Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Architecture in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

I recently purchased an old copy press of unknown manufacture, possibly made in New England, circa late 1840s- early 1860s. These presses have frequently been adopted by bookbinders and paper-makers, their original function forgotten. Most bankers' offices would have included presses such as these, for they served as a means of copying documents.

Architects had long lamented the need for time-consuming handcopying of documents such as deeds, conveyances and charters. According to the Journal of the Society of Arts, the British architect Christopher Wren took out a patent in the seventeenth century for a polygraph instrument, a device which could write with two pens at one time (Rhodes & Streeter, 16). The duplicate would thus be created simultaneously with the original. Certainly, early polygraph devices informed the creation of the Leroy Lettering Set, discussed in an earlier post.

James Watts, the progenitor of copy presses such as the one represented above, advertised a large press in 1811 for specific use "copying the outlines of plans, sections, and other Architectural and Mechanical Drawings." His device required placing a dampened heavy paper on top of the original large-format drawing; after applying pressure, a transfer/reverse drawing was created. In 1892 Knaffl offered a copying ink comprised of pyrogallic acid, cupric sulfate, ferric chloride, and uranium acetate of "special value to architects and engineers, since, without moistening the original drawing or the copying paper, it yields copies of such sharpness that the finest lines of the original are reproduced. To be sure, the ink is rather expensive, but that is of little importance, since from drawings, buildings, plans, etc. executed with it two or three copies can easily be produced." (Lehner, 95) With Knaffl's architectural ink, no damping was required: drawings and plans executed with the ink were transferred to a sheet of bristol board (heavy, smooth paper) after being placed under a smooth wooden board upon which books were evenly distributed for three to five days.

To read more, see:

Andrew, James. "The Copying of Engineering Drawings and Documents." Transactions of the Newcomen Society for the Study of the History of Engineering and Technology 53 (1981-82): pp. 1-15.

Lehner, Sigmund. The Manufacture of Ink. Philadelphia: Henry Carey Baird, 1892.

Rhodes, Barbara and William W. Streeter. Before Photocopying: The Art & History of Mechanical Copying, 1780-1938: A Book in Two Parts. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 1999.

Sugarman, Jane E. "Observations on the Materials and Techniques Used in 19th-Century American Architectural Presentation Drawings." The Book and Paper Group Annual 5 (1986). URL: http://aic.stanford.edu/sg/bpg/annual/v05/bp05-05.html Viewed 03.02.2009.

Underwood, John. "On the History and Chemistry of Writing, Printing, and Copying Inks, and a New Plan of Taking Manifold Copies of Written and Printed Documents, Maps, Charts, Plans, and Drawings." Journal of the Society of Arts 5 (1857): pp. 7-8.

"Wren's Copying Instrument," Journal of the Society of Arts 47 (1899): p. 886.

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