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The Story Of William Ged

( Originally Published 1927 )

A great advance in the newborn art of stereotyping was effected by William Ged, (born 1690, died 1749). We owe the following data concerning Ged to his own book entitled: "Bibliographical Memoirs of William Ged, including a particular Account of his Progress in the Art of Block-Printing. 1781. London."

By birth a Scotchman, Ged was successful as a goldsmith, in Edinburgh, and was widely known for his inventions and improvements in his business. As a goldsmith, he became to a certain degree a banker, and was brought into connection with the trade by furnishing money for the payment of the printers. In the year 1725, one of the printers complained to Ged that he was seriously embarrassed by being forced to send to London for type, there being then no type-founders in Scotland, and that much of the English type was imported to undertake the business of letter-founding; Ged was struck with the idea of making plates from the composed pages, believing that it could be successfully done. He borrowed a page of composed type, and made many experiments with a variety of materials, but did not complete his invention until two years afterwards.

The following was Ged's method of stereotyping: He set up his page with movable type, locked his form and then the page was laid upon gypsum or plaster of Paris, or some other semi-liquid substance, just as it was drying; when it was dried completely he removed the form from the gypsum cast, and using this cast as a matrix, he formed solid plates of lead. From these he printed on the ordinary letter-press. The letters on the edges of the plates stood up rather higher than those in the center.

Although in possession of some capital, Ged offered one-fourth interest in his invention to an Edinburgh printer, on condition of his advancing the sum necessary to establish a stereotype-foundry. This partnership lasted two years, but the printer failed to fulfill his promises. A London stationer, named William Fenner, visiting Edinburgh, next offered to establish a foundry in London, in full working order, for one-half of the profits. Ged, now exceedingly anxious for the success of his invention, accepted these terms; disposed of his business in Edinburgh, and followed his new partner to London, to find himself again deceived. With many plausible pretenses, the stationer induced the unfortunate inventor to add a type-founder to their partnership, who furnished refuse type, which Ged rejected as totally unsuited to his purpose. Still undiscouraged, Ged applied personally to the King's printers, with a proposal to stereotype some type which they had recently introduced. The printers naturally consulted the type-founder who had made the type, and he as natural!) denied the utility of the invention. An interview, however, was arranged, which led to the curious result of the founder laying a wager that he could make the stereotype himself. The foreman of the King's printing-house was made the umpire. Each of the disputants was furnished a page in type of the Bible, under the promise that he would furnish the stereotype in eight days. Upon receiving the type, Ged went immediately to work, and the same day finished three plates of the page, took impressions from them, and carried them to the umpire, who acknowledged his success with much astonishment.

The fame of the invention soon afterwards reached the Earl of Macclesfield, who offered Ged and his partners the vacant office of printer to the University of Cambridge, and on the 23rd of April, 1731, Ged eagerly accepted the position. A lease was sealed to him and his associates for the privilege of printing Bibles and common Prayer-books with his new process. Ged went to Cambridge but the letter-founder prevented his success, by treacherously furnishing imperfect type, and even when Ged sent to Holland for new fonts he was again deceived. He encountered every possible form of opposition from the compositors, who, when they corrected one fault, made purposely half a dozen others, and the pressmen, when the masters were absent, battered the letters in aid of the compositors. In consequence of these proceedings, the books were suppressed by authority, and the plates sent to the King's printing-house, and from there to a type foundry, where almost all of them were melted and recast into single types. After all this ill usage, Ged, who appears to have been a man of great honesty and simplicity, returned, financially ruined to Edinburgh. His friends in that city were anxious that a specimen of his art should be published and therefore subscribed a sufficient sum for the stereotyping of a single volume. The unfortunate inventor apprenticed his son to a printer in order that he might no longer be subjected to the enmity of the trade. With the assistance of his son Ged produced, in 1736, after eleven years of endeavor, the first public proof of his success, an edition of the works of a Roman historian, Sallustius. On account of the inferiority of the type, this volume was not a fine specimen of the art, but was sufficient to prove that the invention was completed. Ged's son devoted himself to acquiring a knowledge of printing but just at the moment that he was fully prepared to effectually assist his father, the unfortunate inventor died. Although suffering so bitterly at home, Ged refused several offers, either to go to Holland, or to sell his invention to printers of that country, declaring that he only desired to serve his native land, and would not hurt it by giving the printers of another country such an advantage.

A few rare samples of his stereotype plates escaped the melting pot and came into the possession of Thomas Curson Hansard, who made a reprint of two such plates for his book entitled "Typographia".

These reprints demonstrate Ged's rather raw execution of his particular method of stereotyping. The secret of Ged's invention slumbered after his death, until it was rediscovered and greatly perfected by Lord Stanhope in London. After Ged's death in 1749, his son published a pamphlet wherein he explained the advantages of his father's invention and proposed a subscription, in order to finance new editions of Ged's books. It appears, however, that this subscription did not materialize.

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