastered it. He sat up all night, working out his design, and making a note of every idea that occurred to him, in order that nothing should escape him. By morning the problem which had baffled him so long had been solved, and the magnificent “Lightning Press” already had a being in the inventor’s fertile brain.

He carried his model rapidly to perfection, and, proceeding with it to Washington, obtained a patent. On his return home he met Mr. Swain, the proprietor of the Baltimore Sun and Philadelphia Ledger, and explained his invention to him. Mr. Swain was so much pleased with it that he at once ordered a four-cylinder press, which was completed and ready for use on the 31st of December, 1848. This press was capable of making ten thousand impressions per hour, and did its work with entire satisfaction in every respect.

This was a success absolutely unprecedented—so marked, in [p.359] fact, that some persons were inclined to doubt it. The news flew rapidly from city to city, and across the ocean to foreign lands, and soon wherever a newspaper was printed men were talking of Hoe’s wonderful invention. Orders came pouring in upon the inventor with such rapidity that he soon had as many on hand as he could fill in several years. In a comparatively brief period the Herald, Tribune, and Sun, of New York, were boasting of their “Lightning Presses,” and soon the Traveller and Daily Journal, in Boston, followed their example. Mr. Hoe was now not only a famous man, but possessed of an assured business for the future, which was certain to result in a large fortune. By the year 1860, besides supplying the principal cities, of the Union (fifteen lightning presses being used in the city of New York alone), he had shipped eighteen presses to Great Britain, four to France, and one to Australia. Two of the presses sent to England were ordered for the London Times.

Mr. Hoe continued to improve his invention, adding additional cylinders as increased speed was desired, and at length brought it to the degree of perfection exhibited in the splendid ten-cylinder press now in use in the offices of our leading journals, which strikes off twenty-five thousand sheets per hour. Whether more will be accomplished with this wonderful machine the future alone can determine, but other inventors are still laboring to improve it.

In 1858 Mr. Hoe purchased the patent rights and manufactory of Isaac Adams, in Boston, and for some years carried on the manufacture of the Adams press from that place. He also established a manufactory in England, where he conducted a profitable business in both the Adams and the Hoe press. Over a million and a half of dollars were invested in these establishments in New York, Boston, [p.360] and London, in land, buildings, and stock The firm manufactured presses of all kinds, and all materials used by printers except type and ink. They also manufactured circular saws, made according to Mr. Hoe’s process.

Mr. Hoe, at sixty years of age, was still as vigorous and active as many a younger man. Besides being one of the most prominent and distinguished inventors and manufacturers in the country, he was justly esteemed for his many virtues and his commanding business talents. He was still the active head of the house which he carried to such a brilliant success, and the possessor of an ample fortune, which his genius and industry had secured to him. He was courteous and obliging to all, and very liberal to those whose needs commended them to his benevolence.

The ten-cylinder press costs fifty thousand dollars, and is regarded as cheap at that immense sum. It is one of the most interesting inventions ever made. Those who have seen it working in the subterranean press-rooms of the journals of the great metropolis will not soon forget the wonderful sight. The ear is deafened with the incessant clashing of the machinery; the printed sheets issue from the sides of the huge engine in an unceasing stream; the eye is bewildered with the mass of lines and bands; and it seems hard to realize that one single mind could ever have adjusted all the various parts to work harmoniously.

The following is a description of the ten-cylinder steam printing-press long used in the office of the New York World. It was one of the best specimens of its kind to be seen in the great city:

The dimensions of the press are as follows: Entire length, 40 feet; width, 15 feet; height, 16 feet. The large horizontal cylinder in the center is about 4½ feet in diameter, and on it are placed the “forms” of type for the four pages of one side of the paper. Each of these [p.361] constitutes a segment of a circle, and the whole four occupy a segment of only about one-fourth of the surface of the cylinder, the other three-fourths being used as an ink-distributing surface. Around this main cylinder, and parallel with it, are ten smaller impression cylinders, according to the number of which a press is termed a four, six, or ten-cylinder press. The large cylinder being set in revolution, the form of types is carried successively to all the impression cylinders, at each of which a sheet is introduced and receives the impression of the types as the form passes. Thus as many sheets are printed at each revolution of the main cylinder as there are impression cylinders around it. One person is required at each impression cylinder to supply the sheets of paper, which are taken at the proper moment by fingers or grippers, and after being printed are conveyed out by tapes and laid in heaps by means of self-acting flyers, thereby dispensing with the hands required in ordinary machines to receive and pile the sheets. The grippers hold the sheet securely, so that the thinnest newspaper can be printed without waste.

The ink is contained in a fountain placed beneath the main cylinder, and is conveyed by means of distributing rollers to the distributing surface on the main cylinder. This surface being lower or less in diameter than the form of types, passes by the impression cylinders without touching them. For each impression there are two inking rollers, which receive their supply of ink from the distributing surface of the main cylinder, and raise and ink the form as it passes under them, after which they again fall to the distributing surface.

Each page of the paper is locked up on a detached segment of the large cylinder, called by the compositors a “turtle,” and this constitutes its bed and chase. The column-rules run parallel with the shaft of the cylinder, and are consequently straight, while the head, advertising, and dash-rules are in the form of segments of a circle. The column-rules are in the form of a wedge, with the thin part directed toward the axis of the cylinder, so as to bind the type securely, and at the same time to keep the ink from collecting between the types and the rules. They are held down to the bed by tongues projecting at intervals along their length, which slide into rebated grooves, cut crosswise in the face of the bed. The spaces in the grooves between the column-rules are accurately fitted with sliding blocks of metal even with the surface of the bed, the ends of the blocks being cut away underneath to receive a projection on [p.362] the sides of the tongues of the column-rules. The form of type is locked up in the bed by means of screws at the foot and sides, by which the type is held as securely as in the ordinary manner upon a flat bed, if not even more so. The speed of the machine is limited only by the ability of the feeders to supply the sheets. Twenty-five hundred is about as many as a man can supply in an hour, and multiplying this by ten—one man being at each cylinder—we have 25,000 sheets an hour as the capacity of the press.

Col. Richard M. Hoe, though over seventy years of age, is still recognized as one of the most gifted inventors of the world. A few years ago he placed before the public a still grander triumph than the “Lightning Press” had been. This was the Web printing machine, the joint production of Mr. Hoe and Mr. S. D. Tucker, one of his employes. In this press, instead of single sheets, a roll of paper reeled off by machinery is used. This roll is a continuous sheet, four and one-half miles long, and runs through the machine at the rate of 750 feet or more a minute, passing between one type cylinder and its impression cylinder to print one side, and then through a second pair to print the other side.

Still later Mr. Hoe’s genius gave birth to another invention, which now appears to be the ne plus ultra of printing presses. It is aptly named the “Presto,” and prints, cuts and folds thirty-five thousand copies per hour, and can be almost instantly adjusted to meet the requirements of a four, six, eight, ten or twelve page paper. This is the king of printing presses, and with it perfection in that line of invention would seem to have been reached, but the nature of Mr. Hoe’s past triumphs renders any prediction of future results extremely hazardous.


Image, not in original text, from source shown above, with colorization © todayinsci.com. Text from Walter Raleigh Houghton (ed.), Kings of Fortune: Or, The Triumphs & Achievements of Noble, Self-made Men (1888), 354-362. (source)


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